sign on building that says "whittier"

Fixing High-Renter, Low-Equity Neighborhood Orgs

Minneapolis’ Whittier neighborhood has an equity problem. It’s 83 percent renter; half of households are cost-burdened; one third live in poverty. Yet the Whittier neighborhood organization, the Whittier Alliance, is pushing for higher rents and fancier amenities in a new building proposed as affordable “workforce” housing:

“I think you’re underestimating the neighborhood in terms of design, character and cost,” [Executive Director] Biehn said. [Board Chair] Christ requested larger units. She said families are desperate to find larger apartments in the neighborhood. She also suggested that the neighborhood could handle higher-priced rents.

sign on building that says "whittier"

This isn’t about an isolated series of quotes drawn from one meeting. You see the same priorities reflected in the Whittier Alliance’s strategic plan, developed in 2012. In addition to a desire for downzoning that would prevent more multifamily housing, it calls for an end to new affordable housing until the neighborhood’s poverty rate dips below 10% (see page 12). To give you an idea of how ludicrous that number is, reaching it would require turning Whittier (32%) into Lowry Hill (8.6%). Rather than a “threshold” for new affordable housing, it’s practically an outright ban. Back in January, I wrote about the Whittier Alliance’s restrictive election procedures. Among 70 Minneapolis neighborhood organizations, their bylaws are among the most restrictive. So I’m skeptical that their housing priorities have been developed in consultation with a representative sample of Whittier residents–specifically the half of the neighborhood who struggles to pay the rent.

Though Minneapolis has a reputation as a liberal city, different groups have divergent interests when it comes to issues like housing policy. A neighborhood association that fails to adequately represent renters (and minorities, the poor, etc.) leads to the promotion of policies heavily tilted against renters. This is the case even when neighborhoods are composed almost entirely of renters, as in Whittier.

Recognizing the Equity Problem

Whittier is a poster child for the equity issue. Maybe you’ve had your own experience with a problematic neighborhood organization, or have ideas for improving the process, or you’re just a radical who’d like to burn it all down. If so, you should know that Minneapolis is preparing to adopt “a multi-year strategic action plan to ensure an equitable community engagement system for the City of Minneapolis.” It’s open for your comments until August 14th.

While I can’t offer a sufficiently comprehensive solution, I have a few ideas in addition to my preference for not having blatantly terrible bylaws and exclusionary procedures. First, we should celebrate the Neighborhood and Community Relations department for conducting a demographic survey of neighborhood boards. While the results show a disappointing lack of diversity, it’s good to have the numbers. We should expand this data collection to include a simple survey of every voter at neighborhood annual meetings. Sampling the demographic composition (racial, renter/homeowner, age, and income) of those involved in the neighborhood process makes it easier to identify our equity problem.

Be Accessible

Neighborhood associations are an insider’s club. It’s natural to become complacent when surrounded by people we agree with, but it’s important to summon the urgency to expand the conversation. Widespread apathy can lead to the expectation that nobody outside the inner circle cares to participate. Even so, it’s better to post meeting times, locations, and other useful information far enough in advance to accommodate that rare person who’s inclined to drop in on a meeting.

This may sound like a too-obvious prescription, but I’ve found that a lack of timely information is a legitimate problem. Judging from the content on their pages, many neighborhood organizations underestimate the value of a well-run website/Facebook/Twitter account. These are easy–and easily neglected–tools to keep people informed. Social media can reach many times more people than will ever attend a meeting.

It shouldn’t be necessary to physically attend every public meeting in order to remain engaged in the process (as the inventor of a “Channel 79” Twitter-bot that spews out YouTubes of public meetings, I live these values. Special thanks to Peter Bajurny for implementing my vision). New tools are making it easier than ever to connect with local government. Earlier this year, Minneapolis used something called Ideascale to solicit ideas and comments through an interactive website. In June, the city started communicating with residents using the neighborhood social network Nextdoor. And just last week I defeated a local restaurant’s gargantuan patio with an email to 311 (there’s even an app for making fun of Andrew Johnson). None of these tools are perfect, but they’re the kinds of things we should be applying to the neighborhood process.

Implementing some non-traditional methods of participation could help combat the onerous “time tax” that’s shutting too many people out of the process. Absentee or online voting is much easier than sitting through a three hour meeting for the chance to vote in person. People who sacrifice hours of their lives to attend a neighborhood meeting are heroes, but there are thousands of time-poor non-heroes who deserve a voice too.

Be Relevant and Restrained

Of course, nothing I’ve mentioned above matters at all unless the organization is actually relevant to its residents. People bemoan the lazy, uninvolved renter while ignoring the massive chunk of city money that’s been devoted to attracting homeowners to the neighborhood process (as part of the hundreds of millions of dollars sent to neighborhood NRP programs since 1990). For example, hundreds of thousands of dollars in forgivable home improvement loans are a great organizing tool–just not for renters.

Instead of blaming the people who don’t show up, we should dedicate a greater share of money and time to making neighborhood associations meaningful to more of their residents. Finally, let’s drop the notion that Minneapolis neighborhood organizations are the pinnacle of democracy. It can be tempting to say, in a voice that echoes off the walls of an empty meeting room: “the city is ignoring the will of the neighborhood!” However, our elected city leaders participate in a process involving vastly more debate, scrutiny, and public engagement.

There are other, more appropriate vehicles than a neighborhood association from which to launch your campaign to Restore Honor and Integrity to City Hall. We should stifle the urge to use these groups to push a political agenda. It’s bad for their health and reputations. It makes it easier for the 98 percent of Minneapolitans who don’t attend the meetings to dismiss the concept of neighborhood associations entirely.

Minneapolis’ “Blueprint for Equitable Engagement” is open for your comments until August 14th. Email your feedback to ncr@minneapolismn.gov.