Second Ward, Minneapolis

This is the public policy forum of Minneapolis Second Ward (Green) City Council Member Cam Gordon and his staff. We use this space to talk about some of what Cam’s working on, explain his positions, and share a little of what life in City Hall is like. Please feel free to comment on posts, within certain ground rules. See our disclaimer, including ground rules, here: http://secondward.blogspot.com/2006/05/disclaimer.html#links

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Is there an affordable housing shortage?

This afternoon, the Public Safety & Regulatory Services committee held a public hearing on the proposed Condo Conversion ordinance I've been working on for months. Many social service providers, tenants whose housing is threatened by condo conversions and others came to testify for the proposed ordinance. Those who spoke against it were, to a person, realtors or property owners.

What most surprised me was the debate among the Council Members. Opponents of the ordinance made an argument that I have trouble comprehending: that there is no affordable housing shortage in Minneapolis.

They did not argue that any of the facts we had arrayed were inaccurate. Here's a short list of those facts:

- According to the Minneapolis Consolidated Plan, which City staff prepared and the Council passed unanimously, there is a shortage of 13,499 dwelling units affordable to people who earn less than 30% of Metro Median Income.

- According to the 2000 Census, there are 27,992 renter households (35% of all renter households) spending more than a third of their income on housing - the accepted benchmark of affordability.

- There are over 10,000 households on the waiting list for Minneapolis Public Housing Authority (MPHA) subsidized housing.

- The Council passed the Heading Home Hennepin plan to end homelessness, which states that “shortage of affordable housing” is one of nine “root causes of homelessness,” and calls for the City to “ensure the preservation of current affordable and supportive housing.” This vote was also unanimous.

- The City spent millions of dollars last year to build new affordable housing, through the Affordable Housing Trust Fund (AHTF). If there is no shortage, how on earth can we justify shelling out that kind of money?

I agreed wholeheartedly with my co-author Gary Schiff's comment. When some Council Members question the City's numbers (the shortage of 13,499 mentioned above), they're basically saying that the City has misled the Federal Government in our requests for funding to build new affordable housing units. They are also speaking directly against their own votes for the consolidated plan. Either the numbers are wrong or they're right - facts don't change to suit the preferences of Council Members.

This inconsistency was quite visible in Council Member Johnson's arguments. On the one hand, she argued that the City does a lot (through the AHTF) to address the shortage of affordable housing. On the other hand, she argued that there is no shortage of affordable housing.

Most interesting to me were the "alternative facts" the ordinance's opponents relied on. They rejected out of hand the painstakingly quantified data that we pay City staff good money to track. Their replacement: anecdotes about how many "for rent" signs Council Members see in their neighborhoods.

This ignores the fact that a vacant apartment with a rent of $1000/month is not affordable to someone with $600/month to spend, no matter how long it remains vacant.

I believe that we should make public policy based on the best possible evidence, not unprovable, unquantifiable anecdotes.

I also believe that the "free market" often unjustly impacts the poor and powerless, and that one of the essential roles of government is to help keep the market from violating people's basic rights. My fellow co-author Ralph Remington brought up the spectre of Ronald Reagan to make this point - when our society lets the market "sort things out," some people get "sorted out."

There has been, is now, and will likley continue to be more people (many of the elderly, disabled and poor) who will be sorted out of hard to find safe and affordabel housing if we continue to let condominium conversions contiue without better oversite and regularions.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Window Replacement

The City/County Lead Task Force (on which I serve, with CM Glidden and County Commissioner Dorfman) has been working on a novel approach to the difficult problem of lead poisoning.

It is now well-accepted that there is no safe blood lead level - any amount of lead in the blood can cause health problems such as learning disabilities, especially for children. Studies have clearly indicated that the main lead poisoning vector is no longer chipping and peeling paint (thanks in large part to the good work of City inspections departments, the County, and nonprofits active on this issue) but lead dust near windows. The only truly effective way to solve this problem is to replace the windows.

The group has proposed a revolving window-replacement loan program, funded by the state. All owners of 1-4 unit residential buildings built prior to 1950 will be eligible, which will cover all of the highest-risk buildings. The program, as we have conceived it, will not be means-tested, as all of the money will be repaid (by a lien on the property, if not paid back directly) and means-testing would substantially increase the program's administrative costs. To take advantage of the program, homeowners would have to install Minnesota-made windows.

One wonderful side-effect of this program is that old windows are not only a lead hazard, but one of the worst energy wasters in most houses. Replacing these windows will help us meet our statewide energy efficiency goals, saving us from burning more fossil fuels to heat and cool our homes.

My office worked with CM Glidden to make sure that language specifically supporting this program made it into the City's Legislative Agenda.

I'm pleased to see this good idea moving forward, and I will do what I can to convince legislators to support this innovative and exciting initiative.

Youth Violence Prevention Steering Committee

Last Friday, the Council voted to create a Youth Violence Prevention Steering Committee. The vote was unanimous, save for Council Member Don Samuels, who appropriately abstained due to the fact that his wife will be serving on the committee.

I will serve on the committee, as will the Mayor, Police Chief Dolan and Health Commissioner Gretchen Musicant.

I am very excited about this opportunity to craft a constructive, preventative approach for addressing one of the largest problems our city faces. I'm thrilled that the Mayor has decided to actively engage in this process, and I'm looking forward to working with the amazing people we've been able to recruit for this group. I expect great things.

Somali Youth Report

Last cycle, the Health Energy & Environment committee (HEE) heard a presentation of a report on Somali Youth Issues, prepared by the Civil Rights Department. I recommend you read it here.

The report was well-received, and I hope it will help make the case in the future that we should be devoting more resources to Somali youth programs, especially in the Cedar Riverside neighborhood.

The report has gone on to the Youth Coordinating Board to inform their work, and I plan to use its findings in the work of the Youth Violence Steering Committee.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Condo Conversion Ordinance

The Condominium Conversion ordinance amendments I am sponsoring will be coming for a public hearing on this Wednesday, January 31, at 1 pm at the Public Safety & Regulatory Services committee. This meeting will take place in the Council Chambers, room 317 of City Hall, 350 S 5th St in downtown Minneapolis.

I have been working closely with the Minneapolis Affordable Housing Coalition* on these amendments intended to better protect tenants, prevent the loss of affordable rental housing due to condominium conversions and to protect condominium buyers. The ordinance requires city approval of conversions and a reserve fund study to protect buyers. It strengthens notice requirements that owners must provide to tenants. It also puts in place affordable housing protection, and provides relocation benefits for tenants if the units to be converted are affordable.

If you would like more information about the specific provisions or the full language of the ordinance amendments, please let me know and I would be happy to send them to you. You can also find more information here: http://www.hppinc.org/?q=condos and here on the Committee's agenda:
http://www.ci.minneapolis.mn.us/council/2007-meetings/20070209/PSRS20070131agenda.asp
under item 16.

The Minneapolis Affordable Housing Coalition's (MAHC) planning committee members include:
HOME Line, Housing Preservation Project (HPP), Jewish Community Action (JCA)
Legal Aid Society of Minneapolis, Metropolitan Interfaith Council on Affordable Housing (MICAH)
Minnesota Tenants Union, Minnesota Senior Federation, Southwest Interfaith Neighborhood Group (SWING)
Minneapolis Urban League

The coalition's partners include:
Community Stabilization Project (CSP)
Family and Children’s Services – Jobs and Affordable Housing Committee
Office for Social Justice Saint Paul and Minneapolis
Minnesota Public Interest Research Group

Here are some facts about the state of affordable housing in Minneapolis:

- The Minnesota State Legislature has recognized that a lack of affordable housing in a city is an important concern as it relates to condominium conversions. Therefore, and pursuant to Minn. Stat. § 515B.1-106(c), it authorized a statutory or home rule charter city to pass ordinances establishing standards, applied uniformly in its jurisdiction, that impose reasonable conditions
upon the conversion of buildings to condominiums as long as there exists within the city a significant shortage of suitable rental dwellings available to low and moderate income individuals or families.

- According to the Department of Housing and Urban Development and based on the 2000 Census, Minneapolis has 37,847 low income (less than or equal to 50% area median adjusted by size) households that pay more than 30% of their income for rent or live in overcrowded housing or housing lacking basic facilities. Of these, 27,992 were renter households, 35% of all renter
households.

- According to the 2005-2009 Minneapolis Consolidated Plan, Minneapolis has a shortage of 13,499 units of housing affordable to households earning below 30% of Metro Median Income.

- As of January 2007, there are approximately 10,999 households, 5,557 of which are families, on the waiting list for Minneapolis Public Housing Authority affordable housing units.

- According to the CPED report "Minneapolis' Condo Conversion Trend and its Effect on Affordable Housing," at least 283
affordable units were converted between 2001 and 2005, or 23% of the total conversions in that time period. This report
indicates a concentration of condo conversions in certain parts of the City, leading to an increased concentration of affordable
housing in other neighborhoods.

- The Ten-Year Plan to End Homelessness in Minneapolis and Hennepin County, passed by the Minneapolis City Council on 12/1/06, identifies “shortage of affordable housing” as one of nine “root causes of homelessness.” The report calls for the City to “ensure the preservation of current affordable and supportive housing.”

- The Community Planning and Economic Development Department Housing Policy & Development Division lists as one of its goals “Preservation of currently affordable housing is a top priority for insuring continuing housing affordability in the city.”

- In the City’s latest round of Affordable Housing Trust Fund applications, the average total development cost of a new affordable rental unit was $195,572.

Friday, January 26, 2007

University Impact Report and Inspections

The City, the University of Minnesota and the neighborhoods surrounding the Minneapolis U campus (Marcy Holmes, Como, Prospect Park and Cedar Riverside) have been collaborating on a “University Impact Report,” which is to be returned to the Legislature in February. You can find the report here: http://www.ci.minneapolis.mn.us/council/2007-meetings/20070112/docs/UofM_RptPart%202.pdf.

I was delighted that the Council unanimously approved today. I wholeheartedly support this report and its recommendations, have followed it closely, and have been pushing for this well before it was passed by the state legislature. I will continue to do what I can to take advantage of this unique opportunity to build a better partnership between the City, the University and the surrounding neighborhoods. It offers a clear path for addressing some of the most pressing concerns the neighborhood is facing. Among those concerns is the issue of owner occupied housing being converted to rental property.

As a result of this report, and shortly following its passage, I plan to move forward on two related initiatives.

First, I am going to actively explore a moratorium on rental housing conversions. Initial discussions indicate that the City may not have legal authority to impose such a moratorium. However, the Impact Report, the current attention of the Legislature and the potential new University Area District may provide the necessary leverage to gain this authority. I will take the next steps in the next several weeks, reviewing the possibilities and options with the City attorney’s office, Zoning and Planning and Intergovernmental Relations staff.

The Impact Report also, in part, prompted Regulatory Services to move forward with plans to inspect all of the rental housing in the neighborhoods surrounding campus.

I believe that this is a good idea – as the report makes clear, many rental dwellings in U neighborhoods are substandard, some of them to the point of endangering their tenants. I believe it’s important to reverse the slide in housing quality, for the safety of tenants and the livability and sustainability of our neighborhoods.

Some things that I think are important regarding the upcoming inspections include:

1) That those who are likely to be impacted be informed and engaged prior to the inspections and that the community understands what will be inspected beforehand.
2) That we identify possible resources to help residents and owners (especially those of limited means) make needed improvements both before and after inspections.

The proposed inspections have also caused me to decide that it is time to revisit the way the city views and regulates maximum occupancy. I have been concerned about the Minneapolis zoning code on maximum occupancy for some time. I made this an issue in the 2005 campaign. My concern is that the proposed inspections will have the same disruptive, negative impact on students sharing housing near the University as the inspections sweep of 2003.

Minneapolis has two different maximum occupancy codes, which produce different numbers of occupants allowed in many dwelling units in the City. 244.810 is the Housing Maintenance code, which exists to protect the health and safety of residents (in conjunction with the rest of the Housing Maintenance code). 546.50 is the Zoning code, which exists to regulate density. 546.50 is the code that led students to be evicted from their housing during the 2003 sweep.

244.810 establishes the number of people who can safely cohabitate by the “habitable square footage” of the dwelling. This is further limited by other provisions describing “habitable” space (such as when basements can and cannot be considered habitable), requirements for bedrooms (for example, any room that people must cross to use a common restroom cannot be considered a bedroom), minimum sizes of both bedrooms and common spaces, etc.

546.50 establishes the number of people who can legally cohabitate by what zone the dwelling is in, and whether the residents are related to each other. In R1-R3 (low density) zones, you can have 3 unrelated persons living together in a unit, no matter its size. In R4-R6 (high density) zones, you can have 5 unrelated persons living together in a unit, again no matter its size. Thus, an 18-room mansion zoned R1 near Lake Harriet can legally hold only 3 unrelated people, whereas a studio apartment in Cedar Riverside zoned R4 can legally hold 5 people, related or not (according to 546.50).

I should note that the code does also establish a maximum limit of five for even related persons sharing housing. Thus, my household of six family members is currently violating the letter of 546.50, as are many other families throughout the City. However, few would suggest that the City enforce this ordinance against families like mine, as similar provisions have been struck down by the Supreme Court. This partial unenforceability is another serious flaw with the (546.50) ordinance.

I believe that 244.810 is a more appropriate template for a maximum occupancy ordinance than 546.50, and I am planning to try to make the two codes more consistent. My principal concern is the safety and health of tenants. I do not believe that we should decide on the maximum occupancy of a given dwelling unit based on the “relatedness” of its residents. I have had preliminary discussions with Regulatory Services staff, and they have said they have the capacity to enforce 244.810.

In the next few weeks I plan to gather a group of community members and stakeholders to help find a way to improve the codes to regulate maximum occupancy that puts a priority on health and safety, takes into consideration the livability concerns raised by many residents and does not discriminate against unrelated adults sharing housing, GLBT couples, students and the poor. It will be important to have different view points represented in this group so that we can work to find a consensus solution that works for everyone. If you are willing and interested in participating please let me know.

Republican National Convention II

The Council has approved the contract to bring the Republican convention (RNC) to Minneapolis in 2008, and the Mayor has signed it.

Last Wednesday, I went forward with the two ideas mentioned in the last RNC post. I'm pleased to say that the work group passed unanimously. I have heard from my colleague Lisa Goodman (who represents downtown) that she is interested in serving on it. I am hopeful that this group will lay out some good strategies for protecting free speech, while also providing adequate security and minimizing disruption.

The other idea - moving to amend the agreement to give the Chief of Police equal authority to approve the security plan - sparked an interesting turn that I haven't seen before in my time on the Council so far.

I made the motion to direct our staff to stipulate that the Minneapolis Police Depatment and it was discussed at some length. It then passed 7-5, with one abstention. After the vote had been taken, City Attorney Jay Heffern raised concerns about what the amendment meant. Was the Council directing our negotiator, Peter Ginder, to refuse to sign the agreement unless that change was made? He expressed concern that the RNC had not been warm to the idea when Peter had mentioned it to them the previous day. And how should the process work - should the special Council meeting adjourn and reconvene later? (Earlier in the week I have first proposed that the City Council should review and approve the yet-to-written Security Plan. This failed to pass in the Public Safety Commitee. The idea of requiring approval by the Police Chief first came from Council Member Ostrow at the Ways and Means Committee meeting. )

Through the course of the ensuing debate, five of my colleagues who had originally supported the motion changed their votes. When the vote was retaken (after some byzantine parliamentary shuffles), it failed 11-2, with only Ninth Ward CM Gary Schiff voting with me.

I was surprised by this outcome, to say the least. It seemed an easy enough call, to me. When Peter had originally raised the idea with the RNC, it had failed in committee. Why would they express support for it? If we had directed him to go back with the message that the Council supports this, and will not sign the contract without it, I believe the response would've been significantly different.

Had the Council stood our ground, rather than allowing ourselves to be intimidated by the RNC, I believe we would now be in a much better position. The City would have the authority to make sure that the security plan reflects our values, and reflects the outcome of the discussions in the work group. I consider this an important missed opportunity.

As it is, we are left with some hope that the internal work group and other City staff can provide the strong voice needed to make sure that the final security plan that will be subject to final approval of the RNC Committee on Arrangements.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Traffic Calming Event

On Monday, I attended a meeting of a sub-group of the Longfellow Community Council's (LCC) Environment and Transportation committee (E&T) to discuss a traffic calming event now tentatively set for April 20th.

The event's purpose is to highlight some concerns that our office has heard about the behavior of commuters on West River Parkway, as well as on other neighborhood streets. The majority of drivers are violating the 25 MPH speed limit. Few drivers are stopping for pedestrians in crosswalks, which is required by law. West Rivers Parkway is fairly narrow, leading to some conflicts between bicyclists (who have the legal right to be on the road) and drivers. Some bicycle commuters are disregarding stop signs and other traffic control devices. Making matters worse, the bike path is fairly degraded, pushing even some recreational bicyclists (who tend to move somewhat more slowly) onto the street.

The neighborhood came together for a similar event back in 2000 - kids waved bright yellow signs, elected officials came out, mounted units traced the route of the parkway.

The discussion on Monday was enthusiastic and creative. Among the ideas thrown out: "Burma Shave" style signs alerting commuters to their responsibilities in a clever, catchy way; a week-long "foreshadowing" of the event featuring unfinished phrases that will make drivers wonder what's going on; "franchising" the signs to other areas with traffic control problems; tying in with the statewide Share the Road campaign, run by MNDOT; mobilizing the Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts to participate; getting the mounted police and Speed Wagon (the radar sign that tells drivers how fast they're going) out for the event. It's clear that we want to have the event on a weekday, in order to hit our primary commuter audience.

Cam's planning on going, and we've also invited the other Council Members who represent Longfellow - Sandy Colvin Roy and Gary Schiff - and the Mayor. I'll provide updates as I have them.

Republican National Convention

On Monday, my office received a memo from the City Coordinator's office on the Republican National Committee (RNC), asking that the Council approve the agreement with the "Host Committee" at this Friday's Council meeting.

I have been concerned about this convention since Minneapolis/St. Paul were chosen as host cities. I have heard from similarly concerned Second Ward residents, one of whom came into the office to share his very helpful thoughts about forming a work group of some kind to come up with our plan for maintaining civil liberties while still providing adequate security.

One line in the memo sparked my concerns further: "The Secret Service and Homeland Security will have the final decision making authority on protestors." To me, that sounds a bit like giving the fox the keys to the henhouse.

The current practice for both major parties has been to corral protestors in a "free speech zone," out of sight and earshot of dignitaries. There have been a number of arrests of people speaking critically or wearing t-shirts criticizing the Bush Administration, along motorcade routes and at events. In my opinion, this is well outside the bounds of "time/place/manner" restrictions, which have been upheld by the courts, and put us in the dangerous and unconstitutional realm of government regulating content of protected political speech.

My office has worked hard since Monday to craft two potential responses to go along with any Council action approving the agreement between the City and the "Host Committee" that will soon be bepofre us for considerations.

I am likely to introduce a motion to create the work group that will come up with our plan for protecting free expression as well as security. The work group would include the following people or their designees: the Mayor, one or more Council Members, Chief Dolan, the Director of Civil Rights (Michael Browne), the City Attorney (Jay Heffern), the Assistant City Coordinator for Emergency Preparedness and Regulatory Services (Rocco Forte), and two representatives of recognized civil liberties groups like the ACLU or National Lawyers Guild.

I am also looking into amending the contract to ensure that the City (or someone in the City enterprise) has a role in approving the convention security plan. The current agreement gives that authority to the "Committee on Arrangements," which as far as I can tell is controlled by the RNC.

I recognize that the Secret Service has a role to play in providing security for important persons. But I also believe that they have overstepped their bounds in recent years, protecting the Administration from criticism as well as actual security threats. I have especially troubled by the responses to protestors in Boston, New York, Los Angeles and elsewhere - responses that show host cities in a terrible light and therefore undermine one of the main purposes of hosting a major party convention.

I want the convention in 2008 to be a model for how a city can host a major party convention without trampling the constitutional rights of its residents and visitors and without incurring huge unmet costs or major inconveniences to many in the City who jusyt want to be able to live theri normals lives while the convention is in town. I believe we can do this, but only with careful and thorough planning.

The outcome of the discussion at Committee of the Whole today is that the Council will not even attempt to approve the contract tomorrow, but hold a special meeting next week to do so. Council Members were very concerned about "rushing through" a deal this important without adequate time to read, consider, and consult with residents. I agree. As I mentioned in today's discussion, it sends a bad message about the nature of our relationship with the RNC if we're forgoing our normal open process for their timeline and their convenience.

I will likley put forth my motion at the meetings next week. Stay tuned.