This year, the City of Minneapolis is addressing the future of neighborhood organizations. The city’s Neighborhood and Community Relations Department (NCR) released a set of recommendations that will change the way neighborhood organizations operate moving forward.
Why the change? A couple of reasons. Minneapolis has been funding neighborhood organizations since 1991, and the source of money (tax increment financing a.k.a. “TIF districts”) is set to expire soon.
The timing of this change comes as neighborhood organizations face criticism for not representing the city’s changing demographics. A 2016 NCR report indicates neighborhood board members tend to be much whiter, far more likely to own a home, and are older than the rest of the city.
How Did We Get Here?
NCR was created in 2010 to oversee the city’s community engagement efforts. 20 years earlier, the Neighborhood Revitalization Program (NRP) provided a stable revenue stream for neighborhood organizations. The 20 years without substantive oversight has led to 70 neighborhood organizations with 70 sets of bylaws, 70 different visions of community engagement, and thousands of decisions that have impacted neighborhoods without metrics for success.
Lack of consistency and transparency among neighborhood organizations have led to poor outcomes. Where can I find the agenda for my upcoming neighborhood organization meeting? Where can I review the minutes from previous meetings? Most neighborhood orgs don’t even bother with this basic modern expectation, including my own. If the city is funding these organizations, residents should know what, if anything, these groups are doing, and how to access them.
Lack of representation and transparency directly leads to negative outcomes. Earlier this month at the Lowry Hill Neighborhood Association, residents voted 27-2 to divert $225,000 from their affordable housing funds and spend it on a fountain. (As of this writing, LHNA does not post agendas or meeting minutes, so the only way we know about this is in-person citizen reporting from the meeting.) In 2015, the Whittier Alliance changed their bylaws to make it more difficult for renters to run for the board. And in 2016, Clare Housing in NE Minneapolis, an HIV-supportive housing project, received conditional support from their neighborhood org only if they agreed not to use the alley, not build balconies, and preserve a cottonwood tree (see last page), among other things. Personally, if I lived in Marshall Terrace and knew my new neighbors in supportive housing were denied balconies because of my neighborhood organization, I’d be a little upset.
I should mention this neighborhood org staffer hasn't updated their website in years. That's how much they care about delivering timely information to residents. pic.twitter.com/xn15nCbHqi
— Wedge LIVE!™ (@WedgeLIVE) September 25, 2018
NCR’s Recommendations seek to address some of the longstanding problems with neighborhood organizations. One problem is low turnout for annual meetings where boards are elected. Can we say a neighborhood org truly represents residents if less than two percent of eligible voters turn out to vote? Definitely not, which is why the proposed single Neighborhood Election Day should boost turnout and legitimacy.
(Free idea: how about a small funding bonus to the neighborhood that improves its annual meeting turnout by a certain percentage?)
Wedge Live has written extensively on other recommendations including doing outreach such as doorknocking. Establishing term limits for board members should help bring fresh voices in and reduce the cliquish “boys club” mentality that affects many organizations (not just neighborhood ones). By making some neighborhood funding contingent on reaching these goals is one way the city can push these groups to be more inclusive.
A Focused Agenda
In addition to the recommendations made by NCR, we shouldn’t forget what the intent of these neighborhood orgs should be: to make our neighborhoods even better. I’ve lived in six different neighborhoods in the city and have attended meetings in four of them. In my experience, a large amount of time at meetings is spent discussing new housing, and this tends to attract those who have Very Strong Opinions about it—often that it shouldn’t be built. Housing discussions are often angry and unfocused, and are a major turn-off for those who currently live in multi-family housing. Can we expect those who have no interest in opposing housing to spend their evenings engaging in those discussions? (If so, the very least we could do is to provide food and childcare.)
There are many other things that neighborhood orgs could focus on. This winter has been been tough on pedestrians, with plenty of ice on the sidewalks and snow buildup from plows pushed onto street corners. Neighborhood orgs could help lead volunteer efforts to shovel out bus stops and sidewalks, and connect residents who are unable to shovel with neighbors who can help.
Neighborhood orgs could also take a larger role in increasing voter turnout in city, state, and federal elections. They could help organize residents who are living in unsafe buildings run by slumlords. They could steer residents toward city and county resources for those facing homelessness or other hardships.
There are already neighborhood orgs that are doing good things. The Bottineau Neighborhood Association does air pollution monitoring due to proximity to Northern Metals and the GAF plant. The Powderhorn Park Neighborhood Association helps put on community events like Porchfest and the Powderhorn Art Fair.
If we want neighborhood organizations to serve all of us, we need to create an atmosphere where positive ideas are encouraged. Agendas drive participation! It’s time to demand more of our neighborhood organizations, so they’re communicating that they exist, when the meetings are, and that they’ve got an agenda beyond stopping apartment buildings from being built.
If you have comments or ideas on Neighborhoods 2020, make your voice heard! Submit a comment to firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.
Thanks for this thoughtful piece. I think there’s a lot to like in latest version of Neighborhoods 2020, particularly with the election reform, calling for a citywide election day and opportunities to vote absentee.
Neighborhood organizations operate in a funny kind of place. Most are almost fully taxpayer funded, but they aren’t doing particularly well at representing all the voices in their neighborhoods. That became painfully apparent to me when my neighborhood board instituted absentee balloting for the annual election (yay!) but then didn’t have the communication reach to get the word out to the wider community. As a result, we increased participation among the homeowners in the historic district. And then the newly elected board leadership refused to allow absentee voting for a special election after a resignation.
I don’t see much incentive in keeping the status quo of how these tiny nonprofits are funded if the city isn’t getting what it hopes to out of the money we all are spending: community-driven insight on local priorities, reflecting the voices representative of our residents. Board election reform, shared services, and accountability standards all move in that direction.
Honestly, I love my neighborhood organization. Last night at the Transportation & Safety Committee, we heard from the Park Board that our request to put in additional marked pedestrian crossings on Easter River Road was given a green light. We discussed some of the gaps in snow clearing and started thinking about how to fill those gaps. We have new leadership and volunteers on the Neighborhood Outreach committee that may shake things up a bit. But among some on the board, there’s still resistance to meaningfully engaging the college students who make up the vast majority of neighborhood residents. The City’s push to change in vital.
I think there are definitely good things that neighborhood orgs are capable of doing. But without meaningful oversight, they tend to attract residents that have very specific ideas about what the org should focus on. When the agendas focus on contentious topics (like housing), it turns off newcomers and perpetuates a negative environment. The city should be helping to break this cycle by steering neighborhoods towards better discussions, goals, and outcomes. Who wants to attend meetings just to hear the same people vent anyway?
Yes, you were able to meet with the park board, but was that worth the ballpark $60-100k a year the city is giving? We’re already paying our council members over $100k salary, and I’m sure their staffs are (or should be) decently paid. Couldn’t this have gone through them and have gotten about the same result? Couldn’t this have gone though your local park board representative?
In North we have at least 4 non profits that the city is funding to an extent. I’d be willing to bet the operating budget given to these is approaching a half million dollars, and that’s without including the cost of city employees overseeing the program. That could easily hire another employee through the council members office, who could run the outreach and help organize the loan and assistance programs as well as provide the balance as more money that could be given out to the community.
I just really question the cost of all of this and if it’s an effective way to manage outreach and assistance.
It seems like much of the toxic atmosphere on neighborhood boards comes from “running the business” items such as finances, communications, staff management, audits, etc. People don’t sign up for boards to do these things, they volunteer because they want to effect positive change in their neighborhoods. It would be great if the city did more of the lifting with business-as-usual so volunteers aren’t stuck running things they don’t care about as much like a finance committee. These changes will empower neighbors to do better work.
I guess our situation in Cedar Riverside must be atypical. Our two organizations went kaput, one in flames of outright mismanagement and/or theft, but the basic problem now is lack of interest by residents. Of course the city is determined to have a supposed advisor, no matter what, so we’ll end up with something light on homeowners and not diverse in terms of ethnic background or neighborhood geography. You might say it’s likely to be a “fake” neighborhood organization.
I was briefly on the board at our local organization. We still had just short of a million sitting around in unspent NRP2 money, that other board members talked gleefully about being conservative with – 8 years into a 10 year program. Then at best the meetings and more meetings were more or less a social club for those members than anything meaningful. At worst they were a city supported (to some extent) way to provide free coats and yoga to residents.
Not that free coats and yoga aren’t good ideas, but I’m not sure why the city needed to spend money supporting them when a group like Articulture (which does similar community outreach, through art) gets nothing. Which at least to me gets to the whole point of most of this pushback, that it’s a lot of money to do nothing or to support a handful of “directors” and some staff. Then other nonprofits in the city get nothing or need to work MUCH harder to get by, rather than just collecting a check for more or less holding meetings.
Or there was a neighborhood group that owned the house just south of me. Years ago under completely different leadership they were focused on housing, similar in a way to PRG or Urban Homeworks, and had over 100 homes with this state program. Fast forward to 4 years ago when I moved in, and they have 3 to 5 homes left with that program, a completely different board and director, and are now somehow city sponsored. Well, the homeowner who was living in that house decided to leave, and the house stood vacant for at least 2 years maybe more before I moved in. When I was there the non profit did little to mow the yard, shovel the snow, or even secure the building (it wasn’t boarded). After a year of this I decided to start to get something moving, and it took a full year working with my council member and state reps to get the house moved to PRG. The city non profit didn’t know what to do with it, I bet some members didn’t know they owned the house, and the city along with the state didn’t have sufficient oversight or defined consequences to take care of it.
The city by letting these non profits run loan and assistance programs also made it more confusing to residents than it needed to be. Cross the street into a new neighborhood and there are or were a different set of programs with a different funding level. That and the programs are each setup on whatever company manages them, so it’s a lot of confusion and work for something that could easily be ran off of ward boundaries and through a main city office.
Not that I agree completely politically with my council member Mr. Ellison or Member Cunningham, but I would feel better running whatever outreach and loan or assistance programs through their offices. They have a better setup for communicating outreach, or at least are used to doing it, they are also used to working with large budgets, and they are elected every 4 years.
Do that and the non profits can go off on their own, and fundraise or grant write like any other one needs to do. It would also relieve them on the city requirements for outreach and assistance programs, so they can really focus on what’s important to them.
Thanks for the insightful comment. You bring up some issues I didn’t really have a chance to touch on.
For one, it sounds like issue-based organizations, rather than those based on geography/neighborhood, will get some percentage of overall funding (25 percent is NCR’s recommendation). With proper oversight, this will be a welcome change. I hope the city and residents can make a case for which orgs are most deserving of this money and have oversight on how it will be spent.
In terms of overhead, I agree that n’hood orgs should not be running loan and assistance programs (or even single-handedly managing their own books). This is something the city can better manage at scale to ensure things are uniform across neighborhoods. From NCR’s recommendations, it sounds like things like this that can be consolidated across n’hood orgs will be. There is far too much duplication of effort and lack of consistency for these programs as it sits now.
Finally, it’s very much true that some of these groups get to become social clubs and those who don’t “fit in” with existing ways of doing things lose interest. If they want to do that, they need to understand it’s not the city’s job to fund them and they can find funding from other sources that won’t hold them accountable, as the city is proposing to do. After 20 years of funding with little oversight, I think some of these groups just expect to keep getting free money, but those days are over (I hope!).
Thanks again for the comment.
I do apologize since I should have read the plan before. For the record, city leaders do know my position and in all honesty my feedback may have helped shape the proposed changes.
I didn’t realize that NRP was the kickoff to this official program. If so, then honestly I think the whole works should be scrapped. It was a good idea, but with some groups doing a better job than others to get the money out, it was a failure. The same goes for them extending it with NRP2, some groups did well and some didn’t.
The problem is though that the groups that didn’t do well were in effect withholding potentially millions from the neighborhood, sometimes in the form of what could have been improvement loans and grants. Sadly, it seems that some of those groups who failed were in North where the money was needed most.
But either way, I just wonder at what the point of expanding this to special interest nonprofits would be. It’s almost being treated as a training group for local community politicians (ahem, “leaders”), which makes sense politically due to the way some council members were elected, or where their roots are. So why not throw tens of thousands at a group and have a political friend make a salary.
It also seems like a way to outsource the gathering of community feedback. Which I think is maybe part of the reason they have kept it so long. Why run the risk of a lawsuit citing poor outreach from the city, when they can say “hey, we sent it out to this neighborhood group and they approved it, here are their minutes” – even though maybe 3 people showed up to the committee meeting on that topic, and maybe that many attended the board meeting for the vote.
It also reminds me of that defunct state housing program that the house south of me was involved in. There was a 30 page PDF that outlined the program requirements, and believe me it went into what happens to a homeowner and if they couldn’t’ make payments, but then it stopped. There was really nothing about how the home should be resold and to whom, and there wasn’t anything at all about what happens to the nonprofit if it isn’t meeting program requirements. The city seemed to have been the same way. There wasn’t a clear exit clause as to what constituted a groups requirements other than the books had to be kept.
These lack of requirements was highlighted last fall with the Webber Camden Neighborhood Organization. From the way friends made it sound the board was in dysfunction for most of last year, nothing really was done by them for the better part of the year, they didn’t have (I believe) enough members for a period to hold board meetings, and the elections were extremely cantankerous. That said, they must have met minimums for bookkeeping since they still received city funding (some said around $100k) and their director still received around $50k from that for working there. Not that these amounts are a lot for the city, but they add up. Why spend that much a year on a handful of groups when it could be given out in the greater community as $5k home grants for insulation or whatnot. But still the point is that the city let this group get by with their dysfunction for the better part of a year before starting to get involved.
In any event it comes down to pet projects and money wasted. The right wing seems to have (although these lines get blurred, but classically in modern history) the defense industry and government contractors. The left wing seems to have all of these community groups and their respective government funding. No one really touches it because they each don’t want their boat rocked too much. These neighborhood groups fit into that. They are giving some kind of jobs to these directors without really doing all that much, and they are a way to outsource community participation so the council can wash their hands of poorly attended meetings and door knocking. It’s really our local form of government contracts, with about the same limited oversight.
Ok, back to work! =)
I wish I had read this CURA paper before writing this post, but it outlines some of the ways good things being done by neighborhood orgs stopped when NRP money started flowing in. The Whittier Alliance built low-income housing during the 1980’s, but a group of homeowners took it over after the NRP plan was announced in the early 90’s. With new money coming in and a new group of people controlling it, the Whittier Alliance agenda changed and they stopped building low-income housing.