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Whittier Alliance moves houses — and neighborhood — forward

I’ve heard of people moving out of their houses in the middle of the night — typically to cheat the landlord out of last month’s rent. But I had never heard of people moving houses — literally moving houses — two of them, in the middle of the night.

But that’s what happened this November before the first big snowfall. The folks responsible for these goings on are the Whittier Alliance, the South Minneapolis coalition of neighborhood activists and businesses famous for helping to birth the Whittier International Elementary school and branding Nicollet Avenue’s Eat Street.   

The two dwellings, rather unremarkable examples of late-19th-century-early-20th-century architecture that your great grandparents might have occupied back in the day, were transported two blocks from 25th and Stevens to 27th and Stevens. Both houses previously sat on the campus of the Minneapolis College of Art and Design and were used as dorms for students. When the school decided to get rid of them, it offered them to the community what Marian Biehn, Whittier’s executive director, calls “a very fair, well, low price.”

What’s the point of all this house uprooting and transplantation? Biehn explains that one piece of the group’s current strategic plan, which runs through 2017, is to “preserve and increase single-family and owner-occupied housing in the neighborhood.”

That seems like a weird goal considering that developers are falling all over themselves to build as many apartments as they can both in downtown and in Uptown. Supposedly, Minneapolis has become — or will become — overrun by single-person households, either young people who want to savor the fleshpots of a large city or empty-nesters like myself who have given up mowing lawns to be near a restaurant with a good head waiter. Even the City Planning Commission has recommended accommodating the trend by reducing the required minimum-apartment size to about 390 square feet.

And the Whittier neighborhood, which stretches from Franklin on the north to Lake Street on the south, Lyndale on the west and I-35 on the east, seems like a neighborhood that draws single people. In fact, I looked it up, and of its households, only 12 percent are married, compared to 29 percent for the city as a whole. Next door to the Whittier Alliance’s office is Spyhouse Coffee, where gather hipsters in thick glasses, torn jeans and thrift-store sweaters, each equipped with a Mac laptop or iPad, bent over work that would no doubt save the planet or at least update their profiles on Facebook.

Hip place to live

“It is kind of hipster-y,” says Biehn. “We have a growing demographic of under-35-year-olds. But we also have a significant portion of 60s-era hippies.” About a third of the population is under the poverty line, compared to 23 percent in Minneapolis.  

Biehn says, however, that practically every day the Alliance fields calls from residents who say that they want to stay in the neighborhood but can’t. Their problem: their situation has changed — they may have married or moved in with someone, they had a baby or added a pet. For whatever reason, they need a place to live, one that’s bigger than a one-bedroom apartment, which is the neighborhood’s standard dwelling unit.  

So the house move is the Alliance’s small effort to preserve at least some variety in the neighborhood. And the group has a point: hipsters may remain too cool for school until they’re 90, but, being humans, they hook up, become parents, acquire stuff, want more room and may want to stay where they are now.

Developers and city planners had better think long and hard about how many 390-square-foot apartments Minneapolis needs. If growth is a priority item on the city’s agenda, then it will have to offer housing choices to folks in their post-single, pre-empty-nester years. To increase that tax base, you’ve got to get folks to come; but you’ve also got to keep them.

Moving the two houses was like one of those problem-fraught home-improvement projects on GHTV, only times two and with city bureaucracy thrown. Every approval from each city department seemed to take weeks, says Biehn, who thought that the houses would have been ready for sale last year. Funding the group thought it could tap fell through, and it was forced to use its own reserves. It bought two lots that had been the sites of tax-foreclosed properties; testing the soil for contamination (there was none) caused further delays. And, of course, the most recent problem has been the weather. Sewer, electric and gas lines are being run, but until the foundation is weatherized (which can’t happen until the temperature rises), the houses can’t be placed on them. “Right now, they are mobiles,” says Biehn.

Small houses

The Whittier Alliance houses are not huge, one is about 1,200 square feet and the other 1,600 square feet, and they only have two bedrooms. Still, they would work for a couple or a family with one or two kids. (Kids can share a bedroom, folks; I did, though my sister and I almost murdered each other.) They have open layouts and everything is brand-new and up to code; there’s air-conditioning, heating and plumbing with “lofted second floors.” And Minneapolis Boy Scout Troop 124 dug up all the greenery around the houses on the MCAD campus, stored it for the winter at Green Leaf Park and plans to replant it this spring, when the houses go up for sale.

The Alliance hasn’t yet set a firm price, although a sales flyer mentions $180,000 for each. The requirements for buyers: they have to be able to afford the place and they have to occupy it. (If you’re interested, watch for open house dates at whittieralliance.org.)

So far, the Alliance has budgeted roughly $280,000. (Biehn says she hasn’t seen this month’s heating bill yet.) They are hoping to recoup their expenses and turn a small profit to invest in new projects. “We feel that we are doing Minneapolis a great service,” she says.

The group took two houses and two lots that weren’t paying property taxes and put them on the rolls again. And presumably solid citizens will be occupying the houses. The difficulties haven’t been sufficient to discourage Biehn. “If we can do it again, we will. We’ll just be a little wiser.”

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Comments (3)

  1. Submitted by Elliot Altbaum on 12/13/2013 - 11:10 am.

    Hipsters is a useless term

    Thank you for highlighting a great organization doing excellent work. You raised point that has been bothering me for a while. Lots of one bedroom apartments are being built but few dense housing for families is being built. However, you reach this good conclusion through tiring use of the “hipster” trope. It has so little meaning and instead just builds hype. Your argument is as good, if not better when you replace “hipster” with Millennial or single person in their 20’s.
    Other than that, your analysis is spot on.

    • Submitted by Andy Dunn on 12/13/2013 - 11:44 am.

      Agreed. “Hipster” changes meaning with each successive generation. Go back to when it was first used and compare who was a “hipster” then to one who is now. Vastly different definition.

  2. Submitted by Alex Cecchini on 12/17/2013 - 09:58 am.

    I’m just… confused

    Why is single-family and owner-occupied housing so desirable that we codify them in to neighborhood and city planning? What are the underlying assumptions of what this means in practice – you can have attached single-family homes (row homes) that utilize scarce/valuable space much better (especially when paired with minimal setback). You can have similar housing where an owner may decide to rent out a garden apartment beneath the upper (owned) floors. Good urban design (nix the parking minimums and required setbacks) and allowing the market to respond to housing needs can be just as safe, inviting, affordable, and full of “character” (or potentially more so) than outright pushing for a certain housing style and ownership model.

    I’m glad the houses themselves were able to be re-used, saving wasted materials and landfill space. But there are other options and limiting new development or encouraging with public funds (on top of the generous federal/state/county subsidies to homeowners) doesn’t seem like a good long-term plan for the neighborhood.

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