Criticism of the city’s failure to alleviate some of the worst problems ailing north Minneapolis sparked a fiery City Council debate Wednesday as members argued over whether to apply for a new federal program.

Some council members wondered what promises the city would be making if part of the North Side becomes a federally recognized “Promise Zone” — particularly when so many similar initiatives have already failed to produce results in low-income areas.

“Everyone wants to get together to change the outcomes, to move the ball, but then nothing actually happens,” Council Member Lisa Goodman said during the meeting. “So it could end up just like that.”

City leaders learned in 2013 that Minneapolis was one of 33 communities around the country eligible to apply for the Promise Zone designation, an initiative led by the Obama administration. The designation would improve the area’s chances of receiving federal public safety and economic development grants, as well as provide technical support and volunteers from the federal government.

Council President Barb Johnson, who represents the northern half of north Minneapolis, said the city and its governmental partners seeking the designation already have plenty to fix without creating another layer of bureaucratic complexity. Her frustration echoed similar comments she made last spring regarding a new racial equity plan.

“The Park Board is buying all kinds of land in Northeast,” Johnson said. “They have bought no parcel in north Minneapolis.”

She said the Minneapolis Public Housing Authority is placing far too many subsidized, low-income renters in north Minneapolis.

“We [in north Minneapolis] have one-seventh of the population of the city; we have a third of the Section 8 units,” she said.

And Johnson sharply criticized the Minneapolis public schools.

“They’re not graduating our kids. This is huge,” she said. “They need to do their job. City of Minneapolis: We need to do our job. We have half of the housing violations in this city … in north Minneapolis. We need more housing inspectors. These are things we could do ourselves.”

The city agreed a year ago to apply for a federal grant to add 10 extra police officers to focus on violent crime in north Minneapolis, she added, but they still aren’t on the street yet.

Johnson also highlighted hundreds of vacant properties on the North Side that are rotting, while the city remains without a housing director.

“We are freaking dysfunctional in many, many places,” Johnson said in an interview. “And we need to look at ourselves about what we do and what we’re producing. And we’re not.”

As criticism intensified, Mayor Betsy Hodges joined the meeting to defend the Promise Zone application, saying the city is in a good position to get the designation because the federal government is interested in having them in the Midwest.

“If we don’t want to move forward with things in north Minneapolis because we’ve moved forward on so many things that haven’t worked, that is an argument for doing nothing,” Hodges said. “So I don’t want us to do nothing. And I think this is a big something we could do that could have significant results with a lot of partners.”

Not all council members were appeased. Goodman said the program sounds similar to many that have come before, but with less money attached.

“Too many times … promises have been made where outcomes have not changed,” Goodman said. “This isn’t about not wanting to do something. It’s about becoming frustrated with not having change in outcomes.”

Hodges said the city has shown that having a plan produces better results on issues such as youth violence prevention, homelessness, climate change and transit. “We know here at the city what happens if we come up with a plan,” she said.

The mayor also highlighted a meeting on the Promise Zone initiative that garnered more than 150 people, one of the largest such meetings in many years. Johnson countered that she would be surprised if more than 10 of them live in north Minneapolis.

“That’s the problem,” Johnson said. “There are a lot of people doing work in north Minneapolis, getting a paycheck, patting themselves on their back because they’re doing the right thing. But it doesn’t trickle down, and the superstructure, the infrastructure, does not represent that community.”

Other council members, including Lisa Bender and Cam Gordon, defended the initiative. “I actually think it would be kind of irresponsible for us not to seek this,” Gordon said.

The program is different from the Northside Achievement Zone Promise Neighborhood program, which focuses on education to end poverty.

The Promise Zone would run approximately from the Bassett Creek Valley to Memorial Parkway, bounded by Queen Avenue and the Mississippi River. A staff report said that the area includes more than half of the city’s violent crime hot spots and that 40 percent of its residents live in poverty.

All council members voted to move forward with the application except Johnson and Goodman, who abstained.

A final vote is expected Friday.


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