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.

About Peter Bajurny

Peter rents a single family home in the Corcoran neighborhood of Minneapolis, which he shares with his wife, two cats, and a transient boarder roommate. He is a board member of the Midtown Greenway Coalition, and tweets very thoughtfully as @FISHMANPET. Opinions expressed are his own.