Twin Cities housing policies contribute to segregation, report says
Saint Paul Pioneer Press (MN), 2014-02-11
Feb. 11--A new report from the University of Minnesota Law School's Institute on Metropolitan Opportunity says the Twin Cities have become dramatically more racially segregated since the early 1990s, and it cites affordable-housing policies as a major cause.
The report, titled "Reforming Subsidized Housing Policy in the Twin Cities to Cut Costs and Reduce Segregation," states that housing policies have concentrated low-income minorities in just a handful of St. Paul and Minneapolis neighborhoods, with a dramatic impact on the racial composition of neighborhood schools.
"In the early 1990s, there were very few segregated schools in the Twin Cities," the report says. "Today there are more than 130. ... Highly segregated schools are also nearly always high-poverty schools, and school poverty is (a) powerful predictor of student performance."
Housing advocates, including Metropolitan Council Chair Sue Haigh, who also is president of Twin Cities Habitat for Humanity, took issue with some of the report's conclusions and said it glossed over the impact of housing voucher programs, which are highly mobile. She believes many new immigrants are gravitating to urban areas to be closer to family, cultural institutions, jobs, mass transit lines and public services, regardless of whether government chooses to concentrate subsidized housing there.
The report, which was completed by institute director Myron Orfield with two colleagues, notes that public policies have focused heavily on building or rebuilding housing in the metro area's poorest neighborhoods, most of them along Interstate 94 in Minneapolis and St. Paul.
The two cities account for 25 percent of the region's population and housing, but they are home to 59 percent of its subsidized-housing units and 53 percent of units backed by low-income housing tax credits.
"The data show very clearly that publicly subsidized housing is heavily concentrated in areas that are already majority nonwhite," the report states.
In an interview, Orfield noted that the Met Council has recently highlighted "Racially Concentrated Areas of Poverty," or RCAPs -- large land tracts where more than 50 percent of residents are people of color and more than 40 percent of residents live at or near the federal poverty level.
The metro's largest such contiguous area extends across 33 census tracts in St. Paul. Another 38 census tracts are located in Minneapolis, split between North Minneapolis and South Minneapolis.
Rather than attempt to break up these "RCAPs" by introducing more middle-income residents, Orfield said, nonprofit groups have become accustomed to building housing developments in the urban core, which is often more lucrative for the nonprofit developer.
He said that for each unit of affordable housing, costs are at least $30,000 more expensive in Minneapolis and $37,900 pricier in St. Paul than in the suburbs. Those costs are absorbed largely by the public through city, state and local grants and subsidies to nonprofit developers.
"It's easier to build in the city," Orfield said. "There's not as much resistance, generally. They're used to it. They have strong relationships with local elected officials.
"The fees can be higher, the costs can be higher," he continued. "They get more from the government. ... If you're going to build a project, wouldn't you prefer to build one where you could charge 30 percent more?"
As an example, he pointed to the planned $14 million redevelopment of the Old Home Dairy complex into the Western University Plaza. A vacant industrial building at 370 W. University Ave. will be converted by Aurora St. Anthony Neighborhood Development Corp. and the Sands Companies into 58 affordable apartments and 5,000 square feet of commercial space. Those costs equate to roughly $200,000 or more per unit.
Rather than introduce a wider range of incomes into Frogtown, one of the city's poorest neighborhoods, "it's going to be all low-income housing -- every single unit," Orfield said. "This is not going to be transformative for the neighborhood."
Nancy Homans, a policy director for St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman, said many of Orfield's concerns are more applicable to larger cities such as Detroit or Chicago, which have well over 600,000 residents and are home to famously segregated minority neighborhoods.
The character of St. Paul neighborhoods tends to change from block to block and the city is more integrated, in part because of its smaller size and population, she said. She noted that many low-income residents will gravitate toward friends, family and public services in familiar areas such as Frogtown anyway, and government-backed housing developments ensure that the housing there is safe, attractive and permanent.
Haigh, the Met Council chair, said Orfield's report was incomplete. She said it did not look at federal voucher programs that allow low-income residents to rent apartments throughout the metro area.
"He's only taking one measure of affordable-housing production," Haigh said. "He's looking at one component of how do you house people. He completely ignores the Section 8 housing program."
She emphasized that cities have used affordable-housing programs to stabilize neighborhoods. In many cases, they've replaced vacant, eyesore buildings like Old Home Dairy and housing that was geared toward low-income tenants with modern developments that allow the same residents to remain in the community, rather than break ties with supportive friends, family, churches and cultural institutions.
"I think the key theme is that all communities in the region have to provide more affordable housing," Haigh said. "The way in which I take issue with the report is that good quality affordable housing -- well-built, well-managed by responsible nonprofit housing developers -- provides safety and health and opportunities for families to succeed at school."
Orfield said the Met Council's recent emphasis on locating low-income housing along transit lines was limiting the distribution of affordable housing to neighborhoods ill-equipped to absorb the poor. Those policies are blocking suburbs that are eager to use low-income housing tax policies to jump-start development projects that were put on hold during the recession.
He said that as a state lawmaker in the 1990s, he tried to pass legislation that would require suburbs to increase their affordable-housing stock. He failed.
The suburbs "really fought it," Orfield said. "It wasn't a popular idea back then. Now, they're calling me up to ask me to help them build more affordable-housing units, but the state is denying them the units because they're not on transit lines.
"The white suburbs are actually asking for housing and not getting it," he said. "This is unusual."
Frederick Melo can be reached at 651-228-2172. Follow him at twitter.com/FrederickMelo.
To read the Institute on Metropolitan Opportunity's report, go to tinyurl.com/segregationstudy.
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