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.
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