Intentional Communities: Racist by Default?

10409672_859730494144146_5287423720624515507_nFor over six months, I’ve been worried about an upcoming ordinance allowing “intentional communities.” Recent City Council committee discussions, at Community Development & Regulatory Services (CDRS) and then Zoning & Planning, have brought these concerns into focus.

In summary, this ordinance would expand the definition of family in the zoning code to include so-called “intentional communities.” The ordinance defines these as groups of like-minded people living together, sharing expenses, having a democratic governance structure, and generally living more like a family than unrelated individuals locked away in their bedrooms.

This is important because Minneapolis, according to research carried out by the city, is one of the few cities in the country that defines occupancy limits in its zoning code when it already has a Housing Maintenance Code. The Minneapolis zoning code says that in single family neighborhoods, only a maximum of 3 unrelated people may live together, while an unlimited number of people can live together if they are a “family.” By expanding the definition of “family,” intentional communities with more than 3 members become legal households.

There’s just one problem with all of this: the policy has severe racial implications.

In 2012, Minneapolis residents voted in an overwhelming 4-1 majority against a proposed amendment to the state constitution that would have required voters to show ID at the polls. We (good liberals) knew the problem trying to be solved, in-person voting fraud, was vanishingly rare. We also knew that the proposed solution would wrongfully disenfranchise many eligible voters, particularly elderly people, the poor, minorities, immigrants, and people who could be considered to exist on the “edge” of society, by placing an unfair burden (of paperwork) on them. We knew this amendment wouldn’t solve any problems, but that it would serve to strip away the fundamental right to vote for many, silencing the voices of people most easily silenced in our democracy.

Last year, our City Council also voted to repeal so-called lurking and spitting laws. These were minor offenses that were enforced arbitrarily in a way that unfairly targeted communities of color. Selective enforcement of these laws led to a racist outcome. The City Council was right to repeal these laws, because laws should be applied equally to all of our citizens, not enforced based on how an agent of the government might feel towards the person they’re interacting with.

Minneapolis is currently experiencing a housing shortage, and often low income residents and people of color are the ones most negatively impacted. These happen to be the same groups that would have been disenfranchised by a voter ID amendment and the same groups that were often impacted by lurking and spitting laws. Many activists, myself included, believe that relaxing occupancy limits should be one of the ways we try to alleviate our housing shortage.

Now let’s get one thing clear about intentional communities. Communities that define themselves as “intentional communities” are largely white communities. Take a look at the website for the Fellowship of Intentional Community or the Facebook page of the local Intentional Community advocacy group, the Minneapolis Coalition for Intentional CommunitiesThese don’t appear to be diverse groups of people (unless you count the variety of beards). That’s not to say there’s anything wrong with white people or with intentional communities. It’s just important to understand that this particular form of communal living allowed by this particular ordinance is aimed at a very specific, very white demographic.

John Edwards talked on Tuesday (December 6) about the paperwork involved in forming an Intentional Community, and how this process benefits the most privileged and hurts the least privileged (much like voter ID laws would have). To that I would add the specter of selective enforcement. During the CDRS meeting where this was discussed, there was much discussion about the various regulations determining whether a community was “intentional” or not. My take-away from this discussion was that the hard rules set out in the ordinance were more guidelines that wouldn’t be enforced than actual hard and fast requirements. Much like lurking and spitting laws gave police officers a tool to unfairly target communities of color, this ordinance gives housing inspectors and overly concerned neighbors a tool they can use to unfairly target particular groups of people living together.

Months ago, when I started drafting a different version of this post about intentional communities, the second part of the title was going to be “Unintentional Exclusion.” However, after watching the CDRS committee meeting, and listening to Lisa Goodman and Cam Gordon, I couldn’t maintain my belief that this was unintentional. My hope was that this Intentional Communities ordinance would be the first step in relaxing occupancy requirements. My pessimistic prediction was that after passing the Intentional Communities ordinance, Intentional Community advocates who had gotten what they wanted would not help Cam Gordon pass better legislation in the future.

What actually happened is far worse than even a pessimist like me could imagine. Lisa Goodman and Cam Gordon stated that this ordinance was the first and final step they intended to take toward changing occupancy limits. They specifically “negotiated [this ordinance] with the community”, to cater their constituents, who appear to want only particular communities and specific kinds of people who might live in such communities, in order to not offend the sensibilities of any of the homeowners in their wards.

I can’t help but be angry about this, and there’s so much to be angry about. I’m angry that Cam Gordon, whom I voted for in every election until I was redistricted out of his ward, would support such a regressive policy. I’m also angry that Abdi Warsame, my former council member, and Alondra Cano, my current council member, both members of the CDRS committee, were completely silent during a very lengthy discussion of this ordinance at the CDRS meeting.

The final vote on this ordinance is at this Friday’s City Council meeting. While I know there is support already for passing a modified and less restrictive version of this ordinance, I can only hope that at least seven council members (all of them supposed progressives, all but one DFL endorsed) can find the moral courage to do the right thing and not pass  another discriminatory ordinance into law.


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22 Responses to Intentional Communities: Racist by Default?

  1. Eric Anondson
    Eric Anondson December 8, 2016 at 9:01 am #

    You know, regardless that this has been in the code for decades and we are slightlyly cracking this open with the proposal, why does this city even have a regulation over who may or may not live with each other? Over how households get to be run?

    Does this have to change via civil rights lawsuit? Is there a opportunity for the city to go back to the early 1920s definition? That’s what it should be.

    • Bill Lindeke
      Bill Lindeke December 8, 2016 at 9:25 am #

      During the student housing debate in Saint PAul I learned that students are not a “protected class” and that it was perfectly legal to discriminate against them.

    • Adam Miller
      Adam Miller December 8, 2016 at 9:53 am #

      But Eric, think of what would happen to my property values if a whole gaggle of (relatively) poor people moved in next door? Would there be enough parking? Are these renters even invested in our community? Would they even pick up after their pets?

      Okay, that’s all sarcasm when I say it, but unfortunately other people actually worry about these things. I’m with you in thinking there’s not much reason for the city to care.

      • Max December 10, 2016 at 2:02 pm #

        Thank you Adam for sarcastically voicing what has become a real concern for many citizens of the twin cities. I wonder if those people would feel welcome to post their concerns here or if they would be shamed for having these concerns.

        I share your concern that people seem overly worried or display ‘white fragility’ when discussing systemic change. However, in order for our community to evolve, we may want to be ready to address and discuss all concerns as we take calculated risks together … which is what legislation kind of is. A vague trust-based system enforced by violent police, unfair law and a casino of interpretations of the law.

        As someone who has been a part of diverse communities who helped shape the reform, I can tell you that we did our best to listen to the *whole* city and not just those we agree with. In fact, talking with our critics, one thing that everyone was afraid to discuss was race.

        It’s not just white people that are scared of trying to talk about it. It’s a scary subject with a lot of negative connotations. We live in an extremely racist and divided country.

        Communities are painfully aware of this and the ones I know in Minneapolis (as well as a great deal of them in America and other countries) believe they are working against systemic racism to create a more egalitarian world. Now that it is no longer illegal to form them and live in them, they may be invited by you more “legal” owners to be less shy and to help join the discussion that privileged and protected forms of “home ownership” (on stolen land, for example) might be dominating because they have had a legal place to stand and speak from and to exist while other forms of “home ownership” have not due to legal threats.

        What I am trying to say is I agree with you but not everyone does, and we should not shut down debate or discussion with those we disagree with. There is so much opportunity to use this new legislation for good. Please let us try to, before saying it was a failure before it even gets used by the good people trying to use it. We may create a self-fulfilling prophecy rather than retaining much needed hope and effort and discussion.

  2. Peter Bajurny December 8, 2016 at 9:42 am #

    Something until I watched yesterday’s Committee of the Whole meeting last night is that some of the restrictions, like requiring the intentional community be the address you use for voting and your drivers license, are explicitly targeted at students and other young people who may still use their home address, another way this ordinance excludes people who might need this kind of housing in favor of those damned hippies!

    • Bill Lindeke
      Bill Lindeke December 8, 2016 at 1:57 pm #

      explain that more? why can’t students register. seems like a solveable problem

      • Peter Bajurny December 8, 2016 at 2:11 pm #

        OK this is structural stuff Bill. It doesn’t have to say “NO STUDENTS” to explicitly exclude students.

        Many students keep their voter registration and drivers license address at their parents home, for a variety of reasons that are their own. They are allowed to do that and we don’t have it in our housing code that they are required to register at their college address. Yes students are fully allowed to register to vote at their college address and change their drivers licenses addresses, the same way that residents with limited or no English abilities are allowed to notarize their chore wheel to form an intentional community, the same way low income families are allowed to count their domestic staff as family for occupancy restrictions, the same way African Americans in the south during Reconstruction were allowed to pay the poll taxes and pass the literacy tests to be allowed to vote the same way etc etc etc.

        This is STRUCTURAL INSTITUTIONAL stuff. It’s what racisim/*ism is in 2016. It takes more than a plain text reading of something skimming for racial descriptions to find this stuff out. You need to look at how these things will impact people.

        Listen to Lisa Bender talking about this:
        https://twitter.com/WedgeLIVE/status/806754525767831552

        • Bill Lindeke
          Bill Lindeke December 8, 2016 at 2:49 pm #

          I am much more adamant about voting than about zoning codes. But your point is solid. I agree with you.

  3. Sean Hayford Oleary
    Sean Hayford Oleary December 8, 2016 at 10:24 am #

    I guess I don’t get it. Is accommodating intentional communities really racist? Or is it just that this is an opportunity to go even further, and allow more higher-occupancy housing?

    Although there may be an opportunity to go further, it seems like a step in the right direction to me.

    • Stuart December 8, 2016 at 10:48 am #

      Accommodating intentional communities isn’t racist, but it might be racist if we are “fixing” a known problem (legality of multiple unrelated people living together) only for a group of privileged and mostly white people.

      As Peter points out, voter ID laws aren’t racially biased in the letter of the law, but they are racially biased in how they work.

      Also, as was made clear in John’s article (and videos), this is not a first step in the process. It is the only step.

    • Peter Bajurny December 8, 2016 at 10:52 am #

      If it was a step in a direction then ok fine, but Lisa Goodman and Cam Gordon, the authors of this ordinance, have explicitly stated that it’s not the first step, it’s the final step. Lisa Goodman further stated that this was specifically written to help a specific group of people that contacted Cam, and only then.

      It’s 2016, it takes more than not yelling the N word at every black person you see to not be racist. If we truly care about social and racial justice and equity, we can’t just lookout for laws and policies that say “no blacks” or “whites only.” We have to look at the likely outcome of the policy and weight that against a justice and equity framework. This ordinance fails miserably to advance any kind of justice or equity and instead serves a very limited number of white people. To me in 2016, that’s racist.

  4. David Markle
    David Markle December 8, 2016 at 11:17 am #

    Maybe redefining “family” is not the best approach to observe freedom of association. Maybe what’s needed is a civil liberties lawsuit to better define what is reasonable in the application of health and safety regulation. If so, who will step forward as plaintiffs?

    As a corollary thought, maybe “single family neighborhood” is a shaky basis for zoning.

  5. Peter Bajurny December 8, 2016 at 11:33 am #

    As Alex pointed out in the comments on John’s piece, the legality of occupancy limits has been affirmed by the Supreme Court (https://streets.mn/2016/12/06/intentional-communities-a-path-to-legal-status-for-white-people/#comment-169335). Doesn’t mean it’s right, but it is legal.

    • David Markle
      David Markle December 8, 2016 at 11:45 am #

      Haven’t studied that Supreme Court opinion, but I doubt that it provides completely sweeping regulatory authority.

      • Peter Bajurny December 8, 2016 at 12:59 pm #

        To my layman’s reading it’s a fairly narrow and specific ruling, saying very explicitly that limiting the number of people that may live together through the zoning code. The authority doesn’t need to be sweeping, because it affirmed a zoning provision that is worded almost identically to our own.

  6. Jimbo Jones December 8, 2016 at 12:30 pm #

    Let’s face it, everything is racist to liberals these days.

    • Peter Bajurny December 8, 2016 at 12:33 pm #

      Thanks for the feedback!

  7. Jason December 9, 2016 at 12:49 pm #

    The article is an interesting perspective, not one that I share however.

    Often in groups and volunteer activities I’m involved in I wish there was more diversity, and don’t know how to promote or encourage it. I believe these causes would have more credibility if they were more representative of the population. It seems that people self select for the things I’m interested in and care about, and the majority are white. It’s not that way by design, anyone is welcome-its just who shows up. How do you change that?

    As for how this pertains to the intentional community/housing aspects, I get the argument. For the ordinance to not be discriminatory, it should not have the “intentional community” language in it. If it’s going to be legal for a group of unrelated folks to live together, that needs to be the case whatever you call it. I would guess if you surveyed a bunch of people on the street, only a small fraction could define intentional community, and they’d probably be white aging hippies or young liberal art college students. Hard to call yourself an intentional community if you don’t know what that means.

    How about community house instead?

  8. Rosa December 9, 2016 at 1:10 pm #

    Any zoning to protect “single family homes” is racist, not by default, but by decades of policy and practice about who can buy single family homes that we haven’t managed to correct. There’s lots of documentation of the systemically racist effects of zoning laws.

    That means that any attempt to tinker with the system and make it tiny bits better will have racialized effects and enforce systemic racism.

    But attempts to just scrap the SFH zoning have not succeeded and don’t seem likely to.

    So what do we do?

  9. Max December 10, 2016 at 1:36 pm #

    Hello, Peter. Thank you so much for your compassionate concern for the greater community.

    I wanted to say that I helped push for this change, and there were young people of all backgrounds, though predominantly white, trying to make this a reality. People of color agreed to meet with a group of us (mostly white, some Asian, African and other backgrounds) when we asked for feedback in making communities possible and even though they recognized this was largely a white effort, they were excited about potentially working with us to make something decidedly different in Black neighborhoods.

    As a (mostly) white person myself I can confidently say that intentional communities are still controversial and radical in white culture despite our efforts to not terrify the very protected classes that consider certain kinds of home ownership the only way of being taken seriously (let alone not having any nomadic ethnicity in the first place)!

    So as Rosa says, there is exclusion in legislation largely because legislation in general can be a problem of race. We can take for example some of the most important pieces of legislation for the United States of America: the Doctrine of Discovery used to justify genocide and displacement, the Constitution which categorized Black people as 3/5 of a person and so on.

    However, I must say in all our efforts knowing this was an issue, we still wanted something to come through intact after a great deal of concern from (mostly white, but still a diverse group) of detractors saying unrelated people living together would affect property values. So our largest detractors seemed concerned about a number of things, but a lot of them (yes, even people of color) were focused on further institutionalizing things preventing communities from forming.

    Some concerns form because of the groups that seek deliberate exclusion or intent to be white, intent to be Christian, intent to be Jewish or other exclusions; but most communities that Cam was talking to were people of all colors living within those communities with keen awareness of the lack of diversity.

    Discussions with some people of color have led these communities to understand that it is a not uncommon or unreasonable opinion in different communities that white groups have some ‘catching up’ to do in regards to cooperative living, acceptance of each other and one another.

    We have a tendency to attack each other, for our families to break up, and to constantly tear each other new ones when we are trying hard to make big accomplishments. I wonder … does this article go far enough in alleviating that issue?

    The reason a lot of non-white people are skeptical of intentional communities has a lot to do with the fact that community is something white culture actively lacks and avoids in a variety of ways as we seek ever more ways to become anonymous cogs in a huge super State system.

    This legislation can be tried, and although I’ve only been working on it for 4 years, Cam has been working on this since at least 2008 or so, and it is seen as a big success by people who are underprivileged, due to the way our system forces people to justify their existence with income towards an arguably unsustainable way of life.

    The bit in there about asking for IDs and so forth was actually put in place not because the intentional communities wanted it (far from it) but because they felt extremely pressured by neighborhoods concerned about underprivileged people “exploiting” the legislation.

    More discussion must be had. More legislation can be taken away or put in place as we continue to refine our flawed system. Great fluctuations and cultural shifts and attitude adjustments may be necessary and forthcoming far beyond what this thing will change.

    However, please do not attack what a decidedly anti-racist group has barely accomplished for not being *enough* of a radical change for you. Please, come to visit an intentional community. I am sure you are welcome. And you will probably be hosted to a lovely home cooked meal that invites you to be a part of a very large discussion constantly evolving and taking shape as the world changes. Who knows, you may even meet a person (white, brown, black, or any other) there whose company you never expected to enjoy because you thought they must be racist for trying to discover the meaning of community in a city divided against itself so strongly.

  10. Max December 10, 2016 at 1:39 pm #

    Hello, Peter. Thank you so much for your compassionate concern for the greater community.

    I wanted to say that I helped push for this change, and there were young people of all backgrounds, though predominantly white, trying to make this a reality. People of color agreed to meet with a group of us (mostly white, some Asian, African and other backgrounds) when we asked for feedback in making communities possible and even though they recognized this was largely a white effort, they were excited about potentially working with us to make something decidedly different in Black neighborhoods.

    As a (mostly) white person myself I can confidently say that intentional communities are still controversial and radical in white culture despite our efforts to not terrify the very protected classes that consider certain kinds of home ownership the only way of being taken seriously (let alone not having any nomadic ethnicity in the first place)!

    So as Rosa says, there is exclusion in legislation largely because legislation in general can be a problem of race. We can take for example some of the most important pieces of legislation for the United States of America: the Doctrine of Discovery used to justify genocide and displacement, the Constitution which categorized Black people as 3/5 of a person and so on.

    However, I must say in all our efforts knowing this was an issue, we still wanted something to come through intact after a great deal of concern from (mostly white, but still a diverse group) of detractors saying unrelated people living together would affect property values. So our largest detractors seemed concerned about a number of things, but a lot of them (yes, even people of color) were focused on further institutionalizing things preventing communities from forming.

    Some concerns form because of the groups that seek deliberate exclusion or intent to be white, intent to be Christian, intent to be Jewish or other exclusions; but most communities that Cam was talking to were people of all colors living within those communities with keen awareness of the lack of diversity.

    Discussions with some people of color have led these communities to understand that it is a not uncommon or unreasonable opinion in different communities that white groups have some ‘catching up’ to do in regards to cooperative living, acceptance of each other and one another.

    We have a tendency to attack each other, for our families to break up, and to constantly tear each other new ones when we are trying hard to make big accomplishments. I wonder … does this article go far enough in alleviating that issue?

    The reason a lot of non-white people are skeptical of intentional communities has a lot to do with the fact that community is something white culture actively lacks and avoids in a variety of ways as we seek ever more ways to become anonymous cogs in a huge super State system.

    This legislation can be tried, and although I’ve only been working on it for 4 years, Cam has been working on this since at least 2008 or so, and it is seen as a big success by people who are underprivileged, due to the way our system forces people to justify their existence with income towards an arguably unsustainable way of life.

    The bit in there about asking for IDs and so forth was actually put in place not because the intentional communities wanted it (far from it) but because they felt extremely pressured by neighborhoods concerned about underprivileged people “exploiting” the legislation.

    More discussion must be had. More legislation can be taken away or put in place as we continue to refine our flawed system. Great fluctuations and cultural shifts and attitude adjustments may be necessary and forthcoming far beyond what this thing will change. One thing is for sure, we live in a progressive city that would even consider this kind of change (perhaps not in an ideal way, but it is done after a lot of discussions and fears were aired.)

    However, please do not attack what a decidedly anti-racist group has barely accomplished for not being *enough* of a radical change for you. Please, come to visit an intentional community. I am sure you are welcome. And you will probably be hosted to a lovely home cooked meal that invites you to be a part of a very large discussion constantly evolving and taking shape as the world changes. Who knows, you may even meet a person (white, brown, black, or any other) there whose company you never expected to enjoy because you thought they must be racist for trying to discover the meaning of community in a city divided against itself so strongly.

  11. Max December 10, 2016 at 1:40 pm #

    Sorry for double post, I wanted to add the bit about Minneapolis being pretty progressive despite a long way to go.

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