Newspaper article

Civil Rights Complaint Seeks to Stop Cities from Concentrating Low- Income Housing in High-Poverty Neighborhoods

Newspaper article

Civil Rights Complaint Seeks to Stop Cities from Concentrating Low- Income Housing in High-Poverty Neighborhoods

Article excerpt

A civil rights attorney based in Washington, D.C., thinks he has the method for forcing changes in how and where St. Paul and Minneapolis locate low-income housing.

Michael Allen did not file a lawsuit against the cities and their joint Housing Finance Board. Instead, he filed a complaint with the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development that, if successful, could put tens of millions of dollars in block grant and other federal poverty grants at risk.

That's not the result that Allen and the local complainants -- the Metropolitan Interfaith Council on Affordable Housing and three Minneapolis neighborhood organizations -- necessarily want. Rather, the groups bringing the complaint want the two cities to stop over- concentrating low-income housing in already impoverished neighborhoods. Doing so, even while assuring the federal government that they are not, is in violation of both the federal Civil Rights Act and the Fair Housing Act, the complaint says.

Asking HUD to investigate

The complaint, which was filed on March 30, alleges that policies in both cities limit "the development of affordable housing in high- opportunity, majority-white communities" and instead steer such units to "low-opportunity, high-poverty communities, furthering racial and ethnic segregation."

According to the complaint, people of color are significantly more likely than whites to rent homes and significantly more likely to need affordable rental housing. Concentrating such housing in segregated areas has diminished the opportunities for members of those communities "to live in stable, integrated neighborhoods; by undermining the ability of public schools to remain integrated."

The money at issue is substantial. Minneapolis received more than $36 million from HUD in 2012 and nearly $23 million in 2013, the complaint estimates. St. Paul received more than $20 million from HUD in 2012 and $12.5 million in 2013. The complaint asks HUD to investigate. If the federal agency find the cities in violation, it should require them to follow civil rights and fair housing laws or risk losing future federal funds, the complaint says.

"We hope it doesn't get to the point where money is cut off," Allen said. "They serve a lot of low-income people. But the price of admission is complying with civil rights requirements." Allen says the complaint could bring a response from HUD in a few months.

Both cities have denied they are in violation of federal laws and policies. St. Paul had not been formally notified of the complaint, "so we cannot provide any substantive response other than to say racial equity is important to us in all areas, including housing and we are in compliance with the Fair Housing Act," wrote Laura Pietan, St. Paul's interim city attorney.

Minneapolis City Attorney Susan Segal wrote in response to a request for comment that the city has used federal funds and tax credits appropriately. She also said the city is in full compliance with fair housing laws.

"The City fully supports the need for affordable housing not just in Minneapolis, but throughout the State and seeks to combat, not further, concentrations of poverty," she wrote. "Low Income Housing Tax Credits have been used successfully by the city to diversify housing options ... and to maintain and stabilize existing housing stock." She said the city has used tax credits citywide, "not just areas of minority concentration."

New strategy to push local agencies

Allen said last week that the complaint process is a relatively new strategy to get HUD to push change on local agencies. Federal law has long required recipients of federal housing and community development money to certify that they are following the law. For years, Allen said, local governments assumed HUD would never challenge the validity of that certification. As a result, it became easier to put housing where it would be least resisted and not draw opposition from NIMBYs, he said. …

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