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Minneapolis Public Housing Authority Is Building New Multifamily Housing. Is this a good thing?

By LINDSEY FENNER

When I received the community meeting notice about a new three-story apartment building directly behind my house, my first concern was for my garden, and how much sunlight it might lose. When I realized this was a redevelopment project by the Minneapolis Public Housing Authority, I knew I needed to dig a little deeper. What would happen to my neighbors living in the existing public housing duplex? How is this project funded? In the very back corner of my mind, I remembered something from a few years ago: concerns about the privatization of public housing. Did that have anything to do with this project?

The redevelopment on my block is part of a larger, city-wide project by the Minneapolis Public Housing Authority. MPHA is best known for the large apartment towers they run. Less well-known are over 700 MPHA single family homes, duplexes, and fourplexes scattered throughout Minneapolis.

MPHA is redeveloping 16 of these “scattered sites,” including the one behind me in East Phillips, and several in Midtown Phillips. These existing homes will be demolished and turned into 3-story, 6-unit buildings of 2 and 3 bedrooms, totaling 84 new units citywide. According to MPHA, the current residents, who tend to be working class black and brown immigrant families, will have temporary housing during construction, will have housing in the new buildings, and will not see any increase in rent.

MPHA secured $4.6 million from the American Rescue Plan, approved by the Minneapolis City Council in July 2021, to fund the bulk of the planned redevelopments.

The proposed buildings were designed by DJR Architects and use a new modular system developed by Rise Modular, based in Owatonna, MN. This modular system is touted to be of higher-quality, more environmentally friendly, and cheaper and faster to produce – which means a briefer period of displacement for current residents.

At community meetings, neighbors raise questions about size, design, and parking, all valid concerns. But are these projects even good for public housing policy? And more importantly, are they good for the people who rely on public housing?

Public housing is a locally managed, federally funded program which began in 1937, to create both housing and construction jobs during the Great Depression. Public housing is designed to be affordable – rent is set at 30% of the renter’s income – and therefore highly subsidized, primarily by the federal government through the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Public housing is highly sought after, especially with the shortage of affordable housing in Minneapolis. MPHA’s drafted 2022 plan shows that over 17,000 households are on public housing waiting lists in Minneapolis.

Despite high demand, public housing has been controversial since the beginning. In the ’70s and ’80s, a push for privatization led to the establishment of the Section 8 voucher system. Rather than providing publicly-owned housing, the vouchers enable low-income people to rent from private landlords. Significantly, with the Section 8 voucher system, private landlords end up getting a higher subsidy from HUD per unit than public housing authorities do for publicly-owned housing.

Public housing has not been adequately funded by Congress for decades. In 2022, MPHA expects to receive $2.1 million less than HUD’s own funding formula says it needs for operational costs. And this doesn’t include capital improvement needs: MPHA has an estimated need of $150 million for significant repairs and deferred maintenance on current housing.

This means that public housing tenants are living in aging buildings that are becoming increasingly dilapidated and unsafe. A State of Minnesota investigation shows the deaths of five people in a 2019 fire could have been prevented if the Cedar-Riverside public housing highrise had a modern sprinkler system installed. A recent class-action lawsuit, filed on behalf of public housing residents against the City of Minneapolis and MPHA, alleges dangerous and unsanitary living conditions, due to lack of maintenance.

MPHA knew something needed to be done to bring in more money. And this is where things get even more complicated.

MPHA realized they could access more money from HUD if they used something called “Section 18 Demolition and Disposition.” Remember how private landlords get more money from HUD than public housing authorities do? And remember our over 700 “scattered sites?” Through some bureaucratic sleight-of-hand, MPHA decided to sell these homes to itself for $1. Or rather, not quite to itself. To a non-profit called Community Housing Resources. Which is run by MPHA.

The strategy, first brought forward in 2018, was concerning to public housing advocates, like the Defend Glendale and Public Housing Coalition (DGPHC), and the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party 63rd Senate District Central Committee, who saw it as a huge step towards the privatization of public housing in Minneapolis.

To address these concerns, the City of Minneapolis and MPHA signed a Memorandum of Understanding in 2019, in which MPHA committed to maintaining public ownership of the scattered site properties and giving residents certain rights and protections.

Even after final HUD approval in 2020 and unanimous City Council support of this plan, critics like DGPHC continue to question if these over 700 housing units will continue to remain public and truly affordable.

Which brings us back to the 16 redevelopment projects. For the short-term, these buildings seem reasonable and pragmatic. MPHA figured out a way to get more HUD funding, take advantage of significant one-time federal COVID relief dollars, and create a few more units of badly needed family housing.

But for the long-term, I don’t know. The labyrinthine course of this public housing redevelopment shows how truly broken public housing policy is. Will these new buildings end up sliding into more gentrifying private housing? Is the modular construction truly innovative, or will it just create more cheap and shoddy eyesores like so much of the multiunit housing being built today? And how is anyone making sure that people who live in public housing, who often don’t speak English as a first language, have both agency in and understanding of these changes?

At a November 15 City Planning Commission public hearing on eight of the 16 project sites, public comment was mixed, with neighbors both for and against the plan. But everyone agreed that we need more affordable housing. What is the best way for Minneapolis to get there?

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