Ramblings of Anna Pratt, Twin Cities journalist

Archive for September 2009

Developing affordable housing strategies along the Central Corridor

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Developing affordable housing strategies along the Central Corridor

September 29, 2009
The city of St. Paul is trying to “manage growth and change” that is expected to arise from the future Central Corridor Light Rail transit line, Nancy Homans, policy director to Mayor Coleman, told a group that gathered as part of a monthly discussion series hosted by the Center for Urban and Regional Affairs at the University of Minnesota on Friday, September 18.

Maintaining affordable housing along the nearly $1 billion line that will link Minneapolis and St. Paul is a priority, but opinions on how to do so vary, Homans said. Some people advocate for a hands-off approach, she explained, adding that they theorize that “public investment is enough and the market will do the rest,” she said.

Others say it’s the other way around, and that without planning ahead, “opportunities could be lost…It’s a free enterprise debate as well as a government spending debate,” she commented.

Data on the subject is mixed, Homans said, and it’s tough to predict to what extent the line will bring market changes, especially in light of the economic downturn. Construction of the line, which will run down University Avenue, is supposed to begin in the summer of 2010. Meanwhile, some people still aren’t convinced that light rail is the right transit system for the region, a point one attendee at the meeting made, adding that streetcars would be more ideal. Homans said the city’s response to the affordable housing question and others needs to be specific and targeted to different communities, or what she called “areas of stability” and “areas of change.”

Some affordable housing proponents see land banking, or accumulating property now, either by the city or a nonprofit as an answer, as long as there are provisions for affordable housing. What kind of financial incentive might be created to enforce it is up in the air. Another suggestion, according to a recent MPR report, is to have the city’s zoning code require developers to build affordable housing in exchange for high density projects. In turn, high density development might help keep housing costs down. As it is, developers that get city funding have to meet affordable goals, Homans said. “But what happens if this takes off and developers don’t need city funding?”

Recently, the city received a $2 million loan from the state to address some of these things, but it is also grappling with a $20 million shortfall. The MPR story goes on to say that one land bank, called the nonprofit Family Housing Fund, has already sprung up. Currently the city is working with a number of community partners, including a coalition for affordable housing and it has hired consultants to help determine the best course of action. It’s tricky, but “People are pulling together to come up with a common vision and a development investment strategy,” said Homans.

Nieeta Presley, Executive Director of Aurora/St. Anthony Neighborhood Development Corporation in St. Paul, underscored that the city needs to ensure that current residents, many who are low-income, aren’t priced out of the area. The corridor needs to accommodate people “who don’t have the best options…to be able to stay instead of getting shuffled to poorer neighborhoods…and have great access to transit,” she said.

Some people may want to relocate within the neighborhood. “For some folks, home ownership is the only way to pass along wealth. That’s important to them, especially seniors,” she said.

She agreed that land banking is a good idea, adding that developers should help shoulder the responsibility for affordable housing. All in all, the city needs to find a way to achieve balance.  The resulting housing “can’t all be high-end or low-end,” she said, adding, “There needs to be mixed-income housing.”

Anna Pratt (email is a freelance journalist living and working in Minneapolis.


Written by annapratt

September 30, 2009 at 11:27 pm

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New complaint against city by outgoing head of Minneapolis Civil Rights Commission

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New complaint against city by outgoing head of Minneapolis Civil Rights Commission
September 30, 2009
In a rare move by the city, Kenneth Brown, who helmed the commission that provides oversight to the Minneapolis Department of Civil Rights (MDCR), was recently turned down for another term. So was fellow commissioner Allen Kathir.

Reappointment is almost always a given, leading some people to speculate that Brown, a seven-year commissioner, may have been voted off because he is “brash and direct.” Kathir’s case, they say, is less clear-cut.

Brown, who believes he was discriminated against for being black and having a disability, said he intends to take legal action against the city. It looks bad that two minority commissioners are leaving while three white people are being brought on, he said, adding that the vast majority of discrimination complaints come from African Americans.

“By not reappointing the chair, the Mayor is telling all commissioners not to question his authority or wishes,” Brown said. “It is clear that the leadership of this city does not want citizens to hold them accountable to the laws that govern everyone else.”

Kathir, who is of Southeast Asian descent and is currently running for City Council in Ward 3 against Diane Hofstede, said his service on the commission was a good way to calm tensions in his community between residents and police. The ward needs to be involved in these kinds of issues, he said, to help them work hand in hand to “bring about safety,” he said.

“I can’t see a logical reason for [not being reappointed],” Kathir said, adding that discussion needs to be more transparent and “out in the open.” It raises questions about the reappointment process, considering that some commissioners have been around for well over a decade.

Politics at work?

In Brown’s view, the scenario is reminiscent of the time, in 2006, when black attorney Larry Blackwell was given the boot following an unflattering report he did on the city (reported in a CityPages story.)

Brown said it’s possible he’s being retaliated against for his recent filing of a separate discrimination claim with the state human rights department, alleging that the city denied him a lawn mowing and re-cutting subcontract on the basis of a disability.

Brown has been outspoken about the civil rights department’s internal dysfunction along with other city problems. During his last commission meeting on Monday September 21, Brown requested that a discrimination charge be filed against various city officials who failed to respond to a number of concerns, including the high volume of civil rights complaints against the city, stalled “probable cause” cases, and millions of dollars in payouts for settlements against the police. He also said a disparity study, which would provide valuable workforce information and a citywide affirmative action plan are way overdue.

Assistant City Attorney Frank Reed recommended against the commission filing a charge. “Failure to respond isn’t discrimination,” he said. “[Filing a charge] isn’t a joke.”

Brown disagreed, citing the city’s civil rights ordinance (section 139.60), which states that officials are required to promptly respond to reasonable requests and their failure to do so “shall be deemed an act of discrimination.”

The commission didn’t act on Brown’s request, but did approve a motion to discuss protections for whistleblowers at a Standards and Procedures committee meeting, which Brown said, “shouldn’t be necessary. The board is supposed to be independent and not bow to political winds.”

The process

When commissioners at the Monday meeting asked department head Michael Jordan about his influence on the recent turn of events, he held back, saying, “My conversation with the Mayor was my conversation with the Mayor.”

Jeremy Hanson, a spokesperson for Mayor R.T. Rybak, later responded over the phone, “Basically, the Mayor had a pool of strong candidates and the Mayor chose to appoint those who he thought were the strongest. ”

Commissioners have three-year appointments for a reason, he said, adding, “The Mayor feels strongly about using it as an opportunity to get new people involved in city government. He was very pleased there were such high-quality candidates.”

City Council member Cam Gordon (Ward 2), who is leading a diversity audit of 50-plus city boards, said that Kathir was merely overlooked: “When we were reviewing names we thought Allen and Ken were mayoral candidates,” he said. “If we’d realized that Allen was an appointment of ours, I think he would’ve been reappointed. He’s enthusiastic, energetic and dedicated. I would’ve advocated for him.”

Attorney Mike Miller, who served on the commission through July, acknowledged that some commissioners butted heads with Brown at times. Miller didn’t agree with Brown 100 percent of the time, but he was satisfied with him as a leader.  “I’m sure that a few commissioners didn’t like the way [Brown] operated and didn’t want to deal with it directly,” he said, adding, “The loss will be felt and I’m not sure that’s not intentional.”

Commissioner Michelle Monteiro praised Brown and Kathir as hardworking civil rights advocates. “It’s outrageous that [Brown] was removed despite our confidence in him. We feel as though he and [Kathir] upset the Mayor and [civil rights director] Michael Jordan.”

Cutting an already slashed budget

Another commissioner, Brittany Lewis, said it falls in line with the legacy of the body, which has been characterized by “a lot of negative energy and leadership is not what we want it to be,” she said. “Our role is very political. We deal with race, class and gender discrimination issues, which some people have trouble talking about … It’s too bad [Brown and Kathir] are being denied access.”

It’s hard to separate these events from the drama that the civil rights department is known for. Only months ago, Brown and Kathir lobbied against the Mayor’s proposal earlier this year to eliminate the department’s Complaints Investigations Unit (CIU), a division of the department that has been fraught with problems, including everything from a huge backlog of cases to the high turnover of investigators. The proposal, which would transfer the CIU’s caseload to the state, was met with plenty of community resistance from the outset, though some people complained it would be better off at the state.

While the unit will stay put at least one more year, according to city officials, Rybak recommended that $164,000 be trimmed from the $2.517 million department. To achieve that, civil rights director Michael Jordan recently proposed slashing operating expenses and one full-time position ($71,000) for a savings of $93,000, on top of reductions to contractual services, computer system support and contract investigator time, according to City Council member Gary Schiff (Ward 9).

The civil rights department isn’t the only one being picked on. Each department is being downsized by at least five percent in 2010, according to city information. The figures will be finalized in early December, according to city information.

Louisa Hext, treasurer of the civil rights commission, said that although she’s relieved that CIU won’t be shifted to the state, she’s worried about what the future holds. “I’m pretty nervous about the depth of additional cuts … a loss of personnel is highly disappointing, particularly given the incredible positive progress of the department as a whole and in particular the employee investigators of the Minneapolis CIU.”

Anna Pratt (email is a freelance journalist living and working in Minneapolis.

Written by annapratt

September 30, 2009 at 11:23 pm

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Animals, rides, beer, food, international shops, Minnesota wines and a robot

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Here’s a piece I did about my recent visit to the state fair for the TC Daily Planet.

Animals, rides, beer, food, international shops, Minnesota wines and a robot


September 03, 2009
Even though I’m not a hardcore state fair-tripper, my visit on opening day was fun, filled with curiosities ranging from a life-like singing and dancing robot to a 1,186-pound pumpkin.

My companion and I first passed by a group of ducks nesting in a pond in the shadow of a bronze moose and wildflowers – an odd juxtaposition between real and unreal in the well-planned DNR section. Nearby, sunfish swam in a man-made pool. “The first fish you ever caught was probably a sunfish,” a DNR guide told the mid-sized crowd that circled the pond.

Just beyond, I caught a glimpse of a big fish that wasn’t in water; it was a found-art sculpture, nicknamed Urgie the Sturgeon. Artist Damian Jackman fashioned the structure out of millions of pounds of debris that volunteers had helped remove from local waterways. A statement posted alongside the thing references Jackman’s description of the nearly extinct sturgeon as a symbol of the plight of river species. Some fair-goers tried to identify its jumbled components, which varied from what looked to be 1940s car parts to crushed plastic bottles to rugs.

My fair-going companion, Sean is a chef, and he made the point that it was time for more food. (It quickly became obvious that he was in this for the eats.) Throughout the afternoon, he made sure that we sampled a number of greasy fair foods including the standard cheese curds and mini donuts, which we washed down with a couple pints of Minnesota-made premium beer.

In the sheep and poultry barn, we walked up and down aisles full of furry, feathered, and woolly creatures. Some rabbits, which came in many difference sizes and colors, sat upright, as if trying to maintain a sense of propriety, while others reclined lazily.

At the agriculture/horticulture building, we came across some noteworthy Minnesota wines. Both of us favored Zeitgeist, a white wine from the underground Morgan Creek Vineyards in Blue Earth. Apricot and Muscat aromas combined with “an appealing late harvest style,” according to a brochure. It’s made out of the University of Minnesota-developed LaCrescent grape, according to the Morgan Creek Web site.

Award-winning carrots, pumpkins and other beautiful vegetables were on display in the same building, underscoring the importance of farming in Minnesota, an underlying fair theme. Seeing the fruits of farmer and gardener labors close-up, was impressive, especially since I can barely keep my four houseplants alive.

Shortly thereafter, Sean and I decided to brave the Sky Ride. From a wobbly tomato-red container, we got a birds-eye view of the festivities, which was a nice respite (my feet were tired). After that Sean scored a $2 slice of pizza from a small stand in the Midway. We saw a lot of people hauling oversized stuffed animals and bananas and encountered a muscle-bound robot that was reminiscent of Buzz Lightyear from the movie Toy Story. Rock-It is a high-tech body puppet that “talks, walks and rocks!” according to its website. One man asked in disbelief,  “There’s a person in there, right?”

“No, it’s a robot,” one member of Rock-It’s security team piped up.

Sadly, my camera died early on, so I was unable to get a picture with the friendly bot, which stands nine feet tall and boasts speech, music and sound effects.

Before we left, we made one last stop at the international bazaar, which we realized was the origin of the flopping sombreros we’d seen people sporting all over the place.

Going from table to table, we admired such trinkets as wooden long-necked cats (handmade), spicy salsas from Trinidad, and Italian leather shoes. I left with a silky cerulean blue sarong. Since it was nearing 10 p.m., we made our way back to the bus stop, declaring our visit to the fair a successful one.

Written by annapratt

September 4, 2009 at 12:33 am

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