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When Integrating the Suburbs Isn't Enough

In Minnesota’s Twin Cities region, fair housing advocates are engaged in a fierce debate over just how much race matters.

Darko Zeljkovic / Shutterstock.com

This story is the third in a series on changing suburbs in the Twin Cities region of Minnesota. Read Part 1 and Part 2.

Given his oft-repeated opinion that housing and schooling patterns in many parts of the U.S. reflect racial discrimination, and his urging that wealthy, predominantly white suburbs should house more poor people and people of color, it’s not surprising that the Twin Cities-based academic Myron Orfield has fierce critics.

What’s surprising is who they are.

They’re not just small-government types who resent interference in their neighborhoods (although as the comments on CityLab’s Q&A with Orfield show, those folks are not big fans). Instead they include local activists for progressive causes and academics, at least a couple of whom teach, as Orfield does, at the University of Minnesota.

If you watched HBO’s Show Me a Hero, Orfield’s basic argument on affordable housing will sound familiar. For decades, low-income housing has been built mostly in poor, minority neighborhoods. Evidence shows that living amid concentrated poverty is detrimental, especially for children. So, the thinking goes, we should make it easier for lower-income people of color to move to richer, whiter neighborhoods, which for a long time have kept them out through zoning, school districting, redlining, and other means.

At first glance, it might not seem there’s much to object to here. (What could be bad about smashing exclusionary zoning?) Critics say they don’t disagree that housing options are important, but that the focus on integration is too narrow, even wrongheaded.

Nelima Sitati-Munene, a community activist and longtime resident of suburban Brooklyn Park, Minnesota, north of Minneapolis, offers numerous objections. First, she takes issue with the premise that the main problem with affordable housing in the Twin Cities region is how to divvy it up among jurisdictions. That is the concern underlying a complaint filed with HUD by Brooklyn Park and nearby Brooklyn Center and Richfield against the state, alleging that they are being allocated too much affordable housing compared to other places in the region.

The problem is not whether to put the housing here or there, Sitati-Munene argues. The problem is there’s nowhere near enough of it. “Where is all this affordable housing? I’m not seeing it,” she says.

Through her outreach work leading the nonprofit ACER (African Career, Education & Resource), she says she’s heard from thousands of people around the region, and “the number-one thing people want is affordable housing.”

The Twin Cities area has a very low rental vacancy rate, which is pushing rents higher. A majority of Brooklyn Park renters are cost-burdened, according to the region’s planning agency, the Metropolitan Council. Fifty-seven percent spend more than 35 percent of their income on housing.

Moving people, or moving resources?

Sitati-Munene and others believe focusing too much on integration is a damaging distraction from the real root of poor neighborhoods’ problems. Neeraj Mehta, the director of community-based research at the Center for Urban and Regional Affairs at the University of Minnesota, similarly scoffs at the idea that you can shake up racial demographics and longstanding inequities will then vanish.

“We don’t have a moving-people problem. We have a moving-resources problem,” says Mehta. “We don’t have a problem with too many people of color living together. We have a problem thinking about how we make equitable investments to strengthen where they live right now.”

Neeraj Mehta of the University of Minnesota. (Neeraj Mehta)

Mehta distrusts policy guidelines that are based on what percentage of non-white people a white community will tolerate—30 percent? 40?—thereby prioritizing white people’s comfort. And Sitati-Munene points out that, given demographic trends, the “right” ratios will be obsolete soon anyway. What’s the definition of “stable integration” in a country that’s majority non-white, as the U.S. will be by 2042?

To Owen Duckworth, a coalition organizer with the Alliance for Metropolitan Stability, a network of social-justice groups, calls to break up concentrated poverty assume that such neighborhoods—usually neighborhoods of color—are inherently bad places to live.

“This narrative around concentrated poverty is … so deficit-based, really dehumanizing about people in communities of color,” Duckworth says. “We’re starting with the assumption that the concentration of people of color is a problem.” He urges “asset-based development, rather than deficit-based thinking.” Duckworth, Mehta and Sitati-Munene alike believe residents of these communities should be consulted about policies that affect them before outsiders are.

Affordable-housing developers have disputed that they’re locking people into poverty by building too much in already disadvantaged neighborhoods.

“There isn’t an overarching, sinister plan to resegregate or create segregation,” says Andriana Abariotes, the executive director of Twin Cities LISC, an organization that funds and supports community developers. Abariotes acknowledges that the rental market being so tight has sharpened disagreements about the best strategy to use. But she emphasizes that there are a host of complex variables that go into both community revitalization and a developer’s decision where to site a project.

“It’s a very challenging way of trying to figure out how to use very scarce resources for the greatest amount of good,” she says. “It would be good to have quality affordable housing in places of high opportunity, and also in places where people are currently living, maybe in substandard housing.”

Reinvestment vs. mobility

Broadly speaking, the community organizers, developers, and housing advocates on the one hand, and Orfield, inner-suburban mayors in the Twin Cities region, and integration advocates on the other, represent two distinct philosophies about low-income housing: the reinvestment approach (to invest in and rebuild communities that have long been deprived of resources), and the mobility approach (to spread the housing around).

This split in perspective is not confined to Minnesota, but tensions there between the two camps are running high. Last fall, Minnesota Congressman Keith Ellison convened a town-hall meeting with HUD Secretary Julián Castro in an attempt to foster a more productive dialogue on housing. Hundreds of residents showed up.   

To an outsider (at least this one), the antagonism is jarring. It’s not every day you see affordable-housing advocates starkly divided, or a fair housing nonprofit and the local NAACP chapter taking opposite sides. Everyone involved presumably shares the same goal: overcoming the legacy of housing discrimination to improve the lives of low-income people. They just can’t agree on how to get there. (“I always say we’re in 85-percent heated agreement,” Aboriates notes.)

In his remarks at the meeting, Castro seemed to suggest a both/and approach. “We’re trying to make a great difference in older, distressed areas for the benefit of folks … who call those places home,” he said. “At the same time, we know that mobility is important.” Margery Austin Turner and Solomon Greene of the Urban Institute have written that pursuing both strategies is most effective, and in keeping with the Fair Housing Act.

One reason for this tension in the Twin Cities is that the regional planning framework there forces the issue for jurisdictions, and the HUD complaint has driven the wedge deeper.

Then there are the on-the-ground realities. In Richfield, which signed onto the HUD complaint, 700 “naturally occurring” (i.e. private) affordable apartments just changed hands, and the new owner is upgrading the property. (It was named “Crossroads”; its new name is “Concierge.”) The owner has said Section 8 vouchers will no longer be accepted, according to Eric Hauge, a tenant advocate, and has raised the minimum credit score required for the property’s current residents.

At a meeting in November, convened by Hauge’s group Home Line, residents were anxious. Far from feeling there was an excess of affordable housing nearby, many said they had no idea where they could go next if they have to move out. A number had health problems which they feared the stress and effort of moving would exacerbate.

Several emphasized that they liked where they lived, dismissing the new owner’s characterization of the complex as run-down. They wanted to stay, but doubted they could afford higher rent. Thirty-five residents of the complex have since filed a class-action Fair Housing lawsuit.

Exposing suburban inequities

As acrimonious as the Twin Cities debate is at times, it exposes issues that local activists feel get swept under the rug (especially, perhaps, in a state where being nice is a cardinal virtue). It also makes clear that the language and values of the racial justice movement are increasingly present in the suburbs.

Sitati-Munene (center) and Duckworth (right) at a meeting with Congressman Keith Ellison and HUD Secretary Julián Castro. (U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Development / Flickr)

Sitati-Munene notes with dismay that Brooklyn Park has subsidized a lot of development in its richer northern half, but not in its less-advantaged southern half; that its lack of suburb-to-suburb bus service makes it hard for young people to get to jobs in the area; and that it still has no elected officials of color.

But ultimately, she says, those problems are just symptoms of a much bigger one: structural racism and the inequity it has wrought.

“This is the original issue,” she says. “The reason why it’s being manifested in Brooklyn Park and Brooklyn Center and Richfield right now is because it is knocking at their doors first. What has traditionally been considered an urban problem, because it was not resolved as an urban problem, is moving to the first-ring suburbs. ... It’s not going to go away. It’s not really a problem that is unique in this city.”

For a long time, she adds, people would fret, “’There’s something wrong with those urban areas.’ There was nothing wrong with those urban areas,” she says. “Places don’t get discriminated against. People get discriminated against.”  

Top image: Darko Zeljkovic / Shutterstock.com

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