BY DEBRA KEEFER RAMAGE
We attended a panel discussion with public Q&A and feedback on the Minneapolis2040 (Draft) Comprehensive Plan, hosted at the Seward Friendship Store by new City Council Member Andrea Jenkins on Friday, June 22. This was to be the first of CCM Jenkins’ series of talkbacks with her constituents, modeled on the breakfast talks her predecessor, Elizabeth Glidden, hosted (Jenkins was Glidden’s policy aide) but at a later time. The panel was four key stakeholders in the housing and neighborhoods pieces of the Comprehensive Plan: Heather Worthington, director of long-range planning for Minneapolis, Gary Cunningham, member of the Metropolitan Council and CEO of the Metropolitan Economic Development Association, Owen Duckworth, from the Alliance for Metropolitan Stability, and Shannon Smith-Jones, executive director of Hope Communities.
Worthington spoke first and described the framework within which the document was created. All metropolitan cities, by MN State law, have to create a comprehensive plan including land use and development every 10 years. This one will eventually end up as a 20-year plan commencing in 2020 (hence the name), but there are a number of steps to go through before that. She emphasized that the comprehensive plan, even in its final form, will not be a policy document, but will be used to produce the policy document that is due in 2019. She explained about the engagement process, the website where anyone can explore the plan and leave comments and feedback, and listed other ways to give feedback. (See the website at the easily remembered URL minneapolis2040.com .) Cunningham spoke next and explained that the Metropolitan Council has authority over cities’ comprehensive plans, and provided guidance for the creation of this document. There were several intersecting themes that all five speakers addressed repeatedly (counting Jenkins as well as the panel): racial inequality in wealth and housing and its historic roots, current lack of affordable housing, displacement of renters, and gentrification. (Duckworth, Smith-Jones, and Jenkins all sit on a national anti-displacement task force.) Cunningham really hammered on these themes, and charged the Plan with not being “bold enough” and not prescriptive enough to mitigate displacement and gentrification. “Why wouldn’t you, whenever there is public money in a development project, mandate that it includes affordability? Why wouldn’t you in effect have a ‘Marshall Plan’ for disadvantaged communities?” he asked.
Duckworth also says his coalition wants to see more specifics in the plan. He talked about “reframing the deficit-based discussion” about affordable housing. He said that the Comprehensive Plan seems to support a current narrative that density alone will solve the problem of affordability, but that is not true. (This statement drew much applause.) Smith-Jones discussed the work beyond housing that Hope Community is doing. Housing right now is very much a “landlord’s market,” she said, and communities of color are learning to organize to push back against exclusion, displacement and gentrification. She gave an illustrative example—how Hope Community and allies pushed the Minneapolis Park Board to raise Peavey Park from the bottom of the spending priority list to the top. After successfully winning a major upgrade for the park, they started hearing from private market tenants in the vicinity that this was going to lead to their displacement. Landlords would say that a better park was a major amenity affecting the value of their property, and raise the rent accordingly. (I have to admit, as a socialist, this anecdote immediately made me think “rent control” and I was frustrated that no one on the panel ever mentioned that.)
By the time all four speakers had finished, there was less than half an hour for Q&A with the audience. Jenkins used a very aggressive “progressive stack” in calling on speakers, that is to say, with an audience that was about half people of color, she only called on people of color. Which is fair enough, given the circumstances and setting. And of course, a couple of white people butted in without being called on. A Somali businesswoman, owner of two businesses, spoke for the frustrations of many when she described her own tale of displacement, how every time one of her businesses became profitable, there was a swift and massive rise in the rent and she would be forced to uproot and move. Once again, I thought, “rent control?” and wrote a little sign asking that and flashed it at the panel. No one bit. It seemed to me that in this case, race was centered and explained and dealt with, which is good, but that capitalism ended up being the elephant in the room, the glaring piece of the discussion that no one wanted to deal with. For instance, a major theme of Gary Cunningham’s talk, and indeed of his role, is economic growth. Why not consider the possibility of a sustainable, steady-state economy for our cities? Would that not help to resolve some of these contradictions that were so well explained? It’s something to ponder.