Ramblings of Anna Pratt, Twin Cities journalist

Archive for January 2010

No silver lining yet in foreclosure crisis

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Here’s a story that went online Saturday night at Finance and Commerce, about the Congressional subcommittee hearing that took place earlier in the day at Minneapolis’s Central Library.

No silver lining yet in foreclosure crisis

by Anna Pratt

Special to Finance & Commerce

It isn’t just about people losing their homes.

Ripples from the long-running foreclosure crisis, experts told an audience in Minneapolis on Saturday, are spreading throughout the U.S. economy, affecting even those who, intuitively, might be expected to benefit.

“One would think the silver lining is lower prices for renters,”said U.S. Representative Maxine Waters, D-Calif., who led the hearing on behalf of the House Subcommittee on Housing and Community Opportunity.  But she added that the falling rates of rent can’t keep up with the ever-growing number of foreclosures, which in Hennepin County rose 800 percent from 2002 to 2008.

“There are devastated neighborhoods all across the country,” said Waters, one of numerous speakers at a Congressional subcommittee hearing on various government programs addressing the problem.

More than a dozen elected representatives, government officials, nonprofit workers and private citizens testified during the hearing, at Minneapolis’ Central Library.

Much of the testimony centered on the pros and cons of the Neighborhood Stabilization Program (NSP), a national anti-foreclosure program established through the Housing and Economic Recovery Act of 2008. NSP enables states, local governments and nonprofits to purchase and redevelop foreclosed and abandoned homes.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development  (HUD) recently announced that $2 billion was authorized for NSP through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) of 2009.

Minneapolis, Hennepin County and Brooklyn Park are jointly receiving nearly $19.5 million for NSP, according to information from Waters. St. Paul received $18 million, the Minneapolis Public Housing and Economic Authority (MPHA) received $18.2 million for “shovel ready” public housing repair projects, while Hennepin County and the city of Minneapolis received $6.5 million specificaly to deal with the increase in homelessness.

A prepared statement from Waters adds that in December 2009, she led a group of Congressional Black Caucus lawmakers in securing an additional $1 billion for NSP phase three, under the Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act of 2009, which has has passed the House of Representatives but is pending in the Senate, it reads.

There was a consensus among panelists that the recovery efforts haven’t helped as quickly as many had hoped, and that some government restrictions are too prohibitive to homebuyers. Hennepin County Commissioner Gail Dorfman voiced concern about meeting the Sept. 30 deadline that the county and others have to acquire properties through NSP.

While they’re able to easily identify families who need housing, when it comes to acquiring and rehabbing properties, “We’re scrambling,” Dorfman said.

The explanation for that, according to ccording to Tom Streitz, director of housing policy and development for the Minneapolis Department of Community Planning and Economic Development, is that NSP homebuyers have to go through a bunch of hoops: They’re competing with investors who are offering cash for properties, many people won’t sell homes for a discount (an NSP requirement) and sellers also don’t want to endure the month-long wait on NSP’s required environmental assessments.

Many of the investors who are snatching up properties live elsewhere and don’t maintain the homes: “We have people who are sending their rent checks to Puerto Rico,” Streitz said. “They have no one to contact.”

The rental market is being thrown off-kilter, as well. As anecdotal evidence of that, Marion Anderson talked about how he and other renters of a North Minneapolis fourplex apartment were abandoned by their landlord after the building went into foreclosure.

Another witness, Christina Lauden, who lives in Section 8 affordable housing, is a single parent who’s trying to provide for her two children. Lauden, who is also coping with disabilities related to a car accident, said she’s glad to finally have a place she can afford, but noted that she was on a waiting list for six years.

Richard Amos, a staffer at St. Stephen’s Human Services, a Minneapolis shelter which works to counteract homelessness, stressed that it saves taxpayers to get people into permanent housing.

Mark Ireland, a staff attorney for the St. Paul-based Housing Preservation Project, a nonprofit that strives to increase affordable housing, urged legislators to invest in rental properties, expand the Section 8 voucher system and create more affordable housing.

“A lot of nonprofits want to do that, but we need access to capital,” he said. “We need to bring houses into affordable programs in areas that are close to jobs and transit. We need to raise the standard of living for renters.”

Further, he said, “There’s the issue of race. No one talks much about the disproportionate impact of the economic crisis on communities of color. It’s a conversation that’s long overdue in Minnesota, the Midwest and the country.”

Congressman Keith Ellison, D-Minn., who characterized the day’s panel discussion as a sort of listening session for legislators, said that the priority is to “smooth out problems with NSP so that NSP buyers are on equal footing with the cash buyer.”

Waters agreed, saying, “The investors have a leg up. They’re paying less and not rehabbing homes or doing shabby work. We need to deal with that and make it cost-effective for homeowners to get the homes and not investors exploiting them.”


Written by annapratt

January 25, 2010 at 12:02 pm

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Minneapolis civil rights unit still in limbo

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My recent story about the Minneapolis civil rights department, which is currently in the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder:

Minneapolis civil rights unit still in limbo

January 20, 2010
Last month, the Minneapolis City Council narrowly defeated a proposal to temporarily shift to the state the Complaints Investigations Unit (CIU) of the Minneapolis Department of Civil Rights (MDCR). While the vote preserves the unit for now, some people worry that it could still be displaced in the future.

City Council Member Betsy Hodges brought forward the proposal as an amendment to the 2010 budget. It was similar to an idea that Mayor R.T. Rybak had floated months before, which also would have transferred CIU to the Minnesota Department of Human Rights.

Governor Tim Pawlenty had recommended this tactic to cities that needed to balance state cuts in Local Government Aid.

An argument for transferring the unit was that it would be better to trim in one area of the MDCR as opposed to spreading out the pain. (Every city department is working out ways to stretch shrinking budgets.) As a part of the deal, the state would inherit a huge backlog of cases that has long plagued the city.

Following passionate community debate in various public meetings, protests at City Hall and more, the city convened a taskforce to study the issue further. Taskforce members concluded that the unit should stay put because it provides a valuable service, particularly to disenfranchised people, including new immigrants, for whom relocating CIU could present hardship.

Additionally, the Civil Rights Commission, an advisory body to the MDCR, did a separate study and lobbied to keep the unit.

Congressman Keith Ellison said in a phone interview that getting rid of CIU would be counterproductive. “I think it’s extremely important that we have a strong, viable civil rights department in this city,” he said.

The Minnesota Department of Human Rights has been cut to bare bones, Ellison noted, adding that it barely has enough resources to close cases. “Farming out [CIU] is no solution. If we farmed it out, would we close our [unit] and rely solely on the State? That would mean less civil rights protection for everyone. It would do damage to justice in this city and the idea that people have a fair shot.”

Further, Ellison believes that the department needs to “be removed from the vicissitudes of the political cycle,” meaning that the director position, which is appointed by the mayor, should have more independence and have a longer term.

To strengthen the department, “It’s important that the department pick people who are committed to making sure it works and that rights are protected,” Ellison said. “The department needs to play a role in engaging the community. I would gladly play a role, but I can only do that if I know it needed me to.”

Back to the drawing board

In early 2009, some city officials touted that the CIU was ideally situated with eight investigators, which included some temporary contract employees. Now, CIU is operating with only three full-time investigators. Two investigators who left their jobs last year weren’t replaced, according to a source close to the action, while several contractors’ terms came to an end at the beginning of the year.

(Interestingly, an unnamed source has informed us that several previous city employees from the unit have moved on to the state Department of Human Rights.)

Further, CIU staffers have been singled out to fill in at the front desk as administrative assistants, which MDCR investigator Taneeza Islam mentioned during a December 7 public hearing.

Under Council Member Hodges’ amendment, the CIU would have lost four full-time investigators by February of this year, a provisional setup that would have lasted for two years. The city department would have entered into an agreement with the Minnesota Department of Human Rights to supply 1.5 full-time employees, which the city would have paid for.

Additional CIU dollars would have gone to the City Coordinator’s Office to research innovations and best practices and embark on a “wide and deep” community engagement process to determine the unit’s future. In the meantime, the city would have established benchmarks for eliminating the backlog by the end of 2011.

Hodges’ proposal differed from the mayor’s in that two investigators would have been retained. “It isn’t a budget cut,” she said, explaining that it would have been just a temporary solution. She said she sought to get the best results possible with the available resources.

“I’m not criticizing the employees. It’s the structure that led to the problem,” Hodges said. “The intent was to strengthen the department and to get rid of the backlog.”

What has happened in this debate, she said, is that “People are in the position of being in defense of indefensible results.” Since the proposal didn’t pass, “We’re back to the drawing board,” she said.

City Council Member Sandy Colvin-Roy thought Hodges’ proposal was a good idea. “It’s not permanent. I think a lot of people didn’t understand that,” she said. “People were concerned the state wouldn’t be responsive.”

In her view, the proposal would have helped spur change in the unit. “I thought it was a creative way to get out of this spot that we’re in. It seems every year we’re spinning our wheels. It was very different. We keep doing the same thing and it’s not working,” she said.

At this point, said Colvin-Roy, “We need to get clarity about what we want from the civil rights department. We seem to be lacking a consensus on that.”

Former City Council Member Paul Ostrow, whose term recently ended, seconded that: “Where have the howls of protest been over the last decade when people’s needs have not been met? I have heard speech after speech about how the backlog will go away.”

The city’s performance pales in comparison to the state’s, he commented. “Let’s look at how we deliver justice… Institutional racism is that we would accept these results.”

Civil Rights Director Michael Jordan declined to comment on Hodges’ proposal. Jordan, who is one of several department heads who are up for reappointment by the mayor later this month according to information from the city, said that he’s still trying to figure out where additional cuts in the department should be made.

Two positions have to be eliminated, he said. The department’s 2010 budget is $2.394 million, which represents a 12.1 percent decrease from 2009, according to Latonia Green, who works in finance for the city. The department was cut $257,000, including two full-time positions, she explained.

As to how the unit will resolve the backlog, Jordan didn’t get into specifics: “The backlog has been around for two decades. We’re constantly trying to figure out ways to eliminate the backlog,” he said.

“It’s an issue of how many cases come in and how many investigators there are to handle them. The more investigators we have, the more we can do. It’s harder to get the job done with fewer resources,” said Jordan.

Support for CIU

At the public hearing, a number of community members testified against Hodges’ amendment, saying that it sends the wrong message about the city’s commitment to civil rights. Roger Banks, a research analyst for the Council on Black Minnesotans (a State of Minnesota agency), said that Blacks are “being written off as a matter of expediency.”

“With the economic problems, things have worsened,” he said. “It’s interesting that the effort that is being called for is happening at a time when we know the complaints are increasing.”

Lauren Maker, an MDCR employee, complained that the Minnesota Department of Human Rights dismisses too many cases. For too long, the state department has had inadequate funding and staffing. “If you believe [civil rights] is important, that it’s important for people to have redress, then you should give us a director who can do the job,” Maker said.

When it comes to the idea of shifting the work to the state, Council Member Don Samuels remarked, “The [community’s] trust isn’t there… As a representative of the interests of the community, it’s hard for me to support it even though I understand the intent and goodwill behind it.”

City leaders who sit on the Results Minneapolis review panel, a group that analyzes city operations, meet with department heads to track their performance in key service areas. In Samuels’ time with Results Minneapolis, the CIU’s backlog has come up.

“There’s some impatience with the backlog, which is anachronistic in its intensity,” he said. “There’s been some progress, but people are so burned by the failure to improve that they didn’t want to hear it.”

Even though he believes the unit needs to be given the chance to clear up the backlog, Samuels acknowledged that he hesitates to refer people to the department. “I don’t know if their complaint might languish for a couple years,” he said.

Michelle Monteiro, a four-year civil rights commissioner, said it would be a shame to lose the unit, which was created to ensure that civil rights were enforced in the city. Unfortunately, the department has been severely cut year after year, hindering its capacity to achieve. As it is, it seems the unit is still under attack.

“I think the CIU could still be shifted. I think a lot of people on the council would like to see it relocated to the State,” Monteiro said.

While it’s tough to gauge how secure the CIU is, it’s obvious that there are many people who are willing to work with the City to make sure that it stays close to home.

Written by annapratt

January 24, 2010 at 5:02 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Metric Giles: ‘I try to be for something instead of against something’

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Here’s a Q&A with St. Paul community activist Metric Giles, who I interviewed recently for the TC Daily Planet.

MN VOICES | Metric Giles: “I try to be for something instead of against something”


December 30, 2009

St. Paul resident Metric Giles, 55, knew at a young age what it meant to be a Giles. “In Chicago,” where his family is from originally, “being a Giles carries weight,” he said, adding that they’re a proud clan, passing on lessons about responsibility, accountability and self-sufficiency. Those values underlie his community service: “I try to be for something instead of against something,” said Giles.

Giles, who has a day job as a lime plant operator at the St. Paul water treatment plant, also works part-time as a policy organizer at the Community Stabilization Project (CSP), which advocates for renters. Beyond that, he spends much of his time organizing around a variety of civic issues ranging from restorative justice to raised bed gardening. Recently he talked to the TC Daily Planet about what triggered his activism, the lessons he’s learned along the way and his vision for the future.

Tell me about your community involvement? How did it all start?

I’m a policy organizer with the Community Stabilization Project (CSP) in St. Paul, which deals with housing issues, with a specific focus on rent and tenants’ rights. It’s a “full-time” part-time job. When I was in college, I did an internship with the St. Paul Tenants Union. That’s where I got my start in nonprofits. At the same time I began volunteering in the schools because my children were in school, which gave me insight into the educational system. Later I became employed by the tenants union, which led to volunteering with the District 8 Planning Council. It moved me into the whole thing of activism and politics. I started thinking there must be something else I can do, other than just bringing people together when something bad happens. When I got into community gardening, sometime in 1990, it gave me another perspective that was beyond community politics, connected me to the land and increased my networking, which was rewarding.   At the Oxford Dayton Community Garden, on the corner of Oxford and Dayton [in St. Paul], I don’t have a title, but I’m known as a facilitator. I work with Afro Eco, a group that focuses on connecting African Americans to the land. I’m also a board member of Jordan Park School, the Saint Paul Almanac, and Aurora St. Anthony Neighborhood Development Corporation.

How does gardening relate to community organizing?

When the Oxford Dayton farm got started, I made a point of saying that we’re growing food and growing relationships. It could be seen in the whole design of the garden, with three-foot pathways that helped shape the plots, which are 10 feet by 10 feet. They could’ve been bigger, but we needed enough space to grow relationships. If I had my choice, I would just be an urban farmer. That’s where my passion is. The farming has made so many different inroads and connection. It has brought me all over, from California to the White Earth native communities.  I have never thought of myself as an artist, but with flowers and vegetables I’m able to create art.

You’ve got a lot going on. What is your motivation? Do you have some sort of mantra or guiding principle?

I surf PBS quite a bit. I see Michael Pollan on there, talking about living with the Incas. Potatoes were the main crop, but they had 10 different species so if a plague came in, it didn’t hit all of them. He compared that to Ireland, where there was only one kind of potato when the plague hit it [during the potato famine]. The whole system was devastated. Well, that’s just like what we’ve been going through in the U.S. with the economy. There hasn’t been enough of an equitable balance. Classism doesn’t have to be a bad thing if you take care of each class. You have to have a balance so everything isn’t impacted by what happens on top. No matter what level you’re at economically, it shouldn’t have a bearing on your quality of life. That’s the injustice of America, with capitalism. Even if you’re on the low end of the pay scale, you should still have the health and education that a rich man has. That’s what drives me.

I have a visionary perspective. I see the whole picture for what needs to be done in different areas. If you’re working on housing, you’re working on light rail. You have to see them as interconnected systems. Transportation and housing are two of the highest expenses, with a huge impact on people of color and those who are economically marginalized.

The question is how do you bring people together? So much of organizing is against things. If you’re against something, you’re not growing something. You’re left with a void. I try to be for something instead of against something. I’m trying to align myself for positive outcomes.

For example, right now I’m working with others on a community benefits agreement (CBA) for the light rail. Last year we pulled people together to talk about what they wanted from the light rail. I said the community needed to have its own comprehensive statement about what it wanted the light rail to be from a grassroots perspective.

Describe your upbringing. How did moving from Chicago, Ill., to Mason City, Iowa, to St. Paul, Minnesota make a difference?

I learned the value of being a Giles before I knew what it meant to be an African American. We’re a proud clan of people. In Chicago, being a Giles carries weight. It means having self-respect and being responsible for your actions. It’s not about doing things because someone made you do it, but doing the most appropriate thing because that’s the way it is. Your word is the only thing you have. My mother and father taught me values of life, accountability, being sensitive to the environment and people.

Family was the most important thing. My father was a minister. I came up in a system of religion. Because it was shaped by the actions of people, I became disengaged with it. I took a trip to California with a certain purpose in mind and without necessarily understanding, ended up coming into connection with spirituality. Because of the backdrop of religion that I had, I was able to relate to the idea of a god force. The ultimate power could allow you to do anything. All of us [in the family] have a ministry. I’m like a minister of the land.

If I hadn’t lived in Chicago first, I don’t know what kind of person I would be. It’s a scary thought. I don’t remember having European Americans in my life in my early years, except on TV. Mason City was a total 360, with nothing but Europeans. It involved conscious assimilation. I had to overcome assimilation to be who I am, with the understanding that the culture of African Americans came from Africa, not slaves. Africans came here and became enslaved, but they were kings, queens and inventors.

Considering all of your community involvement, any plans to run for office?

I don’t want to run for office. Everything I’ve done has led me to what I am now. I only want to be accountable to my self and God. I’m a private person. If people never knew who I was but knew what I did, I would be OK with that, and that the legacy of something I did five years ago, for instance, is still happening. I look at it from a universal place. I can’t do everything. I have nine children. I can’t always be there for them, but if I put energy into the universe, hopefully it will come back to them.

Written by annapratt

January 3, 2010 at 3:18 pm

Posted in Uncategorized