In past elections, this blog has been used as a platform to endorse specific candidates. This year, or at the very least this early on in the campaign season, I’m trying a different approach. Because ranked-choice voting and a lack of an incumbent running for either mayor or the fifth ward, a large number of candidates are expected to stay in the running for those seats for much of the election. Instead of openly endorsing anyone here, I plan to lay out issues that are important to me and hopefully pertinent to north Minneapolis as well. In that way, more candidates will craft their strategies around these issues.
With that in mind, I have three main areas of importance that will decide who gets my first, second, and third ovals on a 2013 ballot. My first priority, housing and specifically the preservation of our housing stock, should come as no surprise to regular readers. I’ve heard other community leaders express their own top priority in a way that encompasses many other issues. Education is necessary to prepare our young people for jobs, close the employment gap, and build a strong local economy; addressing crime and safety will help attract homeowners, businesses, and jobs; clean air and a better environment will increase the health and safety of our community as a whole, especially women, children, and other vulnerable populations.
And so on. The issues we are most passionate about are often seen through a prism that connects them to a broader spectrum of communal goals. Housing preservation fills that role for me because housing preservation is a jobs incubator. You can create more jobs by restoring a house than by tearing it down. Rehab provides an opportunity to create more local jobs than new construction. And north Minneapolis represents in many ways a potential new frontier in those jobs. Just like when the city loosened some of its regulations around the production and sale of beer, and Northeast became the place to go for locally-made, craft beer, North has a similar opportunity. We have a wide variety of existing housing stock; we have plenty of vacant land. What do you want to do around housing? Come to north Minneapolis. We’ve got the inventory. With just a few changes in how city government approaches housing, we could create a buzz about our community just like other parts of the city have.
Housing preservation is an environmental issue. For every demolition, there are literally tons of debris that wind up in a landfill. The original structure had “embodied energy,” that is, the energy expended to originally build that house, and the energy spent on its demolition and new construction. I love (or at least loved) the Green Homes North ideals, but when you tear down a house to build a new one, I highly doubt that the net environmental impact over the life of the new house is a positive one.
Housing preservation is a budget issue. The city spends as much as $30,000 to acquire properties for demolition, and it costs another $10-20,000 to tear them down. Unless there is an immediate use for the parcel of land post-house removal, it’s likely that the lot will remain vacant and off of tax rolls for at least a few years and possibly fifteen or twenty. Even with a minimal tax bill of $1,000 per year, that’s still $5-10,000 in lost revenue. New construction is often subsidized by as much as $75-100,000 per structure, although that particular line item is not necessarily city funds. The new construction subsidy, however, is not Monopoly money either. Those resources from other levels of government or other non-profits could be directed elsewhere if unwarranted demolitions are averted.
So conservatively each demolition/new construction cycle costs the city $50,000 or as much as $200,000. If a new house suddenly generates $3,000 per year in tax revenue (a princely sum in much of North), it could still take over sixty-five years before taxpayers realized a net gain. Conversely, a house acquired for $30,000 and sold for $1 to a developer for rehab would have a much smaller expense and become a net revenue generator that much more rapidly.
I’ve called for a moratorium on demolitions until a better process is worked out, but even this kind of a cost/benefit analysis on every city acquisition would be a huge step in the right direction. Every single candidate I’ve spoken to on this issue has had their own grand plans for what kind of program or initiative they would implement if elected. But what I really want, and what’s hard for me to articulate and politicians to grasp, is for more people to do nothing. The thing is, it can be incredibly difficult to envision how an initiative centered around “nothing” could be successful.
I mean, can you imagine if they made a TV show about nothing? Who would watch that?
By doing “nothing,” what I really mean is that the city of Minneapolis needs get better at allowing the private market to function well in response to boarded and vacant housing. I do think there are ways that this can happen through broader initiatives, but it just seems like even the good plans can result in unwarranted demolitions. So I’m looking for candidates who can lay out a vision for how the city can either get out of the way of the private market, or better yet, how to help along good private developers while keeping the slumlords at bay.
The second priority is business and economic development, especially along our key corridors like Broadway, Lowry, and Glenwood. I’m especially concerned about Broadway, and looking for ways to attract businesses to the former future site of the YWCA, the buildings on Broadway and Dupont (which have gorgeous exteriors and should not, for the record, be demolished), the former future site of more MPS parking, and the Penn and Broadway intersection. I feel the need to emphasize the word business. I don’t want to hear any proposal for the Workforce Center, DEED, The Hub, or any other non-profit/social service project on Broadway unless the first floor facing the street is reserved for commercial or retail space.
The Broadway and Lowry corridors present the opposite challenge of what to do with nothing. There is such an abundance of vacant land along those corridors that people can be inclined to support whatever proposal comes along simply on the grounds that it’s better than what’s there now. With too much vacant space, the corridors seem to lack an identity, making it that much harder to attract investment. And time after time we’re told that the “real” investment will come if only we let this government entity or that non-profit locate on our commercial corridors. But when the Five Points building is occupied by NAZ and the MPS building wants more parking than a Wal-Mart superstore, it’s time to reject that notion.
I don’t have as ready of a solution as I do around housing issues, but I’m looking for council and mayoral candidates that do.
My final litmus test is in regards to the Vikings’ stadium. And yes, it still matters. Why, you ask?
Ok, not really. But please allow an ardent opponent to publicly-funded stadiums and a strong supporter of following the city charter to poke fun at himself. The stadium matters for two reasons. First, our exiting council member voted for it on the grounds that its construction would provide jobs for north Minneapolis. As the place gets built, we need elected officials and other public servants like the Department of Civil Rights to hold stadium partners to that promise.
From a city budget standpoint however, the economic projections for electronic pulltabs keep coming back lower and lower. Not only that, it seems–and here’s a shocker–that the revenue projections for an entirely untested type of gambling were not objective but instead driven by parties who would gain from such a system. Initially I had predicted that the city would face serious budget shortfalls as a result of the stadium package as early as 2020 or 2025. If the revenues don’t pick up, and if the state doesn’t come through with some other type of funding, we can expect Mr. Wilf to come back to the city for even more money.
So a candidate’s views and track record on publicly-funded stadiums is still quite relevant. And who can be trusted to hold the line on Minneapolis’ contributions to this boondoggle? Stadium opponents have more credibility in that regard.
There are a number of other issues that I hope to see addressed as well, such as youth violence, air quality and how to reduce asthma rates especially among already vulnerable populations, and streetcars and a comprehensive northside transit system. With ranked-choice voting, candidates will hopefully be more civil to each other while they try to pick up voters’ second and third choices. Here’s hoping that results in a robust, yet clean, election season that focuses on the issues.