Neighborhood associations in Minneapolis could lose their funding if their leadership doesn’t include enough people of color and renters under changes proposed by the city.

The 70 city-funded neighborhood associations have been a key part of Minneapolis’ civic life for decades, maintaining paid staffs, providing housing assistance, organizing local cleanups and art events, running drug-prevention campaigns and more. For years, the city has looked to diversify their boards, which have been disproportionately made up of white homeowners.

The future of the groups is now the focus of an initiative called Neighborhoods 2020, which would bring them more firmly under City Hall control. The tax district that funneled millions of dollars to the associations is set to expire at the end of this year — with $4.1 million earmarked for 2019 and more for 2020 — and the city says the groups need to change if they want continued city funding.

“We really want … to make sure that any resident of Minneapolis is able to walk into a neighborhood organization and be able to participate,” David Rubedor, the director of the city’s Neighborhoods and Community Relations department, said last week. “We want our neighborhood organizations … to really reflect the diversity of their community. Not only in the programming and the activities that they do, but also in their leadership.”

While neighborhood boards are reaching age, income and gender benchmarks, the number of people of color and renters who participate still lags, according to city data. The city hit only 33 percent of its “owner vs. renter” and 50 percent of its “people of color” goals in 2018, a small increase from five years ago.

The city’s population, meanwhile, has become more diverse since most neighborhoods began to receive city funding in the early 1990s. More than half of all housing is renter-occupied, and white residents now make up about 60 percent of the city as opposed to about 78 percent in 1990.

But tying funding to who’s on their boards has some neighborhood leaders worried it may not lead to the city’s desired outcome.

“It’s going to be a challenge,” said Becky Timm, executive director of the Nokomis East Neighborhood Association. “How do you actually invite them to being a true, equal leader along with the rest of the board?”

City officials are expected to release draft recommendations for the neighborhoods on Jan. 28, Rubedor said. People will have until the end of March to review them and provide feedback before they are referred to the City Council in April.

More work, same money?

The neighborhood associations have tailored their activities to the needs of each community.

In the Elliot Park neighborhood downtown, the association has addressed K2 overdoses and unresponsive landlords. The Hawthorne Neighborhood Council in north Minneapolis formed a coalition to tackle the opioid crisis and offers down payment assistance for people looking to buy homes.

While most neighborhood leaders contacted by the Star Tribune were supportive of the city’s goals to improve diversity within their associations, some said reaching representation quotas should not come at the expense of their funding.

Candace Miller Lopez, executive director of the Standish-Ericsson Neighborhood Association in south Minneapolis, said her association collaborates with neighborhood schools and businesses, throwing events such as a recent poetry reading at Sisters’ Sludge Coffee Cafe and Wine Bar. They also provide loans for home-improvement projects and generally try to answer any questions from residents about the city.

While Standish-Ericsson is predominantly white and affluent, the board is a combination of homeowners, renters, business owners and people of color, she said. “We’re doing all the stuff that they’re asking us to do,” she said.

The draft report from the Neighborhoods 2020 initiative will have several other recommendations for these associations. They are likely to include expanding community engagement, encouraging associations to pool their resources and having a city commission provide oversight.

One proposal was to increase face-to-face interactions with residents through door-knocking campaigns, a recommendation that was seen by the neighborhood leaders as unrealistic.

“I have a two-person staff and 4,500 households in my neighborhood. How am I supposed to door knock?” Miller Lopez asked.

The added requirements, neighborhood leaders said, could overwhelm smaller organizations, forcing them to dissolve entirely.

Elliot Park Neighborhood Inc. is already facing a budget gap, Executive Director Vanessa Haight said. Her organization receives about $66,000 in annual municipal funding, and the possibility of getting less money could lead them to an “eye-opening reality.”

“I think the right pieces are being put out there,” Haight said of Neighborhoods 2020. “I want to see neighborhoods be effective, and to do that they can’t be burdened with a lot of contract requirements and then funded poorly.”

Diana Hawkins, executive director of the Hawthorne Neighborhood Council, said her organization’s efforts to better engage the community have paid off, so she’s not worried about the representation requirement. “Diversity is all over, so it shouldn’t be that hard,” she said.

But she’s concerned about future support from the city. “If you take the funding away from the communities, what do they have left?” she asked.

Links to City Hall

Council Member Andrew Johnson, former president of the Longfellow Community Council, said he’d like the council to continue funding neighborhood associations even when times are tough and doesn’t want “overly paternalistic” oversight by City Hall.

“I think the value is in them being independent and being the voice for residents within the community,” he said. “The more we standardize across the board, it’s almost like it becomes a de facto city department. If we get to that kind of stage, I think we’ve lost the purpose.”

Steven Gallagher, head of the Neighborhoods 2020 initiative and former executive director of the Stevens Square Community Organization, said that as long as they are nonprofits, neighborhood associations will maintain their independence.

“What these guidelines do is create more of a partnership with the city,” he said. “We’re able to know what to expect from one another and then complement each other.”