Minneapolis neighborhood groups try to bridge the renter gap

MinnPost photo by Bill Lindeke
Melissa Hysing, far right, speaking at Wednesday night's Standish-Ericsson renter engagement meeting.

The Twin Cities are famous for their culture of volunteerism, and each city has a unique civic engagement system. St. Paul’s geography is organized into 17 district councils dating back to the 1970s, while Minneapolis has a more complex map of more than 80 distinct neighborhoods, each with their own official groups.

And as any developer knows, these neighborhood groups are a required stop when trying to build in Minneapolis or St. Paul. Without the stamp of approval, it can be a nearly impossible road for a new building or project. It seems like a great example of democracy in action.

But if you look more closely behind neighborhood groups’ democratic veneer, you find a troubling problem. While half the population of Minneapolis and St. Paul are renters, neighborhood groups rarely include these residents.

For the past year, John Edwards, a self-described “descendent of homeowners,” has attended his local meetings of the Lowry Hill East Neighborhood Association. He quickly became frustrated that his local board was dominated by homeowners.

“These groups end up being homeowners’ associations,” Edwards told me. “Sure, there’s a place for that. They live in the neighborhood, and have the right to have their views represented. But what bothers me is when they claim a mandate from the neighborhood — that they’re this democratic voice of the people, when 85 percent of the neighborhood is renters.”

Wikimedia Commons

The NRP’s homeownership legacy

There are lots of reasons for neighborhood groups’ lingering problems with representation: language barriers, child care needs, or simply the fact that working people lack the time to spend hours attending lengthy meetings.

At the same time, there might be structural problems with the neighborhood group system. Back in the 1990s, Minneapolis’ neighborhood groups were fueled by the city’s innovative Neighborhood Revitalization Program (NRP), which gave money directly to the groups for capital improvement efforts. Uniquely in the country, citizens could decide for themselves how to spend city money.

But the NRP system also led to problems. Ross Joy is the lead organizer for the Corcoran Neighborhood, and blames the NRP system for focusing on homeowners at the expense of Minneapolis’ renters.

“Those funding mechanisms were targeted primarily, 110 percent, for homeowners,” Joy explained to me. “There should be no surprise that that our neighborhood associations were set up to have really high engagement around homeowners and not renters.”

While the NRP program has changed today, some neighborhood groups have found outreach to be challenging. For example, David Brauer (a former MinnPost writer and a Southwest Journal columnist) spent years in the ’90s and 2000s working with the Kingfield Neighborhood Association. One of his longstanding goals was increasing participation of renters and people of color.

“We tried,” Brauer told me. “We thought about it. We wanted it. We did have renters on our board, but not many. We did have people of color on our board, but not many. But [outreach] wasn’t that effective. It always led to the question: Are we doing something wrong? Does what we’re doing interest the people we’re trying to reach? Or are they just too busy to care?”

According to Brauer, increasing participation is almost impossible with a shoestring budget. And because they didn’t have large areas of poverty, the Kingfield neighborhood had difficulty getting grants that might have helped.

Who is missing?

In conversations about cities, many people think renters are a “transient” population and that they simply don’t care to get involved in the community.

“The dominant narrative is that residents who rent are not engaged in the neighborhood and have no interest in community building,” Ross Joy explained to me. “People say that renters are a detriment to the neighborhood, or that they bring unsavory elements and are transitory. I’m of the opinion that all those things are not true.”

An image of the leaking ceilings at an apartment complex
Courtesy of Corcoran Neighborhood
An image of the leaking ceilings at an apartment complex in the Standish-Ericsson neighborhood.

In the United States, homeownership has long been synonymous with good citizenship. In the 1930s, policymakers believed that debt-laden homeowners would be unlikely to go on strike, and during the ’50s, homeownership was seen as an economic driver of a broad range of consumer products. Thus for a slew of political and economic reasons, U.S. policies are littered with benefits and subsidies that encourage homeownership.

But both Minneapolis and St. Paul remain bastions of rental housing. Yet, as Karen Boros pointed out last year on this site, despite representing over half the population, renters are a minuscule part of Minneapolis’ official groups and commissions. 

Door knocking in Standish-Ericsson

There’s no doubt that reaching out to renters is difficult work. Ever since she joined the Standish-Ericsson Neighborhood Association (SENA) board a year ago, Melissa Hysing has been trying to engage renters in her neighborhood conversations. A few months ago, the SENA board did a survey that identified the geographic and demographic diversity missing from their existing community group.

“Our board is 100 percent homeowners,” Hysing told me. “We found that people under 24, or retirement age, or people of color, renters, and single parents were underrepresented. [Likewise] two-thirds of our board members live south of 42nd Street, and a lot of us are clustered around Lake Hiawatha. We clearly had much less representation from the geographic areas in the north and west, and near the light rail.”

In response to this disparity, the Standish-Ericsson board enlisted a half-dozen volunteers to knock on 400 doors, trying particularly to target renters. Hysing’s advice on talking to renters is pretty simple: Ask open-ended questions, be willing to enter apartment buildings, and raise the courage to overcome cultural barriers. It also helps to speak Spanish or other common languages of the Twin Cities’ immigrant communities.

For Hysing and Joy, bridging the barriers between renters and homeowners brings new issues to the foreground. In the Standish-Ericsson and Corcoran neighborhoods, common concerns included holding landlords accountable for building maintenance, increasing library hours, and rethinking how utility bills are divided in the city. Thanks to the hours of grass-roots conversations, Hysing and her colleagues have been able to begin actually represent the whole of their neighborhoods.

Ideas for renter engagement

In my neighborhood on St. Paul’s West Side, Rebecca Noecker is one of the board members of the West Side Community Organization (WSCO), which is applying for a grant aimed at outreach to Latinos and renters.

“Outreach is hugely important because we are supposed to be representing the views of a community, and those views are never as homogenous as we think,” Noecker told me. “We’re bad at doing it because we don’t do it on an ongoing basis.”

Noecker argues that the “western way of doing things with committees and bylaws and procedures” doesn’t engage a wide range of people, and is applying for a grant that will help the neighborhood with other, more decentralized approach to engagement that might involve fewer meetings and more hands-on projects.

But based on his experience in the Kingfield neighborhood, David Brauer remains skeptical that much can be done without money.

“I don’t want to say there’s no hope,” Brauer told me, “but I’m a little skeptical about getting the meetings out of the park building. We had tons of events that we thought would be good organizing efforts. There needs to be more appreciation of the fact that one of the fundamental barriers to representation in neighborhood organizations is that it’s a lot of work.”

In the Corcoran neighborhood, Ross Joy has helped start an official “tenant’s council” focusing exclusively on renter issues, and hosts a regular “tenant organization” meeting to help other neighborhood groups learn about engaging with renters.

Back in Lowry Hill East, John Edwards started a blog (complete with infographics) aimed at revealing the disparities between his neighborhood group and its renter-dominated neighborhood. He likely won’t stop until there is a greater renter representation on the board. But at least in Minneapolis, neighborhoods like Corcoran and Standish-Ericsson prove that it can be done.

Comments (9)

  1. Submitted by Monica Millsap on 09/18/2014 - 11:03 am.

    When I moved to St Paul, I got immediately involved in my district council because my caretaker was on the board. Not many people in the grid were involved, but I at least felt there was an effort to include everyone. The more involved I get, however, the more I realize the significant barriers to getting everyone involved, and especially those who rent. This includes people who seem to feel threatened by being more inclusive and use language like “transients” as described in this post. But honestly, I’ve seen long term renters and short term homeowners go through the neighborhood. I’ve also found that people who rent often want the same things that homeowners want, and their perspective only makes the community stronger. It’s a shame that we shun a large percentage of the people. I’m hoping that continued awareness efforts throughout the city changes that.

  2. Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 09/18/2014 - 11:53 am.

    Good discussion of how hard it is, actually, to animate our city’s renter population to devote the time and energy to neighborhood group activities.

    Everybody talks about “engaging” renters and other groups, but those who have made and are making solid, good-faith efforts to achieve participation know that a lot of that talk is just verbiage, without financial support, as Brauer points out.

  3. Submitted by Rita OKeeffe on 09/18/2014 - 02:51 pm.

    What do renters want that is different than homeowners?

    I live in the Wedge and in the past was involved in the neighborhood board. Now, not so much due to young children and career – Since I am in a stage of life where I don’t want to be an active participant, I rely on my neighbors to do what is best for the over all long term health of the neighborhood. Likewise, many of my neighbors are young college, grad student and starting out 20 somethings,When I talk to them about this and frankly the vast majority are in a stage of life where THEY don’t want to be involved in the neighborhood association. But what I really I would like to know, in all seriouness, is what to renters want that is different from what homeowners want? I want good police and fire protection. Safe drivers, maybe even have it look nice in the neighborhood. All the buildings in the neighborhood should be safe and well maintained rentals included (and if I tbought have more renters involved would improve the appearance of many of our rentals I would be dragging them to the community board meetings.) Do renters want something different? What needs of theirs are not being met?

    • Submitted by Monica Millsap on 09/18/2014 - 04:06 pm.

      I can’t think of any resident who wouldn’t want a safe environment to live, work, and play. But, having people of any age who rent represented would help a great deal at neighborhood organizations. People who rent may have a different opinion on things like restricting student renters within neighborhoods (something St Paul neighborhood groups have proposed in the past). People who rent may have ideas the homeowners had not thought of in terms of dealing with problem properties, landlords, and other residential issues. People who rent might also bring a new perspective on neighborhood issues that homeowners may not even be aware of and renters may get a sense of what issues homeowners may face that they as renters do not. Getting a larger share of the population involved allows people to get to know one another and understand each other. People who are involved in some way with the neighborhood or are at least aware of what the organization is doing tend to be more invested in the community. If people don’t want to participate, that is fine. But, those who want to participate should be included and efforts could be stronger to engage a wider network of people.

    • Submitted by Alex Cecchini on 09/19/2014 - 03:58 pm.

      Here’s the topics

      from the September LHENA meetings:

      September 2: Housing and Development Task Force at 6:30 p.m.
      September 3: NRP committee meeting at 7:00 p.m.
      September 10: Zoning and Planning committee meeting at 6:30 p.m.
      September 17: LHENA Board meeting at 6:30 p.m.

      The board meeting from Sept 17th hasn’t posted minutes, but the topics from the July meeting include:
      – Election to fill open board seats
      – Presentation on Wedge re-zoning study
      – Brief overview of the Urban Design Assessment project (future meetings will contain more of this)
      – Update on the Elan sign plan
      – NRP Strategy – Neighborhood Signs to Phase II NRP Infrastructure

      This seems pretty par for the course. I would hope that it’s painfully obvious that many people, homeowners and renters included (though obviously more the latter than former) care VERY little about topics that focus primarily on zoning, NRP programs aimed mostly at homeowners (or, landlords – not the renters themselves), and a housing task force. Certainly renters don’t benefit from the type of zoning, preservation, etc laws that limit supply and push up their rents (whereas the flip is the case for homeowners who benefit from scarcity of housing). Maybe the things renters care about is living close to jobs or shopping or the lakes or trails or whatever, and that’s perfectly okay.

      Maybe neighborhood groups (and perhaps the city at large) should take this as a sign that the very topics discussed at meetings don’t matter to a significant chunk of the population. Maybe fewer meetings with fewer topics is the answer, particularly in neighborhoods where homeowners with very particular views on very specific topics are vastly outweighed by renters.

      (for reference, my wife and I ‘own’ our home in CARAG)

    • Submitted by Jeff Klein on 03/22/2016 - 08:30 am.

      Different opinions

      The demographics are different and they have different priorities.

      Let me give you an example. In my neighborhood the homeowners seem primarily concerned with preventing development and making sure they can always park immediately in front of their house.

      The renters are more inclined to support some added development, because this tends to mean more amenities, and they mostly don’t drive as much so they care less about parking.

  4. Submitted by Cedar Phillips on 09/18/2014 - 08:17 pm.

    While I 100% agree that we need more renters on neighborhood boards, I’d also like to note that nothing magically changed about me when I transitioned from renter to homeowner; owning didn’t make me care any more about where I lived, or about our city than when I’d rented, or make me any more likely to be involved in community activities. I cared about where I lived when I rented; I care about where I live now that I own.

    I think the most significant benefit of having renters on boards is that they help to counteract stereotypes and make it more difficult to write off large percentages of our city’s populations as lesser than their property-owning neighbors.

    • Submitted by William Lindeke on 09/18/2014 - 10:21 pm.

      good point

      that’s really important. there are a lot of negative stereotypes out there, which are compounded by the race and class divides that come with the renter.homeowner gap, if we want Minneapolis to really tackle the persistent gaps in the city, it has to begin with this bottom-up level of democratic engagement, I believe.

  5. Submitted by Evan Roberts on 09/19/2014 - 10:32 pm.

    Echoing some of what’s been said above, perhaps a bigger problem is how few people—homeowners or not—are involved in neighborhood associations relative to the population.

    It’s also notable that the formal positive powers of the associations are limited (so as David Brauer says, they can’t do much), yet they can exercise a great deal of informal blocking or veto power without really being held accountable for that. I think this contributes to some of them having a reputation for saying no to change, since it’s what they can effect.

    It would be interesting to see the difference between the Saint Paul and Minneapolis ones. I have a feeling the small size of the Minneapolis ones may lead to a greater degree of parochialism.

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