Note: this is a comment I sent to the city of Minneapolis regarding the proposed Blueprint for Equitable Engagement.
The current model for Minneapolis neighborhood organizations needs significant changes in the coming years in order to remain both relevant and responsive to the needs of city residents.
I live in the Whittier neighborhood, where over 80 percent of residents are renters. As of today’s date, there are few, if any, renters on the Board of the Whittier Alliance, which is one of the most heavily-funded neighborhood organizations in the city. As you know, the NRP funding for our neighborhood organizations has historically been determined by factors like poverty rate and the number of renters a neighborhood has.
Over the past year or two, I have participated in several Whittier Alliance Community Issues meetings. (Whittier residents are not allowed to speak at meetings of the Board of Directors, which obviously discourages attendance.) After more restrictive bylaws were passed earlier this year, making it more difficult for renters to run for the board (among other things), I have chosen to stop attending Whittier Alliance meetings and to spend my time as an activist in a more constructive manner. I have no interest in contributing my time and energy towards a neighborhood organization that actively makes it more difficult for renters and newcomers to participate. I hear many of my peers, in Whittier and other parts of the city, express similar frustrations, who decide the process is not worth their time.
The lack of renter representation on the Whittier Alliance board leads to negative outcomes. As a recent example in July of 2015, both the Executive Director and Board Chair of the WA were quoted in the Southwest Journal as requesting higher rents for a proposed “workforce” apartment complex. As a renter in an 83% renter neighborhood, it’s beyond infuriating to have my own neighborhood organization attempting to raise the rents for new housing projects. Of course, I do understand how pushing for higher rents might increase the property values for property owners who routinely dominate the Whittier Alliance board.
Of course, renters are not the only viewpoint lacking in this neighborhood. Census data shows that 20 percent of Whittier does not speak English, and that half this neighborhood is white and half is of color. Is this reflected in the membership on the board? Has this been addressed by the Whittier Alliance? The WA is in denial when it comes to equity, stating in its June 2015 meeting minutes regarding the Blueprint for Equitable Engagement, “The WA board is diverse but they (meaning the city) don’t see it as diverse.”
Some city initiatives overlook the residents of Whittier, yet the Whittier Alliance does nothing. For example, Minneapolis recently rolled out their curbside organics program, allowing residents to compost organic matter. But it is only deployed at buildings with 4 units or fewer, and 73 percent of Whittier residents live in buildings with more than 4 units. Where was the Whittier Alliance to raise this issue with the city?
I don’t have all the answers, but engagement is something the city, and by extension city-funded neighborhood organizations, should take more seriously. A committee that addresses renter issues would help, as would utilizing more methods of online participation. Not everyone has the time to sit through a 3-hour meeting, and more importantly, that should no longer be a barrier to participation in local politics. Most importantly, if neighborhood organizations refuse to include and advocate for the renters and minorities who dominate their neighborhoods, rather than the property owners who dominate their boards, they should lose their funding.