BY STEPHANIE FOX
In May of last year, the City Council of Minneapolis announced that there would be new guidelines for funding neighborhood associations. The old guidelines, deciding how much funding a specific neighborhood association would receive, were based on neighborhood size, racial mix and livability, determined by crime statistics and foreclosure rates.
The new plan would upend those guidelines. With a new system, developed by the Minneapolis Neighborhood and Community Relations (NCR) Department and the Center for Urban and Regional Affairs (CURA), neighborhoods would not qualify for any meaningful funding from the city unless their main focus was racial equity.
This would mean redirecting the more than $4 million away from local neighborhood associations, leaving base funding for many to fall from $75,000 to only $5,000 to $10,000, essentially forcing many to close their doors.
Active neighborhood organizations, such as the Standish Ericsson Neighborhood Association (SENA), could be one of them.
“I want to make something very clear,” said Candace Miller Lopez, the group’s executive director. “SENA is in total agreement with the city’s desire to address the significant disparities in housing, education and employment in Minneapolis. Where we disagree is their contention that this is an either/or proposition. We believe there is a real missed opportunity here to elevate the work of the neighborhood associations and use the strength of the 70-strong network to move the city toward these goals.”
Neighborhood associations in Minneapolis started in earnest in the early 1990s, when Minneapolis was being called “Murderopolis” by the national press. The violent crime rate was high and frightened people were leaving the city for safer suburbs. In order to get the middle class to stay, then-Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton promoted the Minneapolis Neighborhood and Community Relations Department. The plan worked. Crime went down and people again began to buy homes and stay in the city. But there were unintended consequences.
Most homeowners were white and although much of the funding was distributed to lower-income areas, the programs did not help many minorities become homeowners. The repercussions continue today. The current inequity is one of the worst in the country, with black homeownership rates in 2019 at only 22 percent, half the national average, according to an analysis by Zillow.
Representatives from the neighborhood associations met five times to express their concerns and share ideas, but association leaders felt they’d been left out of the process, leaving may residents with their voices and concerns unheard, Miller Lopez said.
And the Council kept delaying releasing the guidelines, leaving the associations in the dark, unable to plan a response. “The new plan is supposed to help solve racial inequity problems, but the City Council hadn’t asked us anything. They were supposed to start this process in June, creating a racial equity model. They didn’t get started until December.”
Miller Lopez wants to get local citizens involved and for people to speak their minds, but she is pessimistic about whether many members of the City Council are open to hearing them. “I don’t think they’ll listen. We’ve had a shift in government,” she said. “We used to have citizen influence. The local government would listen to their constituents. Now, it’s ‘We know best and we’ll tell you what you need.’ ”
While the new guidelines are meant to help solve the inequalities in the city, there is strong disagreement on whether this new plan will work as hoped. The formula for CURA funding is strict. How much an individual neighborhood could receive would depend on what percentage of the city’s BIPOC population lives there. “If it is only 1 percent, you get 1 percent of the available funds. If it’s 20 percent of the population, that would get you 20 percent of the available funds,” said Miller Lopez.
Robert Thompson, who runs Robert Thompson Consulting, a business management service for nonprofit organization and who once worked at NCR, also sees major flaws in the study’s conclusions.
“Two major issues I found in the CURA report are that they are drawing broad and very negative conclusions about neighborhood programs through NRP, which are not supported by the data they are using,” he said. “And they are misrepresenting conclusions of previous studies of the NRP. CURA states in their report that there is a $33 million NRP fund, with the implication that the funds are unused. They are not. It is in fact a very active fund.”
In addition, while the neighborhood programs spent money on projects, they often came out ahead financially.
“From 1990 through 2010, the NRP Program allocated approximately $226 million through neighborhood action plans,” Thompson said. “However, neighborhoods expended $14.7 million more than this figure. Neighborhoods developed creative home loan programs that actually generated $35 million in additional revenue on top of the original $226 million.
“Before the neighborhood groups were created, Minneapolis was in a free-fall,” he said. “The population was dropping at a rapid rate—the population of Minneapolis dropped from over 500,000 to about 350,000 in three decades. There were large numbers of vacant and boarded houses. Crime rates were much higher.
“Neighborhood organizations used NRP funds to stabilize and improve their housing; reduced crime by organizing block clubs, block patrols and other activities; improved parks, supported improvements to commercial corridors and much more,” he said.
“Racial inequity in Minneapolis is rampant, and no single program or initiative can be blamed. But another real consequence is that the city is really creating divisions in the community, essentially pitting the interests of low-income communities against other low-income communities,” said Thompson. “A primary goal of NRP was to restore the condition of housing stock in Minneapolis, focused particularly on low-income communities. So, another unintended consequence is to truly pit the interests of low-income and disempowered communities against each other.”
Miller Lopez thinks that at least 30 percent of the local neighborhood associations will disappear if the plan goes through.
“I get 10 calls a week from 311 for people asking for help and information,” she said. “These are seniors asking where they can get help for snow removal. I got one that needed emergency furnace repairs. Operators at 311 tell them to call their neighborhood association. We keep track of the resources. We do outreach. Who will be there to do that, then? Who will help these neighbors?
“If we lose the neighborhood associations, there will be no more community meetings to inform residents about new developments, transportation activity and other community concerns,” said Miller Lopez. “No more community events or community-wide garage sales, no more newsletters, environmental programs or programs that serve residents like home improvement loans, support for small business, emergency support, or clean-up events.”
Miller Lopez said that neighborhood associations would have to reinvent themselves to survive. Her SENA office is already planning to offer business office co-working space for a fee, to help generate the $16,000 a year it costs to rent it. She is already rebuilding a local business association and so far, nearly 100 local business owners have expressed interest in paying membership dues to join.
SENA is hosting a second public meeting on the issue on March 23 at Lake Hiawatha Park Building from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. They are still working on the details for a joint Longfellow Community Council/SENA meeting, and are hoping that concerned neighbors will come to hear what the city is planning and if anything can be done to save their neighborhood associations. The City’s Guidelines to the 2020 Plan are here: http://www.ci.minneapolis.mn.us/www/groups/public/@ncr/documents/webcontent/wcmsp-223035.pdf
All Community Meeting
Monday March 16
Trinity Lutheran Church
2730 E. 31st St.
Light refreshments and child care provided.
This meeting is open to all Minneapolis neighborhood associations and residents. It will also be live-streamed on the Longfellow Community Council Facebook page.