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Why Brooklyn Park, Minnesota, Is the New Face of Suburbia

After a period of rapid diversification, the town outside the Twin Cities faces rising poverty and housing challenges.

A performance at Brooklyn Park's first Community Diversity Day, held last summer. (City of Brooklyn Park)

This story is the first in a series on changing suburbs in the Twin Cities region of Minnesota. Read Part 2 and Part 3.

Brooklyn Park, which sits about 10 miles up the Mississippi River from downtown Minneapolis, used to be known for a few things—classically small-town, Midwestern things. The annual Tater Daze festival celebrates the humble tuber with a parade and carnival rides. Kids can pump well water and make apple cider at the Eidem Homestead, the living-history reincarnation of an old potato farm.

In the mid-20th century, fields gave way to subdivisions, and Brooklyn Park became a bedroom suburb of the Twin Cities. Now the arms of a championship golf course, Edinburgh USA, wrap around large detached houses.

But in recent years, Brooklyn Park has started to become known for things that its original homesteaders, and its first wave of suburban settlers, could not have imagined. Starting in the 1970s, first Hmong and then Liberian refugees were resettled in the Twin Cities area, and many found their way to Brooklyn Park. Meanwhile, African Americans were leaving Minneapolis and heading for the suburbs.

(Mark Byrnes / CityLab)

Demographic change came fast and has only accelerated. In 1990, Brooklyn Park was 10 percent non-white; by 2000, that number had risen to 30 percent. Twelve years later, the non-white share of the population tipped over 50 percent.

In 1997, students in Brooklyn Park’s public schools were 29 percent non-white; by 2014, that figure had climbed to 79 percent.

Brooklyn Park is now a majority-minority suburb of 78,000 people, with significant communities of Africans (from Kenya, Somalia, Liberia, and other countries), African Americans, Hmong, Vietnamese, and Latinos.

Diversity doesn’t proclaim itself from the vinyl-sided houses or the strip malls lining main roads. But look closely and some of the nondescript buildings are mosques. A charter school with a curriculum focused on Hmong culture opened last fall. MaMa Ti’s African Kitchen serves up jollof rice and curry goat in a shopping center.

“It’s a very different city than it was when I moved there in 1998,” says resident Joy Marsh Stephens, who is African American. “We were the only family of color on our block, with the exception of one other family. … Now, a solid half of the families on the block are people of color, who represent a lot of different racial and ethnic groups. ... I often tell people it’s the best block in the city.”

Growing diversity, rising poverty

Other changes have been less positive. The Great Recession and foreclosure crisis walloped Brooklyn Park: in 2008 alone, 983 homes went into foreclosure, prompting the area to seek federal funds for neighborhood stabilization. Meanwhile, the share of rental units in the suburb’s housing stock and the incidence of poverty rose; the median home value declined. The share of students receiving free or reduced-price lunches spiked, from 27 percent in 1997 to 65 percent in 2014.

Residents of Brooklyn Park and nearby communities attend an event for the visiting vice president of Liberia. (City of Brooklyn Park)

To Myron Orfield, a law professor at the University of Minnesota and a housing policy expert, the fact that Brooklyn Park got both less white and poorer is no coincidence. The city, he believes, is on the wrong end of a process of resegregation happening around the region.

As some suburbs, like Edina, remain wealthy and overwhelmingly white, Brooklyn Park is heading in the opposite direction. Orfield and other fair-housing advocates say this is due to regional policies that put the onus of affordable housing onto places that already have it, yet spare the places that don’t. (People of color in the region are more likely than whites to need affordable housing.)

The Twin Cities area is unusual for its degree of regional policymaking. A body called the Metropolitan Council sets affordable-housing targets for municipalities around (and including) Minneapolis and St. Paul. It tells each place how many units it should plan for to meet local and regional needs. It can withhold grant money from jurisdictions that don’t heed that target.

For the period 2011 to 2020, the Met Council put Brooklyn Park’s target at 1,469 new affordable units. The target for only slightly less populated Edina: 212.

In late 2014, Brooklyn Park joined an affordable-housing nonprofit and two other diverse suburbs, Brooklyn Center and Richfield, to file a complaint with HUD, which Orfield helped draft.

The complaint alleges that the state of Minnesota, the state’s Housing Finance Agency, and the Met Council have effectively discriminated against these jurisdictions, with policies that “have had the purpose and effect of limiting the development of affordable housing in high-opportunity, majority-white communities and steering such units to low-opportunity, high-poverty communities, furthering racial and ethnic segregation in the Twin Cities region of Minnesota.”

“Brooklyn Center, Brooklyn Park, and Richfield—they just went through enormous racial transitions,” Orfield says. “They were also getting the highest [affordable housing] goals.” Orfield believes at least half of the region’s affordable housing should be built in whiter, more affluent suburbs.

For its part, the Met Council says that household growth is the biggest factor in its allocation formula. “If a community is not expecting to see household growth, it’s not reasonable to expect they’ll be adding more affordable housing,” says Libby Starling, the council’s manager of regional policy and research. Brooklyn Park is forecast to grow in coming years.

Starling notes that the council’s formula prioritizes locating affordable housing near low-wage jobs, and that communities without transit (often affluent suburbs) no longer have their targets adjusted downward for that reason, as in the past.

Navigating change in today’s suburbia

The HUD complaint is not a grassroots issue in Brooklyn Park. On the ground, civic life plays out the way it normally does. Local officials unveil new policies and programs, and residents spar over quality-of-life concerns.

“We’re not perfect, but we take it very seriously,” says Mayor Jeffrey Lunde, a Republican, of the city government’s attempts to play catch-up with demographics. I met Lunde, a stocky native Minnesotan who used to work for Microsoft, in a conference room in Brooklyn Park’s barn-like City Hall.

Mayor Jeffrey Lunde (City of Brooklyn Park)

Despite governing a population that’s now majority-minority, the seven-member city council consists of seven white men. (Joy Marsh Stephens ran in the last mayoral race and came in second.) Only 17 percent of city employees, including police officers, are non-white. That figure stood at 4 percent a few years ago.

“It needs to double again, and it just takes time,” Lunde says. We’re trying to very purposefully have our City Hall look like our community.”

Lunde reels off a list of recent city innovations. He’s especially proud of those intended to help young people. A shelter for homeless youth opened last year, the first in a Twin Cities suburb. The city has also significantly expanded after-school programs, and Lunde points to a 39-percent drop in juvenile crime from 2009 to 2013 following a violence-prevention initiative.

In 2005, Brooklyn Park worked with neighboring Brooklyn Center and Hennepin County to form a joint police-community partnership. It embeds community liaisons in the police department, educates officers on different cultures, and introduces immigrants to law-enforcement procedures in the U.S.

The new shelter, run by the group Avenues for Homeless Youth. (City of Brooklyn Park)

Brooklyn Park also launched a community engagement initiative, which now includes about 30 residents from different backgrounds. In 2013, a staffer’s budget request for the program sparked a vigorous debate at a city council meeting, with some members bristling at language about poverty, equity, and social justice.

“I don’t like the idea of us being a welfare city,” one council member complained, while the city manager defended the program as “the most strategic thing we’re doing overall.”

When typical suburban tensions flare up, sometimes there’s a new subtext. Take the long-running controversy over noise in a city park.

Neighbors complained about loud music in Oak Grove, the only city park that allows amplified sound. The city tried limiting the hours when speakers and microphones could be used, but complaints continued. It then banned amplified music altogether—raising an outcry from the African community. (Late last year, the city reached a compromise: it overturned the ban, but permit-seekers must use the city’s own speakers and microphones.)

Likewise, the city’s rec center has rooms that can be rented out, but occupancy limits and the fact that you can’t bring in outside food put some people off, says Nelima Sitati-Munene, a Brooklyn Park resident and community activist who was born in Kenya.

“African people, when we have parties, you invite one person, [and] they’re bringing three other people,” she says. “That’s just the way we are. And we have large families.” Sitati-Munene criticizes the city’s attempts to engage immigrant communities as insufficient and surface-deep. “They’ll tell you, ‘We’ve taken trips to Liberia.’ Well, good, but how are the Liberians in your community?”

Underscoring its cultural differences, Brooklyn Park has a physical dividing line. North of 85th Avenue, it’s solidly middle-class and witnessing new development. South of the line, there’s more racial and ethnic diversity and higher levels of poverty and crime. Older apartment complexes form a private stock of “naturally occurring” affordable housing. City leaders would like to attract higher-end housing developments in the future.

“We support affordable housing,” Lunde says. “What we don’t support is the concentration of poverty in certain suburbs. When you have the poverty concentration, the schools tend to be free or reduced lunch, and then parents tend to make decisions: ‘I want to move to a good school district’ … and they move.”

Not the “next Ferguson”

Low-performing schools weakening the tax base, and vice versa, could become a worrisome downward cycle, and the lack of diversity on the city council is glaring. But Brooklyn Park, Minnesota, isn’t Ferguson, Missouri. For one thing, it benefits from the region’s unique Fiscal Disparities program, which spreads commercial tax revenue around so jurisdictions don’t compete fiercely for each new investment. Brooklyn Park gets about 12 percent of its annual revenues from tax sharing.

Also, the tax base, while smaller than Edina’s or Bloomington’s, is not anemic. Target just built a new corporate campus off Highway 610 (with a hefty subsidy that some residents have criticized), and other businesses are following its lead. A light-rail extension will bring the Metro Blue Line in 2021, creating a closer link to Minneapolis and opportunities for transit-oriented development.

Brooklyn Park offers an early look at the future of suburbia as it diversifies, resegregates, and faces “urban” challenges as never before. Thanks to a Supreme Court decision last year bolstering the Fair Housing Act, civil-rights groups will be taking a closer look at suburbs around the country.

Already, according to research by Orfield and his colleague Thomas Luce, a majority of suburbanites in the nation’s 50 largest metropolitan areas live in communities that are either racially diverse (i.e., 20-to-60 percent non-white) or predominantly non-white.

Stably integrated, diverse suburbs “are places where whites and non-whites can grow up, study, work, and govern together effectively,” Orfield and Luce write. “Integrated communities have the greatest success in eliminating racial disparities in education and economic opportunity.”

Where suburbs have become overwhelmingly non-white—often through real-estate steering, redlining, and other discriminatory practices—Orfield sees long-term decline from shrinking tax bases and slumping income levels. This is the brink he hopes Brooklyn Park and places like it won’t cross over.

What will happen as a result of the HUD complaint isn’t clear. The agency is still reviewing it. In the meantime, the Met Council has set affordable-housing targets for the 2020s using a new formula, allocating only 583 units to Brooklyn Park.

Clearly, though, a lot of America is looking more like Brooklyn Park. How suburbs will manage the profound changes they face is a pressing national question.

Next: Myron Orfield talks about suburban resegregation and affordable housing.

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