Prospect Park Neighborhood Meeting on Prospect North. February 14, 2015

Students Purposely Excluded from Some Neighborhood Boards

There was an article yesterday in the Minnesota Daily (a student newspaper) with the subhead: “Few students apply to neighborhood board organizations in Minneapolis.”

I was surprised to see the Marcy-Holmes Neighborhood Association (MHNA) characterized as one of the two “best at involving students in decision-making.” This can’t be true because, unlike the vast majority of Minneapolis neighborhood organizations, MHNA has written policies into their bylaws that appear designed to exclude students from the process.

age breakdown of the marcy holmes neighborhood

Marcy-Holmes is dominated by young college students.

Despite their large student population, MHNA has decided to hold elections in June, a time when many students are out of town. This is on purpose. MHNA’s president admitted as much in 2011: “my view is that the Marcy-Holmes annual meeting was moved to the June time frame to minimize student participation, especially in elections.” Students and other reformers have been asking the organization to change the timing of their election for at least the last 10 years with no results.

This invaluable bit of neighborhood history from Christopher Meyer explains it very well:

In June 2004, approximately 90 people packed into a crowded room to partake in the annual election meeting of the Marcy-Holmes Neighborhood Association, the organization designated by the city of Minneapolis to represent the Marcy-Holmes neighborhood. Neighborhood meetings are typically low-key, casual affairs, but this one was monitored as thoroughly as a U.N.-supervised election in a Third World republic. Representatives from the League of Women Voters scrutinized the credentials of all attendees. To be eligible to vote, they would need to be certified members of MHNA (which required the submission of a valid membership registration at least 30 days prior to the meeting) and they would need to present a photo ID as well as proof of residency in the neighborhood. The MHNA board also hired a parliamentarian from the city’s Neighborhood Revitalization Program to ensure that all proceedings were conducted legally. They even hired an armed beat patrolman to maintain security in case matters got out of hand.

What issue could possibly have been so contentious that the board apparently felt the need to prepare against the possibility of violence? In short, reformers were trying to amend MHNA’s bylaws in order to make the organization more accessible to student residents. The previous fall, a group of students had worked with an MHNA representative to prepare a list of amendments designed to enable greater student participation. The biggest change the reformers wanted was to change the month of the annual meeting — when elections for board officers and directors are held — from June to October. The reason was obvious: Students are less likely to be around during the summer. Despite this fact — or as I suspect, because of it — the association voted to reject the schedule change as well as every other student proposal.

“Length of residency” requirements are another tactic for discouraging student (transient!) participation. Only three Minneapolis neighborhood associations have residency requirements of six months or greater to become eligible to serve in elected leadership; of those three, two have massive student populations: Marcy-Holmes and Prospect Park (the third organization is the Whittier Alliance, which is 80% renter). How do most Minneapolis neighborhoods handle the residency issue? The Linden Hills Neighborhood Council is a good example: all residents are members, and all members can be elected to the board of directors.

membership requirements of the marcy holmes neighborhood association

Residency requirements of the Marcy-Holmes Neighborhood Association are unusually strict.

Linden Hills is typical of vast majority of Minneapolis neighborhood orgs.

Linden Hills is typical of vast majority of Minneapolis neighborhood orgs.

I serve on a neighborhood board with a college student who never attended a neighborhood meeting until the one where he was elected. He is supremely qualified and dedicated. He managed to convince a room filled with longtime residents to vote for him. Now he’s getting stuff done like no other board member in the history of board members. If someone impressive and capable wants to be involved, why screen those candidates out of the process? What’s the harm in letting the voters sort it out?

19 thoughts on “Students Purposely Excluded from Some Neighborhood Boards

  1. Eric AnondsonEric Anondson

    Excellent fact-based counter to the Daily’s assertion. Why are these Minneapolis neighborhoods allowed to restrict participation like a stereotyped xenophobic nativist? Are they that filled with Trump fans?

  2. Wayne

    This is another great example of why the neighborhood group system needs to either be massively overhauled to have some kind of standardized rules to prevent discrimination or be excluded from important decision making entirely. I question how something funded by public dollars can do this and have it be legal at all.

  3. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

    It’s amazing the things I hear about students from University-proximate neighbors, both the crazy stories and anecdotes about urination or vomit, AND the derogatory comments about students being X or Y, statements that if they were made about *any* other group (religion, ethnicity, etc.) would be considered beyond the pale.

    (When I asked about this during the Saint Paul “student housing ordinance” debate, I was told that students are not a “protected class,” and thus you can go ahead and limit their housing, force them to register, etc. Imagine doing this with seniors, for example.)

    The truth is that most students are pretty decent people, but that it takes a lot of work to get them engaged with their neighborhoods. Most students are just learning to live on their own, and just learning about what it means to be “in a city” in any sense of the word. It usually takes a few years, which is why schools need to do more to encourage good behavior especially from 1st and 2nd year students.

    Marcy-Holmes and other University-area groups don’t really need to purposefully exclude students. Most won’t be interested in the first place. They should be trying to engage them, though. I’m encouraged by CM Frey’s proposal to require landlords to register young people to vote when they sign them up for leases. Imagine if Marcy-Holmes included neighborhood group registration cards with every new student rental lease?

  4. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

    I’m going to pass along a comment from Chris Meyer, mentioned in this article. I’m sure he wouldn’t mind:

    The [Minnesota Daily] article presents [Marcy-Holmes] as a student-friendly organization, trying oh-so-hard to recruit students, when in fact they have a long-held and continuing practice of deliberately and systematically excluding students from joining them.

    I was on their board from 2011-2014. At the time I was the first student on their board in years, for a neighborhood where something around 80% of the residents are students. I worked very, very hard to reform their exclusionary policies, and succeeded at getting some incremental measures passed, but they remain the most exclusionary neighborhood association in the city.

    Back in 2004, when a bunch of students organized to attempt to elect some of their own to the board, MHNA hired an ARMED GUARD, a parliamentarian from the city, and observers from the League of Women Voters all to monitor their annual election. Why did they fear the possibility of violence? Because they disenfranchised as many students as they could possibly get away with, by disqualifying anyone who hadn’t filled out a membership card 30-days beforehand, or who couldn’t provide photo ID with their current address on it. Minnesotans don’t need that to vote for PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES, but they required it for students to vote for their local neighborhood board. The parliamentarian was appalled, but there was nothing he could do.

    But the article absurdly states: “The neighborhood is one of the more lenient areas when it comes to recruiting students, Borowsky said. For example, MHNA asks their board members to have resided in the area for one year, shorter than the requirements of other Minneapolis communities, he said.”

    This is demonstrably false, 100% upside down. The vast majority of the city’s neighborhoods have no length of residency requirement at all. Out of all of them, no other neighborhood makes you go through as many hoops to join the leadership as MHNA does.

    I’m very confused though about the “MHNA asks their board members to have resided in the area for one year” part. One of our victories was that in 2013 we were able to amend the by-laws to reduce the one-year requirement down to 6-months. That was a big deal, because they have their annual elections in June (when all the students are gone–NOT an accident). That transformed the one-year requirement into essentially a TWO year requirement for most students, because if you moved into the neighborhood in September, and had the foresight to fill out one of the membership cards right away (which is a prerequisite to counting as a “resident”), then you would have to wait a full year to be eligible AND another 9 months until the next election rolls around in June.

    So did our by-law reform get reversed? Or is the “ask” just some kind of unofficial request? Either way, the statement quoted above is still false and the Daily ought to issue a correction.

    “Still, MHNA holds board elections in June when many are out of town for the summer, Borowsky said.”

    Yeah, again, this is no accident. I tried to get the elections moved from June to October, and failed. That is an absolutely mandatory change before MHNA can ever possibly claim to be welcoming to students.

    “Of the city’s 81 neighborhoods, Sorenson said, Southeast Como and Marcy-Holmes are the best at involving students in decision-making because of their proximity to campus and high student resident population.”

    LOL. Yes, let’s congratulate those associations for being kind enough to locate themselves in overwhelmingly student neighborhoods. Seriously, what kind of logic is this.

  5. Nick

    I’m not going to defend any neighborhood association as much as I’m going to ask “is this where we should direct our ire”? There are so many other bodies with so much more power to spend more money to influence more lives. Do CTIB, MPRB, the Minneapolis City Council, the Minneapolis School Board, the Minnesota Legislature or any other body represent students? Minorities? Renters? Absolutely not. And those are the people who REALLY influence where we live. Neighborhood associations barely get a bite of the apple in the form of expressing a non-binding opinion on certain issues. And the MPRB, City Council, etc. don’t even have to listen to them. I’d rather focus on the organizations that produce outcomes, not optics.

    1. Wayne

      They don’t get off the hook just because there are worse groups. I have enough ire to go around for everyone.

      And plenty of proposed developments die at the hands of neighborhood group opposition, so I wouldn’t be so quick to say they have no real power. They do help shape the city we live in, and I’d rather they not be yet another way for bored old white landowner NIMBYs to continue screwing things up.

      1. Nick

        I’d counter with NIEBNA’s early support of the Nye’s project as evidence that some neighborhood associations are far from NIMBY. And also that their endorsement meant very little. Oh, and their desire for more, not less, on Superior Plating as well. Not really NIMBY.

        I don’t know where Marcy-Holmes has come in on all of the development projects in the neighborhood, but I haven’t read too many articles about their resistance outside of Dinkytown, so there must be some YIMBY there too. And what’s to say that student representatives would be any more or less supportive of development? Again, outcomes, not optics.

        As an aside, it was Preserve Minneapolis that got the Nye’s project tabled, and now they’re gunning for the Washburn-McReavy project, too. So if you want density, maybe direct some of your ire there?

        1. Janne

          Nick, neighborhood organizations don’t have LEGAL standing, but they do have long precedence of standing in decision-making at the City Council and elsewhere. They also have substantial budget, in some areas.

          Using NIEBNA as the poster child for neighborhood organizations is problematic, as they are very atypical in their positions and have been for decades. Also, as you point out, neighborhood associations are much more effective at stopping things than making them happen.

          My own neighborhood association is more typical. They have budget because of significant rental and low-income density on one edge of their geography, but no representation from that area. They have consistently invested nearly all of their funds in an even-wealthier neighborhood to the west (Kenwood), as far as possible from the people who are the reason they have funding. To make it worse, they’ve been a consistent voice single-handedly opposing low-level infill units based on parking excuses.

          I think it’s important to highlight this in the neighborhood context because
          1) it’s the first and most accessible place for most people to learn about how decisions get made
          2) they have more-than-reasonable influence on local decisions
          3) it’s where we grow advocates for bigger-scale groups

          1. Nick

            If the typical neighborhood association is so woefully biased, is trying to replace the boards on so many organizations really an effective goal? Or would it be better for folks to form a pro-urban form group that lobbies policy-makers directly and city-wide to balance the effects, similar to what the Minneapolis Bicycle Coalition has done for cycling?

            The engagement goals you’ve described are important, but to be engaged your decision has to matter. And I just don’t see the decisions of a neighborhood association as being that relevant, so I think we’ll have to agree to disagree. The neighborhood association lets people air their grievances publicly, and one need not even be a member in order to do that*. But I think what is more relevant is the relationships that key individuals (aka people with money who donate in elections) in the neighborhood have with decision makers, and those people will make sure voices are heard whether they are on a neighborhood board or not. And I highly doubt that anything debated here will change that. In fact, having boards that contradict the interests of those few individuals could further erode whatever weight the formal opinion of the body may have. Not that this should be a reason for avoiding change–I just don’t think we should create an expectation that the change will produce anything valuable.

            As for the money distributed to neighborhood associations, I completely agree that it’s a problem when those dollars turn into an inequitable distribution of real projects. However, I’d suggest that, no matter who is on the board, projects will get steered in the same direction. Try asking someone at Public Works how they figure out which capital projects should be advanced into the capital review process, it’s not nearly as transparent as you might think. You’ll hear things like “it’s a priority of the council member’s office”, and “the pavement index is below our threshold”, but not much more.

            So, ultimately, I’m probably just as cynical as others, I just think that the money in politics (whether directly as campaign donations or indirectly as the pursuit of tax base) are the real root evil here, not the faces sitting on a neighborhood board.

            *According to parliamentary rules one can speak when recognized. I will not deny that’s a barrier, especially since there are plenty of organizations that use Roberts Rules very, very loosely.

            1. Doug TrummDoug T

              Neighborhood groups do have a lot of influence in my experience. City officials generally want to secure their blessing before proceeding with a development in order to smooth the process. I was a member of St Antony West Neighborhood Association (STAWNO) when I lived in NE Minneapolis and they were very welcoming to me as a young renter when I joined. Then again I was just about the only renter and youngest board member and there weren’t many more candidates than seats. I think STAWNO would react similarly to Marcy Holmes if a larger population of engaged student aged or recently graduated renters attempted to disrupt the old guard order.

              What Marcy Holmes did was shameful and undemocratic and to defend it because neighborhood groups supposedly don’t have that much power is to miss the point entirely. During my brief time on STAWNO we voted to allocate hundreds of thousands of neighborhood revitalization dollars to rehad an abandoned building to rent out as affordable housing. The budgets of these groups are not tiny and when used properly can help maintain affordable housing in rapidly heating up housing markets. Even when revitalization funds are exhausted, neighborhood boards are one of the best venues for renters and pro growth progressive voices to tip the scale in favor of positive development.

        2. Wayne

          As Janne said, NIEBNA is the exception to the rule and not at all typical for how these groups operate. But even they folded on the Nyerise after their initial support.

          As far as Marcy Holmes, I’d like to note that pretty much all the new development west of the highway has either been pricy luxury/market rate developments or section 42 (which excludes students in its residency requirements). I’m not really drawing any conclusions from that, but I thought it worth noting .

          Just because development is still happening sometimes and some groups are sort of supportive doesn’t mean the neighborhood group system should be able to exclude people, though. “It’s sort of working ok” is not an excuse for discrimination.

          And I’d like to know more about this Preserve Minneapolis group, because it sounds like they deserve plenty of my ire. Is this the one run by the narcissitic tv personality or a different one? In any case, I’ve got plenty to go around and no-one gets off the hook with me just because they’re not the worst.

          1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

            Preserve Minneapolis is actually pretty great, IMO. They’re open minded about balancing development and preservation. We shouldn’t lump the preservation community into a single bucket, just like we shouldn’t assume that everyone who posts on this site is of one mind.

            1. Adam MillerAdam Miller

              I don’t know, Bill, opposing height on preservation grounds really bother me as it’s difficult to distinguish from blanket opposition to development.

              Especially in a close-to-the-core neighborhood that already has some of the tallest building in town.

    2. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

      It’s important to challenge claims that groups “speak for” the community the represent. You have to dive into the demographic info and look at outreach. Neighborhood groups are an easy target, in some ways, but they’re also an important voice in city decision-making and we should challenge any claims at representation if the outreach processes are seriously flawed, as in this case.

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  7. David MarkleDavid Markle

    Some time back I posted a comment about Marcy Holmes neighborhood group exclusion of students, back in the 1990’s. The group was determined to prevent student participation. I think you’ll find this variety of exclusion to be a phenomenon within the general category of exclusion of renters. Neighborhood groups tend to be dominated by homeowners.

    But I’m extremely skeptical and distrustful of the way Minneapolis government uses neighborhood groups to get its way, or disregards them when they’re not useful to the insider agenda.

    In Cedar Riverside the neighborhood group was part of a process that funneled one heavily subsidized redevelopment contract after another into the hands of the developer who had recently headed the Minneapolis Housing and Redevelopment Agency (a predecessor of the present CPED). The process simply excluded competition.

  8. GlowBoy

    Coming to Minneapolis from Portland, where the NAs are very powerful, I’m surprised to hear claims that they don’t have much influence. At least in Portland the boundaries are formally drawn by the city, and the associations themselves are legally sanctioned by the city.

    And their opinions carry an enormous amount of weight with the city council. Admittedly the council structure is different, with Portland’s all-at-large councillors each being assigned administration of different city bureaus, but I would think that if anything, Minneapolis’ ward system would encourage the councillors to listen even more intently to the NAs within their wards. In any event, as often as not real change gets made in Portland by neighborhood activists working through their NAs, despite the same NIMBY and curmudgeonly problems found here, and I would think the same would be true here regardless of the structural differences.

    1. Janne

      GlowBoy, from your short description here, it sounds to me like there’s not much difference in the influence of NAs in Portland and here. They ARE surprisingly powerful, even if not legally powerful.

      Plus, the City of Minneapolis has awarded them millions of dollars (across the whole city) to invest basically as they see fit. There are many great things about that, and some serious downsides, too.

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