A city’s greatest asset isn’t its property tax base or the profile of its biggest employers. It isn’t measured by its ranking in national surveys or livability indexes. Cities are defined by their people: the families and workers who pour their skills, creativity and love into the fabric of our community.
With a nearly $2 billion budget and 4,000 employees, the City of Minneapolis wields immense power in shaping the lives and opportunities of its residents. But when it comes to housing, those resources — the people’s tax dollars — aren’t being deployed to build up our greatest asset. Instead, the city department charged with Community Planning and Economic Development (CPED) has wielded that power to benefit large developers and wealthy landowners.
This week, the City Council voted to reappoint David Frank as director of CPED. David Frank is a name unknown to the vast majority of Minneapolis residents, but as director of CPED Frank is at the helm of a city department with a $131 million budget and more than 250 staff. Those employees make daily decisions about what gets built and for whom in our neighborhoods. CPED dictates the long-term growth of the city through land use planning, housing policy and approving more than $1 billion in construction permits annually.
For too long, we have taken a market-based, neoliberal approach as just the way things work. In Minneapolis, and cities around the country, planning departments have assumed their job is to court big-money investors and lure corporate headquarters. The “highest and best use” of the land is seen as that which will boost the property values and the tax base, while the needs of exploited communities are put on the back burner.
A growing coalition of affordable housing, renters rights and small business advocates attended Frank’s re-appointment to tell city leaders that business as usual at CPED is leading to housing insecurity, displacement and gentrification. The results of the current system are clearly visible. With thousands of families struggling to pay rent and the widest inequities in home ownership between white households and households of color in the nation, we are long past the point of pretending these outcomes are unintended consequences of an immutable system or mysterious forces outside of our control. Our city government has the power to make different choices about resources and priorities.
The private housing market has never served low-wealth communities and is incapable of addressing the racial wealth gap or housing insecurity in Minneapolis, yet CPED’s consistent practice is to turn public land over to private profiteers. For example, CPED granted exclusive development rights over 48 acres of public land in north Minneapolis at the Upper Harbor Terminal to one of the wealthiest, white developers in the state, United Properties, the same developer who turned a formerly public parcel on Hennepin Avenue into a 48-story corporate headquarters for RBC Wealth Management, a five-star hotel and high-end luxury condos; not one unit of housing was for the people of Minneapolis. We are calling on CPED to stop the practice of incentivizing and catering to private developers. We are calling on CPED to retain public ownership of city land and to use those parcels to deliver for the communities excluded by the private market.
CPED must also immediately adopt a new standard for what is considered “affordable” housing. The Area Median Income (AMI) currently in use is based on regional data and is 167% higher than the true Minneapolis AMI. Projects currently deemed affordable and receiving public subsidy at 60% AMI are too expensive for the majority of renters of color. We are calling on CPED to use the true Minneapolis AMI and prioritize projects with rents set at 30% of the Minneapolis Median Income.
Upon reappointment we are asking director David Frank to take on a leadership role in policy changes that will remove land from the speculative real estate market and provide additional rights and protections to tenants. We need CPED to fully utilize its power to institute community developed solutions like Tenant Opportunity to Purchase. CPED can institute more aggressive fees on big-money development to generate funds for the Affordable Housing Trust Fund and can use its influence to argue for dedicated housing funds and a repeal of the Rent Control Preemption Law at the state Capitol.
A CPED that works for renters, low-income residents and communities of color means not just passively acknowledging but taking real responsibility for the urgency of the housing crisis and daily emergency that faces thousands of hardworking families in our city. It means committing to an approach that is intentionally community-oriented, not market-oriented and exists primarily to serve the people of Minneapolis, not large developers and corporations. It reframes the goals of the department to improve the lives of residents, not encourage unfettered growth without consideration of who benefits and who is negatively impacted.
To be a true leader, Minneapolis must move beyond the hollow headlines and do the harder work of demanding a new playbook for CPED that sidelines the market as the primary character and animates the families and workers who are the true authors of our collective story.
Arianna Feldman is the communications organizer at Inquilinxs Unidxs por Justicia (Renters United for Justice), Tram Hoang is the policy advocate at The Alliance, and Jake Virden is the Parks & Power lead organizer at Hope Community.
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