A tale of two cities

There have been several articles written lately on gentrification in Minneapolis. The City Pages recently cited a study published by Governing Magazine claiming that Minneapolis is the third fastest gentrifying city in the country. 

A map in the study measuring patterns across Minneapolis showed that over half of the city has areas where home values were in the bottom 40 percent of the metro in 2000, while the median home values and percentage of adults with bachelors degrees rose to the top third percentile by 2013. 

Most recently the Atlantic praised our city in “The Miracle of Minneapolis” for its mix of “affordability, opportunity, and wealth.” This data and its implications have led to debates about the changes happening in our city.

For some, gentrification can be exciting and create new opportunities, for others it can be the beginning of an anxiety-ridden struggle to keep up.  There is a loss of culture, welcome spaces and, often, a place to live. 

Historically gentrification has led to the displacement of people from their homes. Take the Rondo neighborhood in St. Paul, for example. The construction of Interstate 94 forced 608 families, mostly African American, out of their homes with no options for relocation. The gentrification that exists today is slightly more responsible, more complex and more nuanced.

Although families are not currently being displaced by the economic progress of Minneapolis, they face tight budgets with a rising cost of living. According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, Minneapolis has one of the worst affordable rental markets in the Midwest, with average rent for a two bedroom recently surpassing $1,000 a month, and the vacancy rate idling below 3 percent. A 2012 report by the U of M stated that, “68 percent of female-headed households in rental housing are paying costs that exceed 30 percent of their income.” This is not a result of people not working hard. Productivity has drastically increased over the past 40 years, while wages have stagnated.

Contrary to national praise, Minneapolis has some of the country’s worst racial disparities in education, employment, housing and low-level arrests. Students of color are being suspended at significantly higher rates than white students, leading them down the school to prison pipeline. By falling behind in underfunded schools and communities early in life, it is nearly impossible to reap the benefits of the utopian Minneapolis that others enjoy as adults. This dichotomy creates a city where some residents thrive, and others struggle to simply survive.

I interviewed a senior director (who asked to keep his name confidential due to license requirements) at a major financial services company in town to ask him about his perspective on life in Minneapolis.  As an upper level employee for a multinational company he stated, “My job affords me the ability to live a comfortable lifestyle.”  This level of comfort is a result of his income increasing 475 percent in the 10 years he has been employed there. 

Like many successful people in Minneapolis he finds himself seeking housing in one of the rapidly developing areas of the city in Uptown. “I am moving to the Uptown area in the spring,” he said. “I chose Uptown because several friends live there and love it, the proximity to a variety of restaurants and entertainment, and the feeling of living in the city while still having access to parks, lakes and the Greenway.”  Minneapolis has been good to him, and has rewarded him for his hard work.  But do these opportunities exist for everyone?

I also interviewed Cecilia Guzman, who is a cleaning worker for some of the newly developed apartments in town. Cecilia reported working for five days a week without pay for a month at a time, and stated, “I went a month, then two months, and I finally told my boss I can’t work for free.”  After months of not receiving compensation for her work, and going through the stress of trying to keep up with her bills with no income, she decided to leave.  “I was afraid but my friend told me about CTUL,” the Centro de Trabajadores Unidos en Lucha, who teach low-wage workers about their rights and train them to organize.  “I told my story, and after seeing other workers leading their fight, I went to court and won $1,200 in recovered wages.”

When I asked Cecilia, the 15-year resident of Central Neighborhood, what she likes about Minneapolis, she ironically said, “I like when the weather is nice in the spring, and I also like the cold.  I really only have time to go to work, and church on Sundays with my family.” 

The mother of two lives with her children, husband, and another family in a four-bedroom house. We discussed what she would do if she had a job with fair wages, and was paid on time. Cecilia said she would simply, “Find a dignified place to live to improve the lives of my children and improve their well-being.  The way we live now is not dignified.” 

So what does all of this mean? Economic progress and growth is good for communities. Nobody wants to see boarded up homes and businesses going bankrupt. 

The question is how do we create a city that all of us can live in and enjoy? We must invest in leaders in communities of color that exist right here, support local business development, affordable housing construction, and innovative ventures such as renewable energy projects. 

The Clean Energy Partnership in Minneapolis holds great potential for Minneapolis to continue to be a national leader in addressing climate change. This is an opportunity to create green jobs for frontline communities that are the most directly affected by climate change, such as North Minneapolis where children have the highest rates of asthma in the state. 

We must support the thousands of workers in Minneapolis fighting to pass $15 minimum wage at the city level, so that lower-income families have more support in paying for rent and basic needs, which would subsequently stimulate the local economy.  We should look at the social capital we have in our residents and invest in a future that creates positive change from the inside out.  Because in the words of Paul Wellstone, “We all do better when we all do better.”  

Ryan Stopera is a social worker and community organizer in Minneapolis. He is on the board of directors of MN Neighborhoods Organizing for Change and the Lyndale Neighborhood Association. Ryan is also working on clean energy programs to create jobs in lower income communities around the city. In his free time he enjoys rock climbing and cycling.