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

37 thoughts on “Fixing High-Renter, Low-Equity Neighborhood Orgs

  1. Scott ShafferScott

    Great post! Don’t have much to add, except a few funny/sad things about my own neighborhood association:

    The website does not list the date of the next monthly meeting, and contains notes from one (1) meeting since 2010.
    The Official Character of the neighborhood is “broad lawns, boulevard shade trees and well-spaced,” “spacious two-and one-half story house with generous porches and exterior detail,” even though 67% of the neighborhood rents.
    The neighborhood association is an outgrowth of the Lowry Hill Home Owners Inc., established in 1946.

    1. Janne

      Scott, as a nearly two-decade resident of your neighborhood, did you know that the neighborhood association only added the “Neighborhood” to it’s name in the last decade? Also, the neighborhood’s perenial favorite place to invest funds is… Kenwood, who doesn’t have enough money for its own neighborhood. (That has something to do with all the renters and low-income folks living in Lowry Hill, thanks to the NRP funding formula.) See:

      1) Rennovation of Kenwood Park tennis courts
      2) New playground equipment at Kenwood Park

  2. Peter Bajurny

    Guys, come to Corcoran! Where we constantly work hard to engage renters, where elections are relatively painless (a short cookout followed by a vote, though I think even that could be improved), where we have a dedicated executive director and a dedicated organizer who works to engage the community.

    I’d say there’s a reason Cano called us the “best run neighborhood in the city.”

  3. Steven Prince

    The post suggests Whittier Alliance is anti-affordable housing, I read the information presented as anti-further concentration of poverty and pro-housing diversity. Otherwise, why the request for more 2-3 bedroom units? That is the rental market segment for families with kids.

    When you quote “no new affordable housing” are we talking about the construction of publicly subsidized housing? If the poverty rate is 32% in Whittier is that an unreasonable aspiration? Myron Orfield’s work on school integration and concentration of poverty suggests we should all support this neighborhood goal.

    If the City had a policy of only supporting subsidized housing in neighborhoods with poverty levels below the City average, would we all agree that is a good thing? If so, wouldn’t that policy be consistent with the goal set by Whittier that is being criticized here?

    1. Wayne

      “Otherwise, why the request for more 2-3 bedroom units? That is the rental market segment for families with kids.”

      Because those units will price out the current rental rabble that’s dragging their property values down and replace them with happy new houses and middle-class-or-better families! Seriously it’s all about property values with these people.

      And Whittier is a centrally-located neighborhood with good access to transit and amenities, so it kind of makes sense that people who can’t afford cars would want to live there. If we had more places that fit that bill and still had affordable housing units you might see less concentration, but this is more of a result of how dismally bad the rest of the city is if you don’t own a car. There’s very few parts of town where being car-free is viable and rents are not already gentrified through the roof, so for those too poor to own a car your options are extremely limited.

    2. Paul

      “[A]nti-futher concentration of poverty” is code for displacing low-income residents, plain and simple. So-called “racially concentrated areas of poverty” are only a problem when various levels of government refuse to provide adequate services for those residents. But meanwhile they generate political representation for otherwise marginalized minority groups — look at Cedar-Riverside. Targeting that kind of political representation is the real goal of people like Myron Orfield. That, and, in all likelihood, profit.

  4. David MarkleDavid Markle

    The referenced letter is “Response to ‘Cunning, undemocratic neighborhood process continues near U'”

  5. Wayne

    Can I ask what you filed the patio complaint under on 311? I’ve had very mixed results with the 311 app–sometimes it’s worked great like when the city made Bibelot remove their oversized planters on an undersized sidewalk, but other times my complaints are ignored or replied to with outright lies (mostly regarding unshoveled sidewalks). I’ve filed a couple complaints about sidewalk cafes that obstruct the sidewalk below 4ft clearance but received zero follow up and the offending intrusion is still present over a month later.

    If we had a clear and consistent response to 311 complaints I imagine people would use it more often, but I have a very hard time working up the willpower to file a complaint when I’ve got like a 30% success rate and it’s a non-trivial time commitment.

      1. UrbanDoofus

        Agreed. However, I find that if you submit pictures the first time, and follow up after they mark the ticket complete, you will see things get shoveled. Still, it should not take so much effort.

      2. Wayne

        Oh ok that makes sense. I just use the app usually and it doesn’t really have categories for a lot of things so I pick the closest one and never hear about it again. I’ll have to try email in the future.
        It still seems kind of ridiculous that the city is so reactive when it comes to code enforcement (as opposed to proactively having a greater number of inspectors). They rely pretty heavily on citizen reporting to find out about things, which means a whole lot of stuff goes on that shouldn’t be happening and will continue to unless you’re ‘that guy’ who spends a bunch of personal time researching the city ordinances to find out if something is actually illegal and then more time still researching where to complain about it. I know this isn’t the only model and that other cities don’t put the burden on their citizens the way they do here …

      3. Julia

        Thanks for the email link! 311 is a great service in many ways, but their forms are incredibly bad UX and I’ve had almost no luck getting results via phone calls (and the app doesn’t work at all for me, since I’m not interested in totally stopping while walking to report something).

    1. Thatcher Imboden

      Success depends on a lot of factors, it seems. For example, I had great luck with pothole patching, tree limbs on the street, and other maintenance-related issues.

      I’ve had poor success with anything relating to traffic signal timing. It has largely been a war of words, where I complained repeatedly about how a traffic signal behaves and the public works staff closes it out saying it works as intended. My issue had always been with the intention. I’d recommend escalating issues to your council member if the issue is being poorly responded to as reopening the issue doesn’t seem to get any different outcome or even a conversation with them (despite requests to discuss the intent).

      1. Wayne

        Anything sidewalk related is way too difficult to get any attention on. The only way I got one problem property shoveled that they repeatedly said was ok (when it had never been touched all winter) was to threaten them with contacting the city council via the app comments. It worked, but it was absurd it had to come to that to get anything done. It took like 4 different tickets being closed and me reopening the last one 3 or 4 times after they closed it without doing anything to get a single property shoveled that had an absentee landlord that didn’t care because there was no retail tenant. That’s pretty unacceptable for responses and soured me on the whole 311 thing.

  6. UrbanDoofus

    So long as they get CPED consent, a developer could in theory ignore the whims of a neighborhood, yes? Seems unlikely that one would consent but not the other, but curious if that has ever happened.

  7. Julia

    While I think there’s for sure (barely) coded classism and racism up the wazoo in what you’ve shared about Whittier’s neighborhood organization’s goals, I remain just as/more concerned about broader city attitudes towards renters. I find two basic problems within our city organization that systemically disenfranchise and dismiss renters.

    The first is structural. It’s the city’s differing standards for infrastructure, engagement, and notification for renters compared to homeowners. A few examples that I’ve learned about recently:
    1) when a property requests a zoning exemption, the city requires that all property owners (regardless of where they live) are notified and (at least sometimes) given the chance to attend a public meeting. There is absolutely no requirement that those who live nearby (even in the same building) receive any notification.
    2) homeowners (and renters in buildings with fewer than four units) have much more tightly regulated waste disposal services–they receive higher standards for green living. Renters who want to be able to recycle more of their waste are told to ask their building manager to provide it, rather than the city requiring the same level of service to be provided to all residents regardless of service provider.
    3) National Night Out sign-up processes are heavily skewed towards homeowners/single family homes. The process requires signature collection from X% of all residents on a block. On a multi-apartment building block, with secure entrances, this is virtually impossible without already knowing one’s neighbors.

    The second problem is the way elected leaders and media choose to talk about our city and the information they convey. A clear example of this is how Minneapolis started publicizing the new composting opportunities (which is super-exciting news!). Over and over again the narrative from Mayor Hodges to MPR was framed as “composting for everyone!” Unfortunately, the city’s composting program is only for those in residences of up to four units–the rest of us (tens of thousands?) are not only not included, but we’re invisible–there’s no discussion of why we’re not included, when we might be able to compost, what laws prevent us from receiving city services, what it might take to get us caught up, etc. I catch this kind of erasing language all the time from city leaders.

    The current city system is paternalistic towards renters, particularly those in multi-unit buildings. The city does not engage with us directly, nor does it want us to engage with us directly–the landlord (including absentee) serves as the intermediary and we are dependent on the largesse of someone with very different interests to both meet our needs and pass along information.

    The city treats renters as second class citizens/invisible/less than; I am not surprised that neighborhood organizations do the same.

  8. Kendal Killian

    I think we need to move away from the idea that home ownership is somehow inherently better than renting. It’s paternalistic to say that people who now rent should become home owners. A huge percentage of neighborhood org dollars go to home ownership, both in terms of incentivizing ownership, grants, down payment assistance, etc and in providing help for existing owners (the wealthiest people in the neighborhood) to improve their homes, restore porches, etc. Dollars should be distributed proportionally to renters and home owners based on the percentage they make up in the neighborhood. In these renter dominated neighborhoods, the neighborhood orgs essentially operate as slush funds for the home owners to distribute among themselves.

    Mr. Prince uses the euphemism “housing diversity,” which is just another way of saying, kick out the renters and replace them with home owners (who of course tend to be older, whiter and wealthier). This would also reduce density, decrease our overall tax base, decrease our political power, and reverse the positive population trend the city is currently experiencing.

    Perhaps the Lowry Hill Home Owners Inc. mentioned above should go back to just servicing home owners and be more blunt about it. That would at least be more honest.

    I also agree with Julia on each of her points.

    1. Steven Prince

      Thanks, but I do not think my comments need decoding. Middle class families don’t have very good housing options in Minneapolis rentals and developers (who are not building dorms at the U) are not building 2-3 bedroom units except in the luxury market. It would be great if more market rate housing was for working class families and not luxury development. The project in Whittier sounds like a good candidate.

      My more general concern is how to make sure that City policies consider how to prevent further concentrations of poverty.

      Whittier is not the only neighborhood with good transit access, the post talks about Lowry Hill, which has equally good bus service, but only has 8.6% poverty vs, Whittier’s 32%.

      1. Julia

        Lowry Hill has horrible bus service, some of the worst in the city. The only bus line through it, the 25, is nearly useless and has become significantly worse over time. The 2 stops before entering Lowry Hill. Not only that, but it has a very low density of people and services (grocery/convenience stores have totally left the neighborhood in the last twenty years). It’s not an easy place to live without a car. I absolutely agree with you that we need to address this negative trend in density and connectivity and towards suburbanized sprawl style development, as well as work to make sure that there is more low income/section 8 housing there.

        We can’t just focus efforts on economic equity and concentrations of poverty on poor areas–we also need to make sure rich areas become more equitable and have a greater variety of housing stock. A healthy neighborhood is a diverse neighborhood, one that cuts across lines of income, wealth, race, age, family structure, employment, etc. Lowry Hill is a symptom of a city with problems that need addressing.

        If you mean Lowry Hill East, yeah, it has relatively good bus service with the 2, 4, 6, 12, 17, 21, 113, 114, 115.

        1. Wayne

          Julia already laid out all the evidence, but yeah they are not at all similar when it comes to level of transit service and walkable amenities. Not even close.

          And Whittier isn’t the *only* neighborhood, but it is one of the best by the metrics discussed earlier. Hence its popularity with those who can’t afford cars. Too bad you’ve got a bunch of slumlords letting apartment buildings deteriorate while still raising rents on a regular basis. I know the rental market is tight, but it’s ridiculous the way some of these bigger rental companies put little-to-no money into upkeep.

  9. Adam MillerAdam Miller

    Off topic: are there bus route maps somewhere on the MetroTransit web page? I haven’t been able to find them. NextTrip is fine for planning your next ride, but it would help a ton to understand the system to look at a map.

    1. Wayne

      They want you to use their stupid interactive map that can only show like 5 or 6 routes at a time and must have been coded by marmosets because it’s so slow and buggy and barely works in half the browsers you might actually use. First they made it harder to find the system map, now it’s basically impossible. I don’t get it–the interactive map thing would have made a good supplement to a system map, but it doesn’t replace it by any means.

      1. Wayne

        Then again maybe they realized it was an unreadable mess and decided to give up instead of hiring anyone to design a better one. Or maybe they realized how embarrassing the chicken scratch of suburban routes was when you look at the system as a whole ) ;

  10. Steven Prince

    My original point was that before the usual neighborhood bashing goes on that people should consider whether or not it is a reasonable position that new publicly subsidized housing should not be built in places where there are already relatively high concentrations of poverty.

    Data for Lowry Hill was compared to Whittier in the original post,

    There are areas of Lowry Hill adjoining Hennepin Avenue that are among the best served transit locations in Minneapolis. I think Lowry Hill extends south to 22nd Street, so yes, the 2 bus does serve parts of Lowry Hill. So do express buses to the U and the 6.

    Yes the neighborhood is low density, but that is my point. We should be figuring out how to avoid poverty concentrations in Minneapolis, that means creating housing options in places that do not already have high densities of poverty.

    Lowry Hill is just an example – there are several locations on Hennepin that would be great candidates in that neighborhood. The same is true for ECCO, LHE, and East Isles in my part of town, all with excellent transit options and places where car-free living is possible.

    1. Julia

      I get your point, and I think it’s important to make sure that critique of new low-income housing in MPLS is explicitly tied to where you think it should go instead, and pushing for that. I will absolutely support you (or anyone) in any efforts to increase density, diversity, and affordability, particularly for (very) low-income people in the Calhoun/Isles and SW portions of the city.

      The 2 only incidentally crosses into Lowry Hill, because it circles the Scottish Rite Temple block. I’ve actually had one or two drivers refuse to acknowledge Franklin and Dupont as a stop and make me run over to Franklin and Hennepin to board.

      Have you tried riding the bus from, say, Douglas and Irving to downtown? If you don’t hit the 25 (which only runs 6 times a DAY, only during ru$h hour, and not on weekends), you have a .7 mile walk, which includes crossing the Hennepin/Lyndale interchange. This is your street crossing for the bus:
      waiting island
      quasi island
      quasi island
      your bus stop.

      More broadly, Lowry Hill’s bus service is pretty much only available on its eastern boundary and really only fully an option for northbound at Hennepin/Franklin. It’s a really dismal public transit situation, with that being one of only three northbound stops adjacent to the entire neighborhood (I think there are four to five southbound).

      In contrast, Whittier has transit service running through it and on more borders–the 18 bisecting it on Nicollet, the 17 doing its weird 17 jog along Nicollet/24th, the 4 down its western boundary of Lyndale, the 2 on its northern boundary of Franklin, the 21 on its southern boundary of Lake Street.

      One of the buildings at Hennepin and Franklin is restricted income housing (I don’t know the official term) and has been since some sort of city-supported renovation stuff in the mid 1990s. You cannot be making over a certain amount when you move in, though they won’t boot you out when you get rich. I am not aware of any other specific affordable housing efforts within the neighborhood, though to be fair, I only know about this one because I knew someone who lived there.

        1. Julia

          I totally forgot about it! I don’t know if I’ve ever taken it–I’m usually on the 18 or the 5 when I’m heading southbound, depending on my destination.

          So yeah, Whittier totally cleans up in transit access.

      1. Julia

        Thinking a bit more about the northbound stops for Lowry Hill–you’ve really got Hennepin/Franklin and Hennepin/Lyndale (as previously discussed). Hennepin/22nd is the closest stop for almost no residents. Hennepin/Franklin is a really rough bus stop–there’s NO protection from cars as they speed onto the freeway and it’s an extremely narrow sidewalk with a lot of riders congregating there as well as significant foot traffic.

        Most of Lowry Hill’s Hennepin Avenue is actually poorly served by transit despite transit going right past it because of how the freeway further messes up the already messy Hennepin/Lyndale interchange.

        The more I think about it, the worse I realize public transit is for Lowry Hill because of physical barriers created by destructive traffic engineering choices. The city’s decades-long push to decrease density by turning multi-unit houses into single family homes, in tandem with gentrification, has certainly not helped the demand side of things.

        We’ve got a long ways to go, but I’m glad to know other people care about making Lowry Hill a more vibrant, diverse, and sustainable part of our city! I think increasing the frequency of the 25 would help (I’d love to see a very frequent dedicated Grand Rounds bus line at least in the spring/summer/fall to increase access to our park system for all residents). Extending the 2 as far west as Penn (Kenwood School/Park/Rec Center) would also be a great start and help immensely with city connectivity. I’m not sure how the SWLRT would actually function but it couldn’t hurt.

  11. Steven Prince


    In answer to your question about where subsidized housing should go – a good place to start would be anywhere that qualifies for reduced parking requirements for proximity to transit under the recent zoning changes. Particularly along the commercial corridors instead of the interior blocks – where new construction tends to replace old housing that is already affordable. The main thing is to put in places where people can live and get to work without a car.

    It fascinates me that in Uptown we have consistently required multifamily housing adjoining transit corridors to build street-level retail, but we never require retail buildings to include housing.

    I cannot think of a single retail building constructed in the last decade on Hennepin Avenue that included housing. Instead we have built an awful lot of one story suburban strip retail where we could have demanded more housing as the price of development. Since the air space went begging, it makes me wonder what could have been possible for housing.

    1. Wayne

      “In answer to your question about where subsidized housing should go – a good place to start would be anywhere that qualifies for reduced parking requirements for proximity to transit under the recent zoning changes.”

      So basically … most of Whittier?

    2. Julia

      I think the reduction in parking requirements are a great start to keeping housing affordable, but not sufficient. The way we’ve set up our public transit, it tends to cluster where it is most used already, which is in areas that are already relatively dense and/or with lower car access. If we only build subsidized housing in these areas, we will (in Minneapolis) still miss the dangerously homogenous, low-density wealthier areas. Whittier and the Wedge will end up with even more affordable housing than it already has and Lowry Hill and Kenwood will have virtually none in this system, which isn’t the Minneapolis I want to see.

      I agree with your confusion at the single story retail going up on major commercial routes, without any attached housing but often with multiple curb cuts (really unpleasant/dangerous for those walking/biking) and huge parking lots. Along Hennepin, the three new banks (?!?) at 22nd, Fremont (destruction of that lovely greenhouse for parking lot), and co-incidental with the Giordanos, as well as the Lowry, Chipotle… I also am just old enough to remember that the location where Victoria Secret is was an apartment building on top, retail on bottom before it burned in 1990ish. When it was rebuilt, it came back as only retail. (At least the apt. above Suds/Paper Source->Spyhouse stayed after it was hit by the truck, I think.) I’m assuming we’ve got some really archaic and self-sabotaging zoning laws still on the record that create strange conditions for development in our city.

  12. Pingback: Open Comment regarding the Blueprint for Equitable Engagement | Anton Schieffer

  13. Bergstrom

    Solidarity with the Whittier homeowners! Pay no mind to all these long-winded diatribes.

    – a renter

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