Are District Councils Really Just Homeowner’s Associations?

highland water tower 2

The Highland Park Water Tower

Recently my neighborhood had its yearly district council election here in Highland Park. I couldn’t help but notice as the newly elected grid representatives received the applause of their neighbors, who they were: five white home-owning men, three out of the five sporting white hair. Out of the seven seats in contention that night, only one seat was filled by a woman.

It is important that neighborhoods and distinct small regions within cities have a voice in their own governance. The existence of neighborhood organizations is important and a great way to address hyper local issues, but who do those five men we elected represent?

Certainly not the neighborhood they were ostensibly elected to represent. A neighborhood which is 48% renters. A neighborhood that’s half female. A neighborhood with a women’s college. A neighborhood with an East African community. A neighborhood with a Hasidic Jewish community. In respect to all those communities within our own, we failed.

A better designation for the group that night would have been the Highland Park Homeowner’s Association. That’s who was there. That’s who’s always there. Municipal community meetings can be a home away from home for older, wealthy homeowners, and it makes sense.  Every project and change in a neighborhood creates ripples that affect everyone living there including the wealthy.  Self governance is hugely important to people.

Why don’t the other communities show up? There are a few obvious problems. Meetings are held in the evening, disqualifying those who punch the clock at night. Then there are parents who either can’t find a sitter or would rather spend time with their kids. Our neighborhood election wasn’t even held in our neighborhood, so add anyone with mobility issues to the list.

I personally can speak to the renter’s part of the equation: we’re vilified at nearly every mention in community meetings. As some would have you believe, renters are a transient lot: litterers, noise makers, and rude to boot. It’s exhausting to hear a room breathlessly rake you across the coals because of how you pay for your home. (The temptation to justify their claims of rudeness begs satisfaction.) The incentive to not out yourself is hard to beat though. The last time I stood in favor of renters, an audible murmur of disapproval spread through the crowd, whose median age I had drastically lowered.

I won’t speak on behalf of the other groups, though the reasons not to show up aren’t much of a stretch of the imagination.  There isn’t a universe I can imagine where I’d enjoy listening to people, most of whom have a great many blessings, kvetch with such pointless determination.

Saint Paul District Councils and their counterpart neighborhood associations in Minneapolis have a strong voice at city hall, but in my opinion, it’s too strong. They carry the banner of entire neighborhoods, such that elected representatives appear with regular frequency to glad hand these groups.  Yet, with almost uniform predictability, they represent only the wealthiest and securest citizens in the district.  Most often, we find citizens who revel in the opportunity to say “no”, in order to protect nebulous ”character”, their personal sense of “aesthetic”, and their property values.

I’m not saying we should dismantle these organizations. Everyone’s voice is important. But so is perspective. Let’s rename them to “Homeowner’s Associations”, or reorganize them to put in place mandatory democratic structures, so that they reflect their community demographics.  A fine way to bring them back to reality would be to deny them official city recognition until they bend to accurately reflect the neighborhoods they bear in their name.

Tom Basgen

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