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Putting Neighborhoods 2020 in context

South Mpls houses
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
The perception that NRP was mainly serving white homeowners led many of its critics to call for a restructuring of the program.

Now that the controversy over the much-debated Minneapolis 2040 plan has started to subside, another dispute is starting to build over a new city missive known as Neighborhoods 2020. This latest plan is intended to make the boards of Minneapolis’ 70 neighborhood organizations more racially and economically diverse. If adopted by the Minneapolis City Council, the plan would require the neighborhood organizations to meet certain diversity standards for their boards of directors or risk losing city funding.

Neighborhoods 2020 represents the most recent effort by city officials to rein in the independent neighborhood groups and make them more responsive to the will of City Hall. This tug of war between City Hall and the neighborhoods has a longstanding history. Its origins extend back to the early 1990s when the city launched its ambitious Neighborhood Revitalization Program.

Known as NRP, the innovative program was based on the premise that grassroots community organizations, directed by local residents, could reverse the social and economic trends that were destabilizing their neighborhoods. The city pledged to provide $400 million over 20 years to fund action plans created and implemented by the individual neighborhood groups. But this decentralized approach to community development came at the expense of a more centralized effort to establish citywide goals and priorities.

In order to generate broad support for their expansive initiative, NRP’s architects realized that they needed to make NRP a citywide program. Well-to-do districts like Linden Hills and Kenwood would get a piece of the NRP pie along with more economically challenged places such as Near North and Phillips.

Early years

The idea for NRP first surfaced in the late 1980s when Mayor Don Fraser appointed a citizens task force to examine the development needs of the city’s neighborhoods. The citizens group, chaired by former City Council Member Dick Miller, came up with a long-term approach to neighborhood revitalization, stretching over 20 years. “We had a 20-year plan for street paving so why not a 20-year plan for neighborhood development?” Miller said at the time.

Citing the city’s continuing population loss, Miller’s group called for a fourfold increase in spending on housing improvements and other community-based development occurring outside of Minneapolis’s downtown core. The task force highlighted the neighborhoods’ unmet needs, but did not identify the source of funds that could be used to address those needs. In the past, Minneapolis had been able to rely on a steady injection of federal dollars to help combat urban blight, but that funding source was declining as a result of Reagan administration budget cuts. The man most responsible for urban development spending in Minneapolis, the City Council’s Tony Scallon, realized that the city would need to come up its own source of funding if it was to begin implementing the Miller Committee recommendations.

Scallon, who chaired the council’s Community Development Committee, proposed tapping the revenue streams generated by the city’s tax increment districts. According to Scallon, if the districts were combined together they could provide $20 million a year to fund the Miller Committee’s proposal.

In 1989, a city election year, Scallon’s plan was eagerly embraced by his colleagues, most of whom were running for re-election. They welcomed a way to counteract the widespread perception that Minneapolis was paying too much attention to its downtown and ignoring the needs of its neighborhoods. In 1990, the 20-year neighborhood revitalization plan was formally adopted as a city policy by the mayor and the council.

By now, the Miller task force had been disbanded and new committee, composed of city staff, had been convened to work out the implementation details for the 20-year plan. Chaired by Deputy Mayor Rip Rapson, the implementation committee put together the NRP organizational structure that would remain in place for the next dozen years.

Rapson’s group came up with the concept of a policy board composed of representatives from the various political jurisdictions operating in Minneapolis. In addition to the city, itself, these other jurisdictions included Hennepin County, along with the Minneapolis school, parks and library boards. NRP was to be something more than a city effort even though most of its funds would come from the city’s tax increment districts, known collectively as the Common Project.

Soon, NRP had a new, more ambitious scope that transcended neighborhood boundaries. It was to be nothing less than a major redesign of the services provided by local departments and agencies. NRP would enable grassroots citizens to reshape those services to make them more responsive to neighborhood concerns and priorities. Mayor Fraser voiced the new approach in his 1990 State of the City Address declaring, “We are about to embark on an unprecedented effort to revitalize Minneapolis neighborhoods through a cooperative and coordinated service delivery process involving neighborhood residents. This is the Twenty Year Neighborhood Revitalization Plan. It promises to transform the way services are funded and delivered by the city, the county and our independent park, library and school systems.”

Power shift

The creation of the interagency NRP Policy Board represented a subtle but significant shift in NRP’s balance of power away from City Hall and towards the neighborhoods. The Policy Board, rather than the City Council, was given the authority to appoint the program’s director, NRP’s key staff job. As its first director, the Board selected Earl Craig, a prominent civil rights and political activist. When Craig died in 1992, the Board hired a Hennepin County official named Bob Miller to replace him.

Miller (no relation to Dick Miller), proved to be an adept bureaucrat who created a political base for himself and his program. As NRP’s long-term head, Miller clashed repeatedly with city officials, including Mayor R.T. Rybak. Even so, these city leaders continued to voice their support for NRP while battling with its director. From the very beginning, elected officials in City Hall had been ambivalent about NRP. City Council members were eager to court the activists in their wards who dominated NRP. At the same time, they viewed those activists warily, seeing them as potential opponents in the next city election.

From a policy standpoint, senior staff in the city’s development and planning departments were concerned with what they saw as NRP’s fragmentation, with its program development and implementation activities spread among 70 separate neighborhood organizations.

Wide latitude

NRP did try to build in some citywide goals into its structure, primarily through a provision requiring each neighborhood to spend at least 52.5 percent of its funds on housing. But this mandate gave each neighborhood wide latitude to determine the type of housing it chose to fund. Most NRP groups opted to meet the housing requirement by offering low-interest home improvement loans and grants to neighborhood homeowners, while allocating fewer of their own dollars for affordable rental housing.

Through the 1990s, NRP continued to gain momentum as a growing number of community groups were able to maneuver their action plans through the city’s complex approval processes. In many neighborhoods, mainly white, middle-class homeowners gained control of their local NRP. While their organizations struggled to involve renters and people of color in the NRP processes, those efforts often meet with limited success.

The perception that NRP was mainly serving white homeowners led many of its critics to call for a restructuring of the program, just as a change in state tax laws was substantially reducing the tax increment revenues used to fund the neighborhood action plans.

By the early 2000s, political pressures and funding limitations were transforming NRP. The ambitious goals voiced by Mayor Fraser in 1990 were now a thing of the past. Rather than supporting expansive development initiatives, NRP was becoming a more modest effort to fund the operating costs and overhead expenses of the neighborhood organizations, themselves. Then, in 2008, another major change occurred when the mayor and the City Council stripped the Policy Board of it authority to manage NRP. The program was brought under the control of a new city neighborhoods department, resulting in Bob Miller’s ouster as NRP’s long-time head.

Now, in 2019, this latest effort to tighten control of neighborhood spending has been prompted, in part, by new budgetary pressures. The tax increment district used to support the 70 community organizations will expire at the end of 2019, leaving those groups with a $4 million budgetary shortfall. Without a dedicated revenue source, the neighborhoods will have to compete with other city programs in order to maintain their city funding.

The move to make neighborhood groups more diverse represents one more step by City Hall’s current leadership to promote a municipal agenda focused on diversity and equity. Neighborhood groups may applaud this agenda in general terms, while resisting city efforts to limit their autonomy. In any case, the neighborhoods no longer have the power they once had to reshape city policies.

While it may undergo some modification over the next few months, Neighborhoods 2020 is likely to be put in place before the start of its target year.

Comments (8)

  1. Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 02/20/2019 - 12:26 pm.

    Nice overview of NRP’s origins and history, especially how city political and policy folks became really irritated with the autonomy of neighborhood groups.

    The punitive nature of the 2020 plan needs to be stressed: Do this or we’ll cut you off entirely! Perform all this unpaid labor. But lots of Minneapolitans can’t afford the luxury of performing unpaid labor; many can barely afford the time to go to meetings outside their work.

    The city’s goal is not to empower anybody outside city hall. It’s to kill off neighborhood groups so there is no de-centralized citizen-based activism to counter politicians’ and planners’ goals and strategies.

    • Submitted by Matthew Steele on 02/25/2019 - 10:02 am.

      The city is expecting certain minimum standards and effectiveness with the millions of dollars they hand over each year through the CPP program. That seems entirely fair, and every other grantmaking organization has similar expectations.

      There’s nothing preventing neighborhood benefit organizations from maintaining 501c3 status, fundraising or seeking other grant revenue, etc. But I see no reason why they should expect city funding and special recognition without performance/engagement targets and high levels of transparency.

  2. Submitted by David Markle on 02/20/2019 - 12:39 pm.

    Good review of history. although I’d like to add a few additional points. At the time the lucrative TIF districts got pooled to make the Common Fund, TIF had been overused and denied considerable revenue to the school district and county programs. The Common Fund made it too easy to spend tax money, because it was not part of the city budget and not subject to the city’s usual level of financial and political oversight.

    In some neighborhoods NRP became part of the city’s officially recognized advisory organization; in others, a separate entity.

    While NRP now grinds to a halt across town, the advisory organizations continue. In my neighborhood of Cedar-Riverside, both NRP and the advisory group met demise because of mismanagement and lack of adequate oversight. Meanwhile the city is determined to have an advisory group here and has restarted the shell of the NRP for that purpose, despite an obvious widespread lack of interest on the part of residents. The result will be an organization that lacks geographic and ethnic diversity, one that in any case cannot claim to more than nominally represent the neighborhood.

  3. Submitted by Arthur Himmelman on 02/20/2019 - 01:24 pm.

    No to Engagement — Yes to Shared Power

    Engagement invites people to the table
    Shared power gets people what they want to eat

    A poster during the mass uprising in France in 1968 read, “You participate, she participates, I participate, they decide.” Malcolm X: “Just because you invite me to the table does not mean I get something to eat.” Being invited to the table is a cliché commonly used by government, foundations, nonprofit agencies and others when they invite involvement in their change initiatives from various stakeholders most affected by them, the intended beneficiaries, in neighborhoods. The word and concept used to describe this kind of top-down, institutionally-driven participation is engagement.

    In contrast to the common understanding of power as domination and control, I define power as “the capacity to produce intended results” which provides a basis for using power for transformational change without replicating oppression in other forms. In Minneapolis, a significant example of how engagement differs from shared power is the Neighborhood Revitalization Program (NRP). As in most cities, Minneapolis’ public, philanthropic and business sectors are resistant to sharing decision-making power with city neighborhood stakeholders. This resistance was partially overcome in the NRP when neighborhoods had the power to share decision-making as partners with Minneapolis city government.

    While formal resident participation programs were not a new idea in the late 1980s – many U.S. cities had such programs – the NRP showed how autonomous neighborhood organizations could control the strategies and the use of funds for priorities determined by residents while local government primarily served as an advisor and provided technical assistance. During its 20 years of operation, the NRP allocated over $400,000,000 to Minneapolis’ 81 neighborhoods based on tax-increment financing, a funding mechanism that invested future property tax growth from downtown development to neighborhood revitalization and empowerment.

    Unfortunately, Minneapolis city government decided power sharing was problematic, and the neighborhoods were not organized well enough to prevent the NRP from being “redesigned” into a program within the Minneapolis city coordinator’s department called Neighborhood and Community Relations (NCR). The purpose and limitations of the NCR is described in its tag-line, “When residents are informed, connected to their community and feel represented in city government, they are empowered to influence decisions that impact their lives.”

    The redesign eliminated the NRP’s power sharing and replaced it with engagement in city initiatives, which according to the NCR, provides a “feeling of being represented in city government…to influence city decisions.” The redesign greatly increased ambiguity which always diminishes accountability, in this particular case, by replacing the clarity of NRP shared decision-making “with a feeling of being represented.” Neighborhoods also became immersed in the diversions and illusions of engagement which intentionally limit possibilities for change representing the desires and priorities of those most affected by change.

    The replacement of the NRP with the NCR provides important lessons for neighborhood stakeholders who do not believe Minneapolis city government adequately understands their concerns or makes decisions based on what those most affected by them believe are their own priorities for neighborhood improvement. The most obvious lesson is that engagement is limited to advising city elected officials and departments on decisions they retain full power to make. For example, after substantial engagement with stakeholders in all Minneapolis neighborhoods, which produced over a thousand suggestions for modifications the 2040 Comprehensive Plan, many felt even their strongest recommended changes were simply ignored. Lesson: this will always result when city government restricts neighborhoods to engagement processes rather than sharing decision-making power.

    Of course, this raises basic questions about governance and democracy: should city government share decision-making power with its communities and neighborhoods? And, if so, in what ways and to what degrees? For those who believe city government should share decision-making power, as it did to some degree in the NRP, there are two basic factors which must be addressed: (1) Many in city government will strongly oppose and resist sharing power; and (2) Neighborhoods in Minneapolis are currently not capable of organizing a citywide alliance to overcome this resistance. A citywide alliance also would have to address the economics of dominance and self-interest within government, and government funding for organizations to serve neighborhoods. This includes paying the salaries of management gatekeepers, professional consultants, and city and nonprofit workers who will, as anyone in their positions would, defend their livelihood if they feel it is threatened by proposed power sharing.

    Organizing partnerships between city government and a citywide neighborhood alliance is the most likely effective strategy for establishing shared power. However, neighborhood stakeholders in Minneapolis will have to become far more powerful than they are now before creating shared power partnerships. Among other things, forming a citywide alliance would require: (1) Examining and agreeing on what worked best and what did not in the NRP and building on lessons learned; (2) Maintaining high levels of trust in creating a multi-neighborhood shared mission and goals; (3) Addressing and resolving a variety of conflicts within diverse neighborhoods; (4) Agreeing on methods of limiting disruptive actions by those who are self-serving rather than working for an alliance’s shared mission; (5) Deciding on a structure and operating practices; (6) Identifying and involving community-based organizations, such as nonprofit housing developers, which will support the neighborhood alliance; and (7) Securing adequately paid, skilled community organizers accountable to the alliance rather than accepting staffing support from city government.

    Partnerships use a variety structures and operating practices ranging from activity-driven and informal to goal-driven and highly organized. The likelihood of partnerships achieving intended results is increased when the following questions are answered clearly: (1) Are the partnership’s mission and goals clear and created with the involvement and consent of all partners? (2) Does each goal have a working group of partners that create an action plan for achieving the goal? (3) Do the action plans include activities linked to specific partners for achieving the goal? (4) Do the action plans have useful indicators of progress toward goal achievement? (5) Does the partnership emphasize and insure the actions of all partners are based on mutual respect, mutual learning, and mutual accountability for results?

  4. Submitted by Dennis Wagner on 02/20/2019 - 04:53 pm.

    More diversity? “plan would require the neighborhood organizations to meet certain diversity standards for their boards of directors or risk losing city funding” .how about something like more accountable? You know that MLK saying “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character” at least NRP called folks out on how the $ were spent, regardless of skin tone.Keep hearing this diversity, these organizations are all volunteer, if folks don’t volunteer, perhaps they need to be shanghaied? Renters tend not to get involved with community development, why? Perhaps because they are transient in nature. Home owners that are vested tend to get bashed for being too self serving, well surprise, its their neighborhood. So we have a major failure, because the folks that have the most vested feel wrongly or not, they are pushed out in favor of those with the least vested. Yes, speaking from significant neighborhood community involvement. experience.

  5. Submitted by David Markle on 02/20/2019 - 06:39 pm.

    Tony Scallon became disappointed with NRP because it failed to invest in the development of new housing and generate more tax revenue as he had expected.

  6. Submitted by Kurt Anderson on 02/26/2019 - 12:46 pm.

    So how should our city government “rein in the independent neighborhood groups and make them more responsive to the will of City Hall?” Consider this advice from the playwright Bertold Brecht: “would it not be simpler,
    If the government simply dissolved the people, and elected another?”

  7. Submitted by Julie Stroeve on 09/18/2019 - 11:48 am.

    “From the very beginning, elected officials in City Hall had been ambivalent about NRP. City Council members were eager to court the activists in their wards who dominated NRP. At the same time, they viewed those activists warily, seeing them as potential opponents in the next city election.” Herein lies the rub. With NRP funds, I was able to demolish a 90-year old crumbling deck and replace it with a new, marine-grade one. The process was grueling and I nearly walked away from the frustration, but I’m happy with the final result. As for diversity and equity, skepticism should rule the day. Why exactly does the City Council want to reign in neighborhood leaders who work seemingly only to make neighborhoods? Do neighborhoods have at their disposal funds to build affordable housing? Don’t marginalized and low-income folks simply struggle to find and keep affordable housing, no matter the neighborhood? If city revenues are decreasing for whatever reason, why go on the offensive against NRP? If it’s a question of money, why question the concept of NRP instead of face the reality of decreasing revenues (which I don’t think is the case in Minneapolis)? They are separate. If some members of the Council see this as an opportunity to grab power from citizens in neighborhoods, that disgusts me. The issues are complex and many. I look forward to more reporting by MinnPost — it certainly doesn’t make the StarTrib in any way or fashion.

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