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Minneapolis’ new director of regulatory services looks to put anti-racism at the center of the city’s code enforcement efforts

The Minneapolis City Council approved the appointment of Saray Garnett-Hochuli as the director of the city’s Regulatory Services department in late November.

Saray Garnett-Hochuli
City of Minneapolis
Saray Garnett-Hochuli
Last week, the Minneapolis City Council approved the appointment of Saray Garnett-Hochuli as the director of the city’s Regulatory Services department.

That puts Garnett-Hochuli in charge of the city’s regulatory arm, which enforces ordinances and codes, like housing and health codes, in order to make the “city safer, healthier and more inviting for all.” 

In the announcement of her appointment, the city pointed to Regulatory Services as a department in City Hall that will focus on anti-racism issues — taking the approach that reducing disparities in Minneapolis isn’t just a policy goal but a regulatory task. 

Garnett-Hochuli spoke with MinnPost about this approach and her goals for the department and the city. This interview took place during two conversations and has been edited for length and clarity. 

MinnPost: Congratulations on the new job. But you’ve been at the department for a while, right?

Saray Garnett-Hochuli: Thank you. I was the interim for six months. I was the deputy for about 18 months. So, I’ve been with the department for two years in October. 

MP: Along with the announcement of the City Council’s approval of your appointment came details of some of your goals as department head, which included anti-racism and equity initiatives. It appears the city sees Regulatory Services, like the enforcement of health and housing codes, as a way into achieving reductions in disparities. Can you explain this approach?

SGH: It started before me, two or three directors ago, really talking about equity and inclusion, i.e. diversity. A couple of years ago, I believe in 2015-2016, the city started, in our performance reviews, talking about having an obligation to incorporate cultural agility into our performance appraisals. 

I’ll quote Ibram X. Kendi, who writes that racial inequity is a problem of bad policy, not bad people. He also says that true anti-racism is when people are allowed to be themselves, their imperfect selves. I get goosebumps when I read that to myself because for years I straightened my hair to be professional. I didn’t know I had curly hair until COVID because I just didn’t give a damn anymore. I am going to be all of me. And I am pretty damn good. And I have a lot to give. I am no longer going to be complicit in this racist system.

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Now, bring that into government. I am now the director of Regulatory Services. The policies we create and enforce, do they harm? Are they based on racist policy? Are we helping or hurting?

Let’s look at our renter-first policies: 51 percent of our population is now renting. A large percentage of that population is BIPOC (Black, Indiginous and people of color). Are they living in safe and healthy and stable homes? The answers should be: yes, yes, and yes. 

This is our job when we look at regulations. How do we approach the renter? Instead of saying “landlord” or “tenant,” we are now saying “property owner” and “renter.” Minneapolis has really atrocious disparity statistics on who owns and who rents. So why should a renter be treated less than because they don’t own? And why should a renter be living in a property that is substandard? This is where we come in. 

We are looking at our policies, how we interact with community, and how our policies and practices are hurting or harming. And we are trying to change that. As our city diversifies, as we continue to grow into the Minneapolis 2040 plan, as we try to attract more people to live in this city post-George Floyd, we got work to do, ok?

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When I talk about unconditional equity — that is for our residents and my employees. We can also look into the city staff and see that we don’t have a really good diversification of our employee population, not just Black or white, but all bodies, all genders. That also goes for mid-level management and leadership positions.… 

We just hired Team Dynamics (a firm specializing in racial justice-centered leadership development and organizational culture change) to help us double down and level up on our being an anti-racist environment. … Those things and ways of being impact how we show up in the community and regulate. And when it comes to getting long-term compliance from residents, it is through education, not penalties. I educate you the first time, and one hopes that it takes. Now, if we’ve educated you and you make a conscious decision not to follow the rules, that’s a different story. I’m not responsible for people’s bad decisions. What I am responsible for is that you understand the why behind policies. 

We’ve created a whole team of renter and housing liaisons to help people when we come to a house and there are issues. Its alternative enforcement: how can we help you become compliant without displacing you or harming you?

MP: What is an example of the regulatory services causing harm?

SGH: Policies and ordinances are on the books for a reason: they keep people safe and healthy. In the past, let’s say we come into a house: a renter calls and complains about substandard housing, that the heat doesn’t work, and the toilets and water don’t work. We get in there and the house is a mess and it needs to be condemned. In the past, we would placard the building and, to the renters, be like, “The building is condemned, figure it out.”

Because of our renter first policies, we now say that the homeowner is displacing that renter because of not keeping up their end of the deal. The renter is now offered a stipend of three months that will cover their rent in another property. We assist them in connecting them to resources, we make sure they understand what their rights are, and we let them know that this is not a fault of their own but they can’t live here. 

Now, we are saying that we have to look at the whole picture. We are doing things to proactively work with property owners and managers to make sure that they understand what their obligations are. 

MP: So, because the majority of residents are renters, and because a large portion of that population is people of color, something like housing code enforcement ought to involve anti-racism and equity work?

SGH: Yes, but let’s go a little deeper. Beyond that act of understanding who is typically or traditionally been a renter – I would say, when I was growing up, the goal was to own a house. Being a renter, at least in Minneapolis and Minnesota, was frowned upon. I lived all over the country: out east, it’s not a thing. But Minnesota is different. 

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So, when we do engage with those … well, I don’t want to say “those residents.” Not, “those residents.” See, this is the anti-racist culture I was talking about. It’s about the language we are using. 

When one finds themselves in a situation with regulatory services, and one is not a white body, we have to be aware of how we talk with folks, and how we support and be cognizant of their cultural background, when we work with folks. 

Beyond the ordinance piece and the language, there is the human piece. That’s why we say we do our work in a human-centric fashion putting the person first. Regardless of who you are, because, as I said, it’s the policies that I am enforcing that are doing them harm. If these policies are truly racist in nature and hurt people, we need to have these conversations. 

MP: What about other regulatory areas, like animal control and traffic control?

SGH: We can’t say that each division has a separate approach. If we truly are treating everyone as they are and not assuming that because they are Native American or Black that they are bad, or that they come with this historical baggage that is not who they are. 

It’s the same for housing, it’s the same for Minneapolis Animal Care and Control, it’s the same for traffic control. It’s the same for operations when we are dealing with our customers. We should be dealing with folks at face value, we should be treating them with respect and we should be listening. 

We have to be aware of our unconscious biases when we interact with people. For example, you have a traffic control agent, and there is an incident with a white woman with two kids and she is running up to the parking meter. Do you give her a pass and not issue it? If you see a Black woman running up to a meter, do you issue the ticket or do you treat them the same?

Those are the things we are talking about. Where is there grace? Yes, we have to follow our regulatory standards. But are we truly treating people equally based on the situation? Or are we unconsciously … being regulatory because of the person, not the event? If we say, regardless of who it is, we are going to issue the ticket because you did not pay the meter and you are ten minutes late. That’s fine. We can’t be picking and choosing.

MP: What consistency issues are there in animal control enforcement you hope to curb? Is that enforcement always even-handed?

SGH: I grew up on the Northside, 55411 is my zip code when I grew up. When you think of 55411, you think of negative things: poor, maybe uneducated, single-motherhood, all of these things. If we make assumptions, we go in and enforce in a certain way, because you live in 55411 and you are nobody, and you are given a citation because your leaves or weeds are too long. That’s why we have data analysts looking at how we issue our citations. Are we doing them equally and in the same ways in every ward?  Those are the things we are consciously looking at now in a way we did not in the past.

MP: With the city viewing regulatory services as a natural place for equity initiatives, does that bump up against other departments, like Civil Rights?

SGH: In the past, I would say that every department had an ask or a goal of anti-racism and it’s up to the directors to push it forward. Kim (Keller, the former regulatory services director) was an amazing leader. I am the first Black leader of regulatory services, and so I see things in a different vein because I have been at the end of the harming arm of certain things so I understand that I don’t want that for anybody behind me regardless of what position that you are in. You should be seen for what you bring to the table. Not what I don’t think you bring to the table.  

As the city moves forward, we all know that the entire enterprise has to connect the dots and do the work. So, the Human Resources department are leading some things. Regulatory Services does of course work with Civil Rights, and I and I think a lot of other directors work with the Office of Race and Equity to make sure that we are doing the work. 

But Regulatory Services has been doing this longer and we are setting the framework for this work. We are leading it. But that’s because our employees and our leaders have said this is what we must do. Not what we have to do, what we must do. 

I envision, as we move forward, the gaps will close. The pandemic and the killing of George Floyd was a lot. Unfortunately, it’s been a springboard for us to move the dialogue forward.