Residents, Developers , and Church Members Clash over Affordable Housing


Some angry Tangletown residents oppose a proposed affordable housing development, which would provide rental housing to working families.

“We need every one of us to be involved with affordable housing” said Minneapolis mayor R.T. Ryback during his 2002 election campaign. “We all need to be part of the solution.”

Five years and one re-election later, the mayor found himself surrounded by a group of angry neighbors at the June 21st meeting of the Tangletown Neighborhood Association. One after another they voiced their opposition to a proposed affordable housing development in their neighborhood. With voices that bordered on rage residents listed a host of reasons they were against the project. It would bring more traffic to the neighborhood. The scale of the development was out of place for the neighborhood. Crime would take over. Bottoming property values would follow. Few crowd members spoke favorably of the project Rybak had come to promote.

“We’re not at all opposed to affordable housing,” said one resident as the council took individual comments. “It’s just the scale of it and the traffic it will bring in that concern us.”

Vita Segal, a former organizer with Jewish Community Action, has been working with affordable housing in Minneapolis since 2001. She has also been following the developments in Tangletown closely.

“The rhetoric is almost word for word what we’ve heard before,” she says. “Traffic is a euphemism. Basically what happens is that in the public meeting you hear that kind of language. In private conversations you hear something different. One woman we talked to said she had worked with ‘those people’ living on Lake Street and didn’t want them living in her neighborhood.”

Outside the spotlight of public meetings, some local business owners also have been more candid about the prospect of having new neighbors, with one saying he is “concerned about riff-raff.”

The conflict began in April when neighbors received a notice from the Plymouth Church Neighborhood Foundation, a non-profit housing developer, about Creekside Commons, a 40-unit workforce housing apartment building planned for 54th Street and Stevens Avenue. The site is currently owned by the adjoining Mayflower church, which manages a small house for a refugee family on the mostly vacant lot. When the cost of maintaining the housing became too much for the church, it donated the lot to Plymouth, which has been developing affordable housing in Minneapolis since 2000.

Soon after the announcement, but before the final scale of the project was released, a note reading “stop the low-income housing project” began circulating. The anonymous flyer urged residents to come to the April meeting of the Tangletown Neighborhood Association and speak out against the development.

“At the first meeting, it was just a handful of opponents, maybe six or seven people,” says Plymouth Neighborhood Foundation Executive Director Lee Blons. “Then in May the neighborhood association asked us to flyer the neighborhood, which we did, to tell them about the next meeting. At that meeting there were maybe 130 to 150 people, and the majority of the comments were for the project.”

But by the third meeting in June neighbors had organized themselves with the help of recently-arrived Tangletown homeowners Leah Kaiser and her husband Harry. The Kaisers helped found an online group for those opposed to the project and began circulating a petition amongst their neighbors.

“This is a quiet residential neighborhood,” says Leah. “Why can’t they build it somewhere it’s already zoned for?”

Tangletown is a shaded community nestled amidst the weeping willows and gentle hills that border Diamond Lake in southwest Minneapolis. It sits in the notch made by I-35 and Minnehaha Parkway on one end and Lyndale Avenue on the other.

ED. NOTE AND CORRECTION: Two callers have alerted us to inaccurate figures on home values. The original article quoted outdated home values in asserting that the homes in this area have a greater average value than the Minneapolis average. Updated figures still show that southwest average home values are far greater than the Minneapolis average. The Minneapolis Area Association of Realtors shows an average Minneapolis home price in 2006 of $287,000, with homes in southwest Minneapolis averaging $351,592.

While ivy-covered brick homes and wide manicured lawns dominate the landscape, the neighborhood is not entirely single family housing as some opponents of the project claim. The block where the project is planned has only one remaining single-family home—the property managed by the church. Flanking it on both sides are four apartment complexes that hold a total of 29 units.

“Why can’t they live here?” questioned one woman at the neighborhood association meeting. “We already have apartments in the area.”

“These buildings aren’t considered affordable as workforce housing,” counters Blons.

A 2001 study on workforce housing commissioned for the Minnesota Family Housing Fund estimates that the Twin Cities loses $137 million annually because potential workers can’t find affordable housing within the city limits. Workforce housing targets those earning working class wages- $15,000 to $50,000 annually—rather than renters earning extremely low wages or subsisting solely on government aid. This includes a wide range of professions that make up the majority of Twin Cities workers—light manufacturing, police officers, bus drivers, and retail workers, to list several examples. It implies a monthly rent of $375-1250 for a one-bedroom apartment, but housing advocates say the numbers can sometimes be misleading, both in terms of what is considered affordable to the average worker and the amount of workforce housing needed in the city.

“One thing to keep in mind is that the city bases its affordable housing goals on what it has the funding for, not what’s needed,” says Adelle Dellatore of the Metropolitan Interfaith Coalition on Affordable Housing. She adds that the standard used to determine the affordability of new housing, the Metropolitan Median Income (MMI) isn’t accurate because it’s taken from the seven-county Twin Cities metropolitan area, and that the MMI for Minneapolis residents is actually half this amount.

Beyond questions of cost is the issue of the actual availability of rental property.

“’I can tell you that we’re almost always full,” says a spokesperson for Diamond Lake Properties, the owner of the four rental properties surrounding the proposed site.

The scarcity of available rental property in Tangletown is symptomatic of a regional problem. The Twin Cities currently have one of the nation’s tightest housing markets, with an estimated 2.7% vacancy rate for rental properties. Rental options in Tangletown are even slimmer. According to census data, the neighborhood’s rental vacancy rate stayed between 1.2 % and 1.3% from 1980 to 2000. The 2000 data shows only two units available for rent in the neighborhood. Housing experts say a 5% rate is the minimum vacancy needed to maintain a stable rental market in any community.

Housing opponents argue that the city should concentrate on expanding the availability of federal Section 8 housing vouchers for low-income renters, rather than subsidizing new housing construction. But there’s currently a five-year waiting list for those who qualify for housing vouchers in Minneapolis. Furthermore, many of apartments located in Tangletown have rents too high to qualify for the Section 8 program. This leaves affordable housing developments clustered in densely populated, low-income neighborhoods such as Phillips in south Minneapolis and the north side’s Jordan neighborhood.

“I can’t always go to the North side and tell them they have to allow more of these developments,” Rybak said to critics at the neighborhood meeting. “Other neighborhoods are going to have to start sharing the responsibility.”

Whether or not Tangletowners will come to accept the mayor’s view has yet to be determined. To date, the future of the project remains uncertain. For Plymouth to continue, it needs a zoning variance from the city planning commission, which neighbors vow to fight. The planning commission, however, has committed itself to increasing density along transportation corridors, and with the I-35 bus rapid transit corridor in the works, the project location seems to square with city planning goals.

“Over the years there’s always been opposition coming up, but for the most part these plans got built,” says Segal, reflecting on her years of working with housing. “Sometimes they were scaled down and we were really disappointed at how they got scaled down, but sometimes not. When you look back over and think that there was all this opposition, people going crazy over this project and years later how many people remember? I’m optimistic that this will be built, and in a short time I think people will be wondering what all the fuss was about.”