A federal grant will provide Minneapolis with $8 million to remove ash trees on private properties in disadvantaged neighborhoods, a significant relief effort for homeowners who would be otherwise assessed hundreds of dollars in removal costs.
But those resources can't be used retroactively — meaning there's no relief in sight for thousands of homeowners who are paying off tree removals previously ordered by the city.
They include Amoke Kubat, who reluctantly removed two ash trees from her North Side yard that city inspectors tagged in 2021 as infested with emerald ash borer, leaving her with two large stumps and a $6,000 bill. She's glad the federal funding will help homeowners with future tree removals, but thinks the process of identifying and removing infested trees is flawed.
"The bottom line is, the ship has sailed for me. It's on my bill," she said.
The Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board, the agency that condemns infested trees on private property, has condemned more than 18,000 ash trees since 2013, with homeowners either paying up front for their removal or the city handling the job and then assessing their property taxes.
Tree removal assessments total more than $7.3 million, according to the Park Board.
Homeowners in more affluent neighborhoods typically pay out of pocket for a contractor to remove a tree, according to Park Board data. But residents of low-income neighborhoods, such as in north Minneapolis, disproportionately pay for tree removal via assessments and then see increased monthly costs. The $8 million funding is targeted at residents in such neighborhoods.
"We're really grateful to have these resources," said Kelly Muellman, environmental manager with the Minneapolis Health Department.
Several homeowners told Park Board officials at an October meeting that removal costs hurt their family budgets and that people of color, seniors and low-income residents were particularly affected.
North Side homeowner Melissa Newman, who paid $3,100 to have three ash trees taken down in 2021, told the Sahan Journal: "I inherited the tree trying to create the American dream of homeownership."
City officials applied for the U.S. Forest Service grant, funded by the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act, in coordination with the Park Board. The $8 million will help hundreds of households, but the money could go fast; the city and Park Board are pursuing a $500,000 state grant for the same purpose.
The funding applies to U.S. census tracts considered to be environmental justice areas, where Minneapolis officials say at least 12,000 trees grow on private property.
The average tree removal in Minneapolis costs around $1,500, and the funding will cover the cost of removal, stump grinding and tree replacement. The city's tree program manager, Sydney Schaaf, said officials are waiting for more details on how the grant can be used.
North Side residents disproportionately paid for tree removal via assessments, Park Board data show. More than half of the roughly 3,000 households citywide that paid for tree removal via property tax assessments in 2021 were in north Minneapolis. North Side homeowners also have seen high rates of tree condemnation.
The Park Board doesn't target parts of the city for ash tree condemnation, said Philip Potyondy, sustainable forestry coordinator for the Park Board. "This has impacted people in every part of Minneapolis," he said.
Newman said she would have been happy to spend $200 every couple of years to treat her trees to prevent infestation. But the Park Board doesn't tell people that's an option, and the Minneapolis City Council passed a resolution in 2010 advising against using insecticides to treat emerald ash borer, Forestry Director Ralph Sievert told the Park Board.
One day this summer, a crew showed up at Willis White's house in the Jordan neighborhood — much to his surprise — to cut down a massive ash tree in his backyard. The final assessment came to more than $7,500 after fees and interest, according to a records request, making it the seventh most expensive removal handled by Minneapolis since 2013.
Nearly 900 assessments were done this year, amounting to about $2 million, before the Park Board paused the process in May to make changes. The board now requires removal companies to first examine the trees in an effort to get more competitive bids, Potyondy said. And the city offers homeowners the choice of repaying the tree removal debt on their property taxes over five, 10 or 20 years, reducing the monthly cost.
Park Board Superintendent Al Bangoura said he's working with philanthropic groups to secure relief funding for people already paying assessments. "This is an absolute priority of mine," he said.
Newman said she's not unwilling to pay the cost of removal, but no alternatives were offered and no answers given about why her trees needed special removal techniques. She doesn't want to see her neighbors get price-gouged, and she's angry that no relief is coming to people who are paying off assessments.
"It's such a slap in the face," she said.
About the partnership
This story comes to you from Sahan Journal, a nonprofit newsroom dedicated to covering Minnesota's immigrants and communities of color. Sign up for a free newsletter to receive Sahan's stories in your inbox.