Brooklyn Park officials are preparing for the sale of the 834-unit Huntington Place — one of the state’s largest apartment complexes — where residents for years have reported safety issues, unfair treatment from management and poor living conditions, including mold and asbestos in the walls.
In an interview Wednesday, Brooklyn Park Mayor Jeffrey Lunde said city officials believe Huntington Place’s for-profit property manager, the Plymouth-based Dominium Apartments, will soon sell the 36-acre development to Aeon, a Minneapolis-based non-profit developer that aims to preserve affordable housing. Aeon presented its plan for taking over the problem-ridden development to Brooklyn Park City Council members on Monday.
But while the potential deal would represent a new chapter for the massive complex, city officials are warning that new management isn’t going to be end-all solution for the complex’s myriad problems.
‘It’s a small city’
Built in 1969, Huntington Place is located on 73rd Avenue North, just north of Interstate 94. It includes multiple apartment buildings that each house hundreds of one-bedroom apartments. It’s the biggest apartment complex in Brooklyn Park and the second-largest in Minnesota. (Minneapolis’ 1,303-unit Riverside Plaza in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood tops the list.)
Dominium took over Huntington in the early 1990s, and it’s now part of the developer’s 30,000-apartment portfolio, which spans 22 states.
But while Huntington includes 834 units, Brooklyn Park officials estimate upwards of 2,500 people are living there, thanks in part to the region’s lack of housing for low-income residents. Lunde said he’s heard of seven or eight-member families, for example, sharing a one-bedroom apartment at Huntington because they can’t afford anything else in the metro.
As Kim Berggren, Brooklyn Park’s Director of Community Development, told council members at a meeting earlier this year: “It is a small city.”
With more tenants comes greater chances of safety threats. At a City Council meeting this summer, Brooklyn Park Police Chief Craig Enevoldsen said more and more people are using the property as a meeting spot for doing drugs or to fight, and the severity of crimes at the location is intensifying. In 2018, police responded to 529 crimes at the complex, among the highest annual totals over the past two decades.
“I have a great concern with the seriousness of the crimes that occur at Huntington that we may have a fairly significant or critical incident happen on the property,” Enevoldsen said, calling the development a huge drain on the suburban department’s patrol resources.
The mayor has echoed those concerns. The majority of Huntington residents who contact him reach out because they don’t feel safe in their apartments, he said. “Over the summer, this became ground zero for what I call … the Facebook fights,” he said. “Youth from all over the metro would come there to settle their disputes. We would have events were we’d have a hundred youth, 12 to 14 year olds with no parental supervision, showing up … raising hell.”
Tenants complain of deteriorating conditions
In addition to problems with overcrowding and crime, many tenants are frustrated by the buildings’ deteriorating conditions, including reports of broken toilets, mold and mice, though the apartments have passed inspections under the city’s codes.
Addressing council members earlier this month, resident Victoria Cates expressed an urgent need for officials to help fix some of the issues at the complex. Among other things, she’s worried about inhaling asbestos, since she said construction crews have left the walls’ and ceilings’ insulation exposed in some areas. “I have three grandkids who I love and I want to see grow up,” she said. “I just want to live somewhere safe and secure — that’s all I’m asking.”
Another tenant, Leona Poling, reported mold in her apartment that she worries could harm her cat. She said she’s told management about the issue, but no one has helped her resolve it.
Meanwhile, other renters have said they fear retaliation for raising issues in the form of higher rent or eviction. “Refrigerators are breaking down and people are having to throw out their groceries,” said Nelima Sitati Munene, the executive director of the African Career Education and Resource Inc. who is helping lead tenant-advocacy efforts around the property. “People are putting in work orders and not getting work done.”
Over four years, her organization has worked with housing-rights groups across Hennepin County to call attention to Huntington, hosting forums and rallies where the tenants share their living experiences. “It shouldn’t have taken this long,” she said. “The reality is, there’s a number of systemic issues that have converged around this issue.”
The city’s ability to act on reports from tenants or take Dominium to task for problems at the property has been limited. “We don’t have a lot of latitude, since it’s a private owner, to penalize them or force them to do what they don’t want to do,” said Council Member Wynfred Russell, who represents the property’s district. “But we can nudge them to do things.”
Born and raised in Liberia, Russell is Brooklyn Park’s first council member of African descent. He said he’s advocating with housing-rights groups to help tenants at Huntington, not only because it’s politically the right thing to do, but because the problems represent broader human rights issues.
“You can’t expect somebody to pay rent every month and is having to live with mice, issues with asbestos,” he said. “If we kicked them out of Huntington, where are they going to go? They’re going to become homeless.”
Dominium did not respond to MinnPost’s request for comment on tenants’ reports of poor living conditions, nor did the company respond to an inquiry about selling the property.
In a prepared statement, the company highlighted Dominium’s renovation projects that are currently underway, including new roofs, lighting, parking lots and a fob security system, totaling $8 million. Also, the company said it has hired new building managers, as well as more maintenance and groundskeeping staff, to help renters.
In the end, Dominium says those investments are focused on reducing crime rates, addressing overcrowding, reducing wait times for repairs and improving the appearance of the complex.
“We remain in an ongoing dialogue with the city and our residents out of commitment to our mission of providing quality housing at Huntington Place,” the statement reads.
Cycle of evictions
Huntington Place offers some of the area’s cheapest monthly rents. Due to that affordability, it’s a hotspot for low-income households that use federally-subsidized housing vouchers to pay rent. About 160 households right now are using Metro HRA rental subsidies, while 77 others are using emergency assistance from Hennepin County, according to Munene.
Huntington, which was originally designed to house single adults, has affordable rents because of its age, but it’s not intentionally part of the affordable housing market, Lunde said. “Because of that, it’s really kind of operating in this quasi mode where it’s affordable, but yet it’s for-profit.”
Many tenants fall behind on rent payments and get evicted. Then, the property manager rents to another low-income household that can barely get by, perpetuating the eviction pattern. “We get that flux, that constant turn, where people — they can’t afford [rent],” Lunde said.
Court records speak to that pattern. Huntington has ranked as Hennepin County’s second-largest eviction filer, following the Minneapolis Public Housing Authority. And the pace of evictions at Huntington Place is accelerating, according to court records compiled by HOME Line, a tenant rights nonprofit. In 2013, for example, the property filed 99 evictions. Last year, the number was 175. And since January 2019, the property has filed 256 evictions.
In an email, HOME Line Executive Director Eric Hauge said the “cavalier way” in which Dominium files evictions is harmful, especially to under-represented groups. Of HOME Line’s clients who live at Huntington Place, 78 percent are people of color and 80 percent are women, he said. And while the civil court records on evictions do not include the racial identities of defendants, “given the community impacted at that building, it’s not difficult to understand how much of a disproportionate effect their practices are having on people of color,” he said.
To more thoroughly understand the eviction issue, the city of Brooklyn Park in June entered into a contract with the University of Minnesota’s Center for Urban and Regional Affairs (CURA), enlisting the skills of senior research associate Dr. Brittany Lewis, who did similar research in North Minneapolis. She’s in the process of interviewing Huntington tenants and analyzing rent and evictions data for a full report that she will present to the council next spring.
How Aeon got involved
Over the past several months, the Brooklyn Park City Council recruited a handful affordable housing developers like Aeon to look at the property, Lunde said. But due to its large size, most of them declined to pursue a purchase of the project.
“They did not put it out to market,” he said of Dominium’s choice to work with Aeon. “I give [Dominium] credit for that. They could’ve easily said, ‘Come on and bid.’ There are institutional investors who just come in — boom — they don’t care.”
At this point, the council is preparing to discuss the sale’s financing next month, pending what happens between Aeon and Dominium in the coming weeks, the mayor said. He estimated that the sale price could range between $70 and $90 million.
The deal would mark a milestone in a long-running series of initiatives by city officials regarding the complex. Efforts to improve conditions spans more than 25 years, and include a 1994 comprehensive site plan, according to Director of Community Development Berggren.
More recently, the council passed an ordinance that prevents new owners of apartments citywide from raising rents or changing screening criteria within the first three months of ownership — a move aimed at protecting tenants like those at Huntington in the case that a private, market-rate investor swoops in, buys the property and remodels it for higher profits.
Lunde has also proposed establishing a new city fund that would provide one-time cash payments for recently-evicted tenants of Huntington, but his colleagues did not support that idea.
On Monday, council members heard Aeon’s vision for taking over Huntington. Lunde said the nonprofit has shared plans for additional improvements to the buildings with city officials, and it intends to do unit-by-unit walk throughs to identify additional areas for repairs.
Overall, Aeon has built or renovated 4,400 housing units, including a new 70-home complex in Minneapolis’ Prospect Park, called The Louis, located next to the Surly brewery. Aeon also declined to comment on the potential sale of Huntington, saying in a statement: “Our standard practice is not to comment until we’ve closed on a property.”
Even though the sale has not been finalized, some advocates are taking the interest by Aeon as a positive sign. “It’s a brilliant idea that I wholeheartedly support,” Russell said of the potential purchase.
Lunde, however, said he’s making a point to tell people that the possible change is not a silver bullet to fix tenants’ problems. Until the county, state and federal governments pump more money into long-term solutions to the region’s affordable housing shortage, issues for low-income residents will linger.
“I’m very clear that it’s not going to suddenly change [things for] everybody,” he said of the possible sale with Aeon. “But at least we think that we have people willing to try to keep people in housing.”