Renters are underrepresented on neighborhood boards — is too little neighborhood time and money spent on 44 percent of the city’s population?
Brian Elliott rented a condominium in West Calhoun for almost five years. When he first moved to the neighborhood, he attended a few neighborhood group meetings but then quit going.
"I never expected to be in the neighborhood for very long," he said. "Not because I didn’t want to live there, but because I wanted to buy a house."
Elliott just moved into his Kingfield home, and even before he was an official resident, he attended the neighborhood’s annual meeting.
"Part of the reason is just the simple fact that I am going to own a piece of property — just that commitment in and of itself makes a difference," he said. "When you sign a lease, it’s probably for only a year. When you sign a mortgage, it’s a 30-year deal."
With a few exceptions, neighborhood associations are packed with homeowners, and renter representation is rare:
Gregory Luce, co-director of the tenant advocacy group Project 504, said he wants to see associations reaching out to renters — and more renters offering their input in their neighborhoods.
"In a lot of neighborhoods, renters are the majority of people there," he said. "The boards should reflect the folks that live in the neighborhood."
At an Oct. 26 tenant summit put on by Luce’s organization, Lillie Ryals, a leader with the Jobs and Affordable Housing Campaign, opened the summit with renters’ affordable housing demands, but also with words of caution, urging renters to stand up to neighborhood organizations.
"Neighborhood organizations are not inclusive or responsive to our needs," she said.
At the summit, Luce said renter issues are often ignored by neighborhood organizations or they are just unresponsive.
Luce said it’s a myth that renters don’t get involved in neighborhood organizations since they don’t own property. He said many live in a neighborhood for a long time and want to stay.
"You have to have programs that will benefit renters and attract them," Luce said, adding that most programs sponsored by neighborhood organizations go to benefit homeowners.
He suggests bringing meetings to where the tenants are — in their apartment complexes or condominium associations.
Luce also said that Neighborhood Revitalization Program dollars — $180 million scheduled to be spent in the next 15 years — must benefit renters as much as homeowners. Right now, Luce contends, most NRP money benefits homeowners.
A comprehensive study of NRP, the Teamworks Report, backs Luce up. It studied NRP’s first, 10-year, $200 million phase from 1990 and 1999. In a city that is 44 percent renters, renters and rental units received less than 20 percent of NRP housing funds, the study reported. "Citizens are electing to invest monies set aside by NRP statute for housing and housing-related activity …into homeowner-related assistance rather than assistance for renters," the report concluded.
Said Luce, "Tenants really are invested in the neighborhood, but they don’t feel welcome at the neighborhood association because they are not seen as an investment. It’s a Catch-22 — they are perceived that way, and then they act that way."
Homeowner Meg Forney, chair of the West Calhoun board, said the attitude that renters are transient is old — more and more people are renting for a longer period of time. Renters, she said, offer benefits to any community because they bring different perspectives.
"A lot of homeowners have a NIMBY (not-in-my-back-yard) attitude — they have to defend their fortress," she said. "There’s something broader that a tenant brings — a larger image than someone who owns a single family home."
The Southwest Journal found six Southwest renters who do serve on their boards to ask why they are involved in their neighborhoods and how they feel as a renter. Their stories offer some insight into life as a renter and an active community member.
A 12-year renter in Lowry Hill, Draeger has little intention of moving. She loves being in a bustling area within walking distance to essential stores.
"I rent because I have a beautiful apartment with hardwood floors and a view of downtown Minneapolis," she said. "I walk to work. I love being in an urban environment."
She joined the neighborhood association board about a year ago after heated neighborhood debates about creating a critical parking area to reduce parking problems. She has since served on many committees, and her focus is much broader than the parking issue.
But she said that some homeowners in the area simply don’t believe that renters could feel committed to a neighborhood.
"Some people think that renters are not as invested because they don’t own property," she said. "There is this attitude about renters — that they throw their trash around and take up all the parking spots. People think I am not going to be here long — but I’ve been here longer than some homeowners. I just didn’t know this attitude existed."
Draeger said she would buy a house in the neighborhood if she could afford it. But she’s not willing to buy a house in any neighborhood just to own property.
"I don’t understand why everyone asks when I am going to buy a house," she said. "I don’t ask them why they aren’t renting anymore."
Draeger noted that Minneapolis has a high rate of homeownership, and therefore an expectation that renters will someday be owners. She hopes, however, that someday renters will be seen as just another member of the community.
Motzenbecker feels just like another member of the community. The 32-year-old landscape architect has been on the Kingfield board for a year, and he has rented in the neighborhood for eight years.
"I don’t even make a distinction," he said. "Even though I rent, I participate in things just like I was a homeowner. I feel very much a part of the neighborhood."
Motzenbecker said he has always been conscious of local politics, but he started attending neighborhood meetings because of his profession — the zoning committee was looking at a redesign of a cable-TV switching station near his home.
His landscape architecture background brought him into the neighborhood association, but sheer inertia has kept him living in the same spot.
"I personally would love to own a house — I love this location and I love everything about it," he said. "Moving into a house in this neighborhood would be impossible, though. I can’t afford it.
"The first years I was here, I had no interest in the board because who knew how long I’d be here," he said. "My two years turned into eight, and now it’s like this is my neighborhood. I don’t foresee leaving in the near future. I would stay here until if and when I get a house."
Knowles, 54, has been on the Kingfield board for five years, and he’s spent the last six years on Kingfield’s Neighborhood Revitalization Program board. But he’s been a rental resident for much longer — 14 years.
He said he never expected to stay in one place for so long (he likes the idea of being able to get up and go), but since he was still in the neighborhood after so many years, he thought he better get involved.
"After complaining for so long you lose the legitimacy of complaining unless you get involved," he said, laughing.
Knowles said he is much more interested in keeping rental properties and businesses viable in this community than homeowners. He said homeowners seem to want to live in one place, work in another and shop in yet another.
"Most homeowners want a very quiet totally residential area," he said. "It is a moral failing if you are renting — you aren’t working hard enough and you aren’t investing in the community. But I like living in the city. I can walk to restaurants and the hardware store. I could push my car around the corner to the car mechanics if it won’t run."
He worries that if renters don’t get involved in neighborhood issues, decision makers won’t have balanced input.
Koshire, a five-year renter in West Calhoun, has been on the neighborhood board for about 18 months. He jumped at the chance to be on the board because it seemed like more of a direct impact, he said.
But he recognizes that his interests are sometimes different from his home-owning neighbors. Some homeowners are working on a project to eradicate buckthorn from their backyards, for example.
"Some of the people who I work with in the neighborhood have lived there for 25 years, so they have seen the evolution of the neighborhood," he said. "Some things they would like to see done — working on the sidewalks or adding new street lights — I don’t necessarily have those concerns because it doesn’t impact me at my apartment building."
Koshire isn’t sure how long he will be in West Calhoun, but he’s sure he won’t rent again — the next move is to a house. But he won’t regret his time on the West Calhoun board.
Koshire is helping to improve Lake Calhoun — the water quality and the shoreline — and it’s important to him even if he doesn’t live in West Calhoun for the rest of his life. He said he would always have an interest in ensuring that the lake is taken care of.
Peterson, a 13-year renter in Linden Hills, has been involved in his neighborhood for four years.
He said there isn’t much difference between the issues he wants to address in the neighborhood and those homeowners want.
"I don’t feel different from any other board member," he said.
The only aspect that might be different, he said, is participation on the zoning committee and the block leaders program.
"I can see if I did own a home, I might be more interested in being on the zoning committee," he said. "And I don’t think we’ve had much success getting block leaders from rentals."
Farrell, 23, landed a position on the Linden Hills Neighborhood Council in January — after moving to the neighborhood in December.
He joined partly because he studied American politics and participatory democracy at St. Olaf. In Linden Hills, he said, he thinks about how he can help make the area better for single people and people without children.
But he was surprised to find a sentiment that homeowners don’t like renters.
"There is a bad impression of what renters are like," he said. "Having lived in the dorm setting and then renting, I see renters just like everyone else — just not in a situation in life to camp out in a place for five years."
He wants to see neighborhood boards engage people who live in apartment buildings — and distribute newsletters and fliers to everyone in each building.