Facing a crowd of mostly renters-rights activists and housing policy researchers during a July hearing at Minneapolis City Hall, Brittany Lewis pointed out something few of those gathered wanted to hear: While the City Council’s plan to restrict what information property owners could consider when screening prospective tenants seemed good in theory, it did nothing to ensure that landlords actually followed through.
“On paper all of this sounds good,” Lewis told the city’s Advisory Committee on Housing. But the reality was different: Background checks for rental applications operate under state and federal standards, and they include eviction histories and criminal data that the committee wanted omitted from the process. Landlords would still see that information — and many would still use it while citing other reasons to deny applicants.
Lewis’ critique spurred city housing staff to organize “implementation meetings” to figure out how they’re going to enforce the proposal, which the council approved last month. As Lewis noted: “That wouldn’t have happened unless I used the research; I could use it to challenge them.”
A senior research associate at the University of Minnesota’s Center for Urban and Regional Affairs (CURA), Lewis is among about a dozen researchers and staff members at the center who partner with local municipalities and nonprofits statewide to study wealth and racial disparities.
In fact, the new tenant-screening ordinance is just one of many projects at Minneapolis City Hall for which CURA has provided data. On Tuesday, for example, a council committee approved a $60,000 contract with CURA to study the city’s relationship to neighborhood associations and how it could improve via a long-range program called Neighborhoods 2020.
But CURA is not your typical academic research operation, content to provide data for policy-makers and agnostic about how the information is used. CURA wants to change things. “We want to shift policy — period,” Lewis said. “We should be producing research products that don’t just sit on journal repositories but actually impact people’s lives and change government.”
‘Demystifying’ the traditional model of research
That sense of mission started early. CURA formed, in part, as a response to demonstrations in north Minneapolis in July 1967, a protest that marked a milestone in the city’s civil rights movement.
For decades, the neighborhood had been home to much of Minneapolis’ Jewish and black populations. When tension between the two groups flared, the result was more than two dozen injuries, 36 arrests, 18 fires and three shootings.
The events motivated the University of Minnesota’s Board of Regents to find a way to explore the city’s racial tension and how inequity intersected with public policy, and they officially created CURA in 1968.
CURA leaders say that those early years of the center’s formation laid the foundation for building relationships with governments and community groups. Over the decades, the center has added programs and staff, expanding its scope of research to also consider how climate change and modern development affects cities.
Some of the center’s more notable research includes a report from the early 2000s that showed how a 1995 federal consent decree to deconcentrate poverty in public housing and Section 8 programs in Minneapolis impacted residents. In recent years, CURA researchers have helped develop “equitable development scorecards” to evaluate future neighborhood development across the Twin Cities region; analyzed equity within the city of St. Paul’s budget; and studied how the demolition of a mobile home park in St. Anthony, known as Lowry Grove, impacted residents.
“We believe deeply in kind of demystifying what the traditional model of research looks like,” Lewis said. “We are not the experts — community are the experts and we engage with them as that. … I get that policy-makers or city government or folks who claim to be serving certain communities often miss the dial on that, and I’m more than willing to help them figure out how to do that differently.”
She added: “We live in a place where everyone’s using equity-based language, but no one knows what that means.”
A focus on affordable living options
Operating within a land-grant university and specifically geared toward reforming policy, CURA is believed to be the nation’s only center of its kind. Graduate students handle shorter projects, while Lewis coordinates longer-term ones. Another colleague, C. Terrence Anderson, leads research programs that involve community groups, such as neighborhood associations.
For Minneapolis, CURA researchers have focused their energy on the city’s gap in affordable living options. For Lewis’ first big study a few years ago, she teamed up with Goetz to collect stories from residents on how Twin Cities neighborhoods’ rising costs were affecting them. They talked with people who live or work in various Minneapolis neighborhoods, as well as those in St. Paul’s Hamline-Midway and Frogtown communities. The researchers then compared the results of those interviews with Census information, housing data and building permits to measure how the neighborhoods had changed since 2000.
The study found about one-third of the city neighborhoods showed signs of gentrification between 2000 and 2015, with some areas — specifically Minneapolis’ East Phillips, Corcoran, St. Anthony West, Sheridan — becoming substantially more white and affluent within that time frame. Lewis and Goetz presented those findings to a Minneapolis City Council committee last summer.
Meanwhile, Lewis has also studied the disproportionate impact of rent hikes and evictions in north Minneapolis. Though communities there only account for 8 percent of Hennepin County’s rental units, they tally half of the county’s eviction cases, according to findings by Lewis.
It was through that evaluation of evictions, Lewis said, she heard firsthand how discriminatory screening policies during renters’ application process impact them.
Even so, when City Council President Lisa Bender and Council Member Jeremiah Ellison drafted a proposal that aimed to ensure more people’s access to rental housing, Lewis challenged several aspects of it. While said she supported the intent of the law, she emphasized that a lack of staffing and funding to roll it out could result in a series of unintended consequences for the city.
“The people who I worked with on the ground who are suffering from the negative impacts of eviction need you to understand how to implement this,” she recalled telling city officials. “Sometimes, it takes someone in the room to bring the research and to challenge them in that way.”
Next up: a survey of neighborhood associations
Housing is not the only sector of Minneapolis city governing in which CURA is involved. The Minneapolis City Council’s Ways and Means Committee on Tuesday approved a contract with CURA to survey members of the city’s 70 neighborhood associations over the next two years, pending final approval by the full council.
The researchers will ask neighborhood leaders questions like: “Are you really doing base-building, organizing work?” or “How are you centering people of color when that should be a primary focus?” Anderson said. The team is also planning to reach out to residents who aren’t involved in the groups to hear why they are not participating and what they want from neighborhood leadership.
In addition to those interviews, the researchers are preparing to study city budgets over the past decades to determine whether the city has favored groups in more affluent neighborhoods than those with more economic and racial diversity. The academics are calling the project a Racial Equity Analysis, and they plan to release their findings next month.
The work by CURA researchers is expected to influence how Minneapolis’ Neighborhood and Community Relations writes new rules and accountability metrics for the neighborhood associations next year, part of a comprehensive overhaul of the city’s relationship with the groups and goal to diversify membership.
“If the process is about imagining what racial equity looks like for neighborhood associations, then the process has to first ask what are black and brown folks saying about neighborhood associations?” Anderson said. “That ethos is what guides all of our work.”