City Council to consider the future of Minneapolis neighborhood organizations

The Neighborhood and Community Relations department has put together recommendations for the future of neighborhood organizations in Minneapolis. These recommendations have come out of a process called Neighborhoods 2020 that began in 2017. I’ll get to a summary of NCR’s recommendations further down in this post, but first, you’re probably asking…

What is a neighborhood organization?

In my neighborhood there are 6,500 registered voters (2018), 2,000 people who actually vote for City Council (2017), and maybe 100 who show up for the neighborhood organization’s annual meeting and board election–by far the highest turnout event. So if you have no idea what a neighborhood organization is, you’ve got company.

Neighborhood organizations can be many things. They are capable of bringing neighbors together to work on feel-good projects like community gardens, ice cream socials and neighborhood cleanups. Sometimes they’re the place for a vocal minority to get mad about the last city council election — I’m old enough to recall a bunch of years in a row here in the Wedge where you could eat free pizza while watching the annual “Scream at Lisa Bender Spooktacular.”

Neighborhood organizations are not a body of local government. While they often serve an advisory function, they have no official power. But they do have whatever power your council member chooses to give them. And considering the overlap between a neighborhood meeting and a precinct caucus, that can be quite a lot of power (how much depends on your council member’s talent for winning over support beyond the universe of People Who Always Show Up to Things).

Most significantly, neighborhood organizations are community engagement vehicles where the city has shoveled hundreds of millions of dollars over the past few decades (read my recent story about $225k in affordable housing money being reallocated for a park fountain). The way that money was spent (lots of home improvement loans, sometimes loans that didn’t have to be paid back), in many cases led to the creation of homeowner interest groups. You can argue that during a time when central cities were in decline, it was the right priority–but it’s also true that countless millions were spent to organize and empower property owners.

Another key historical detail: neighborhoods with the highest poverty rates and the most renters got the most money. To illustrate how this worked, there’s the story of the Whittier Alliance, a non-profit that had long been devoted to supporting affordable housing. After the organization received millions of dollars in the early 1990s, homeowners took control and radically re-oriented the Whittier Alliance’s priorities to become actively hostile to affordable housing.

As we look to the future of neighborhood organizations, and how they’re funded, I think it’s important to break from this history and focus on building power for people who don’t already have a whole lot of it.

Below is a summary, and some analysis, of NCR’s recommendations to the City Council regarding the future of neighborhood organizations.

NCR Recommendations: Elections

NCR is recommending a “citywide Neighborhood Election Day.” For those who can’t attend to vote in person, “an alternate method to vote will be provided.”

This idea makes too much sense (how could it not be rejected?). Minneapolis has 70 neighborhood organizations with 70 different days and times to elect leadership. 70 different election days is not how you would do things if you had a sincere desire to maximize awareness and participation. A single election day would allow the city to communicate very clearly to all residents about how, when, and where to get involved.

A historical note on the scheduling of elections and how they can be used to exclude: Marcy-Holmes, with a large university population, used to hold their annual meetings in June when school was out for the summer. (This was the case as recently as 2015. Last year’s election was in October.)

On February 2, I attended the Community Connections Conference where these recommendations were presented to a roomful of mostly older white people, many of whom appeared to be already actively involved in their neighborhood organizations. Some of them thought a single citywide election day was a good idea, while others thought it was a good idea that definitely should be optional because it would never work for their very unique neighborhood (this is their response to a lot of things).

As the story goes, the neighborhood has just always done things a certain way. I tried to explain that these ideas aren’t about satisfying the desires of the same people who’ve always come to the meetings.

Another idea that some believe is good in theory, but too hard in reality: creating organizations that look like the neighborhoods they represent, and include underrepresented groups among their leadership.

NCR Recommendations: Diversity

The city will continue to collect data on board diversity to measure against neighborhood demographics. A “significant” deviation would result in a required Diversity Action Plan:

“The plan will outline procedures, meetings and events that will reach out to a wider demographic base. Organizations that do not complete a plan and meet board diversity standards within 18 months may have their funding reduced or terminated.”

It’s not specifically laid out what would constitute a “significant” difference in board makeup and neighborhood demographics.

Council President Lisa Bender had some things to say on this topic during the debate about the 2019 budget:

“I will not support a program for public engagement that does not explicitly address inclusion with a frame of race equity, and age, and homeowner status, and renter status… I can’t support raising property taxes on cost-burdened renters [to fund these groups] in the 10th Ward if neighborhood organizations are explicitly disenfranchising renters in their community. That would be a crazy vote to take and I would never take that vote.”

NCR Recommendations: Bylaws

Another potentially helpful recommendation from NCR is for a minimum standard of bylaws that each organization would have to adopt to receive city funding. I say it’s potentially helpful because there’s no detail on what those minimum standards would be. But I have some ideas on what’s needed.

A few years ago–after watching the Whittier Alliance implement some exclusionary rules–I looked systematically at the bylaws of every neighborhood organization in the city. I found that neighborhoods with large renter or student populations were far more likely to have language in their bylaws targeting new residents for exclusion. These rules can take the form of a length of residency requirement, or requiring attendance at a certain number of meetings, before someone can vote or run for leadership.

Among my findings on neighborhood organization bylaws in 2015:

  • 62 neighborhoods had no length of membership/residency requirement to be eligible to run for a leadership position.
  • Six neighborhoods had length of membership requirements of 30 days or longer before you could run for a leadership position. All six are high renter, high minority, or both.
  • Three neighborhoods required candidates to have been a member/resident for 6 months or longer: Whittier (6 months), Prospect Park (1 year), and Marcy Holmes (6 months). Each of those neighborhoods have high renter populations (83%, 74%, and 84%).

Basically, if you’re a resident of a whiter, wealthier, homeowner-majority neighborhood, you’ll be greeted with an electoral process that is simple and welcoming. If you’re a resident of a diverse neighborhood, you’re far more likely to be met with obstacles to participation. This is not a coincidence.

The sad part about the 2015 Whittier bylaw story is that their exclusionary practices started as unofficial and unwritten rules. In response, the city’s NCR department said, hey that’s bad, you can’t do that… you must enshrine these practices into your bylaws! (So I am sometimes very cynical that anyone has the political will to hold these groups to a reasonable minimum standard for non-exclusionary behavior.)

NCR Recommendations: Leadership

  • “Have no more than 25% of the board membership serve more than 6 years.”
  • “Require board officer term limits.”

At the Community Connections Conference, there was some grumbling that it’s hard enough to fill board seats, why have rules against longevity? But if your organization doesn’t have anyone willing to rotate into a leadership position, then you haven’t spent your six year term doing much of anything creating the kind of healthy organization that’s worth continued city funding.

NCR Recommendations: Funding

NCR’s recommendations are that 75% of the city’s “community engagement programming money” will go to neighborhood organizations. The other 25% would go to community-based organizations, which are non-profits providing services in the community.

Of the 75% allocated to neighborhood organizations, that’s further broken into three categories:

  • 50% for basics like staff, rent, phones, newsletters. Plus things like food, childcare, and interpretation services. (Not being able to spend money to feed people at meetings has long been a complaint of people involved in these groups.)
  • 25% “impact funding” to increase engagement
  • 25% “discretionary funding.” This looks similar to the wide variety of projects eligible to be funded by the city’s old NRP program: housing, transportation, engagement, school/library projects, community gardens, farmer’s markets, etc.

You can read NCR’s recommendations here. The ultimate decision on whether to implement, scale back, or go further than these recommendations will be made by the City Council. So if you’ve got feelings, let your council member know. You can also send your thoughts to NCR’s Steven Gallagher: