What’s the Truth About Public Housing in Minneapolis?

It’s difficult to sort out what’s true about public housing in Minneapolis. Even if you’re a person who keeps up with the news. Just look at all the corrections issued to articles written about the Minneapolis Public Housing Authority over the course of a few weeks last year.

You could sense some frustration about this public confusion from Tracey Scott, MPHA’s interim director, when she came to the City Council’s Housing Policy & Development Committee last week. The committee was about to vote on whether to ask MPHA to delay an action that Scott felt was necessary to bring in millions of dollars a year in desperately needed funding for public housing. Scott spoke forcefully against it. She said the resolution was based on a “deliberate campaign of fear and misinformation.”

Though the resolution failed in committee 5-1, it sparked an important conversation.

Senators send mixed messages

The proposed resolution was prompted by a January 15 letter to HUD co-signed by five state senators representing Minneapolis. HUD is the federal department that funds (or underfunds) public housing. At issue in the senators’ letter was MPHA transferring ownership of 640 scattered site housing units — a large number of single-family homes spread throughout the city — to a non-profit under MPHA’s control. As Scott reassured the Council, “It’s a fully MPHA-owned non-profit, and the board of directors of the non-profit is the board of commissioners of MPHA.” The transfer allows MPHA to get more money from HUD than under the current ownership model.

If that sounds stupid to you, it’s hard to disagree. Many critics say it amounts to “privatization.” The idea that MPHA needs to transfer ownership of some of its homes to a separate entity, but which is actually still MPHA, looks and feels like a shady financial trick. But it’s the federal government’s bad idea, and MPHA says it’s the best way to get more money for public housing. In the case of these scattered site houses, this means an additional $3 million in funding every year for an agency facing a $152 million backlog on maintenance.

The senate delegation letter suggests that thousands of residents of public housing in Minneapolis are at imminent risk of losing their homes. The five senators wrote that if MPHA acted they would have “the authority to displace all affected residents by February 16, 2020.”

The process for transferring ownership to the MPHA’s non-profit is called “Section 18 demolition and disposition” — not a name that will calm anyone’s fears. To the degree that MPHA has real power over people’s lives, it has authority to do real harm. People are right to ask questions and demand assurances. But it’s a leap to assume that “authority” and “intent” are the same thing.

At a January 22 committee meeting, Council Member Jeremiah Ellison pushed back against “the misinformation that was in the senate delegation letter.” He noted that none of the senators had called council members to air their concerns.

By February 3, the five senators had written a second letter, to clarify. The second letter justifies the first as a matter of amplifying concerns raised by constituents. The senators then reassure HUD about the principles and commitments of the City of Minneapolis to protecting residents of public housing.

MPHA director denounces “campaign of fear and misinformation”

At a City Council meeting two days later, MPHA director Scott urged the committee to back off. She interpreted the second letter as a retraction. And she had the attitude of someone tired of being lied about:

“This resolution is inspired by and gives credence to a deliberate campaign of fear and misinformation, rather than facts and consideration of good public policy… The resolution provokes and prolongs uncertainty for the families that MPHA serves. These families have already been visited in their homes by doorknockers violating their privacy, distributing false paperwork telling them that they are being evicted. And they are not being displaced or evicted by these actions.”

Government types who come to speak to the City Council are usually overly deferential. But Scott — while respectful — was persistent in taking every opportunity to correct statements from the resolution’s author, Council Member Cam Gordon. When Gordon talked about the potential “relocation of residents,” Scott interjected, “There is no relocation as part of this action… There is no displacement of these families as part of this conversion process.”

And if you only follow this conversation on social media, you would assume that displacement is most assuredly what is happening. I’ve seen it said that “hundreds of families” will be displaced. At other times it’s “thousands of families.” All while the City Council — spanning the spectrum from Lisa Goodman to Jeremiah Ellison — seem convinced that MPHA is acting appropriately to serve the best interests of public housing residents.

A call for delay

Council President Lisa Bender voiced opposition to any delay which would be based on the senators’ sort-of-retracted letter. She also sounded a little astonished that senators went straight to HUD, at the risk of killing or delaying the funding, rather than first contacting the city or MPHA:

“This is in the context of a letter that a number of our elected officials, our senate delegation, sent to HUD — not to the the Public Housing Authority, not to the Minneapolis City Council — to the funder. So we had an application that had already been approved. We were working to get money into the homes of people who need repairs in their homes.”

MPHA’s actions are independent from the city, but it has a board of commissioners appointed by the City Council. Those commissioners appoint their director, who is then approved by the City Council. This is the process for incoming MPHA director and soon-to-be former Council Member Abdi Warsame.

Bender acknowledged there are ethical questions around Warsame’s appointment (she called it “challenging”). She said it was “uncomfortable” to entertain the idea of the council passing a resolution that asks for a delay until Warsame replaces Scott — in light of the fact that Warsame is currently one of their colleagues.

Bender became visibly frustrated with Gordon over a perceived lack of respect being shown to Scott: “Council Member Gordon, I just want to say, we have the director of MPHA standing in front of us right now.” Even when someone is serving in an interim role, we “afford them the respect of that directorship.”

Gordon said his motivation for seeking delay was “to be able to take a deeper breath about it” and facilitate a community process.

Scott repeatedly urged the council against delay. “We have to balance whether or not we want to take that risk — for reasons [in the first letter] that have disappeared.” She asked the council to articulate an actual reason to put the funding at risk. “It’s incumbent upon us all to figure out why we would delay anything.”

Goodman, who ripped into Gordon for long stretches during the meeting, asked what he knew that the rest of the council didn’t:

“We have the director standing in front of us who has said there is going to be no displacement, and any delay will result in the loss of $3 million. And you seem to be saying, ‘that’s not true, I know better than you.’ I’m just confused where that comes from. I mean do you really think the people who work at the Public Housing Authority are there to make money or otherwise displace residents? I mean isn’t the reason you go into a Public Housing Authority in the first place because you deeply care about affordable housing and its residents? … What is the motivation of Tracey Scott and the Public Housing Authority board? What is their motivation to confuse residents, displace them, or otherwise kick them out of their housing? What would be the motivation for that?”

An “erosion of trust”

At the committee’s January 22 meeting, Ellison urged a more fact-based debate: “I think it is 100% appropriate to question federal housing policy. I do think that’s appropriate. I think we should. But I also think we have to do so with good information, not bad information.”

At last week’s meeting, Bender worried about the toll that misinformation takes on residents of public housing: “This idea that people are hearing that they’re going to lose their homes when they’re not, that’s really a heartbreaking situation.”

Bender also expressed disappointment in the senators who stoked the controversy:

I know that the underlying motivation of any elected official is to make sure people are protected. To make sure we have the answers to people’s questions. But I also know that as community leaders, we also have the responsibility to help create systems where people can trust in our government. When that government is the current federal administration that controls HUD, that brings another layer of challenge…. I worry that the way in which we’re doing it could continue to create an erosion of trust where that might not be justified.”

What gives this issue potency in our city is the near-universal agreement that we should protect residents of public housing. People want to take action to do the right thing. But it’s getting harder and harder for the public and officials at various levels of government to know what’s true. When we don’t know what to believe, taking action becomes more difficult. I don’t think residents of public housing are well served by that dynamic.

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