Looking controversy in the eye

Lee Blons is no stranger to controversy.
As executive director of the Plymouth Church Neighborhood Foundation (PCNF) — an organization aimed at creating affordable housing in the Twin Cities and beyond — residents concerned about crime, property values, building size and other issues are constantly holding her feet to the fire.     

The Stevens Square-based foundation has four completed projects in the Twin Cities, three scheduled to be open next year and another three in the early development stage. Fierce debate among neighbors has preceded some of them, including an apartment complex for families planned to go up in Tangletown next year and another for youth and young adults scheduled to be built in Kingfield by 2010.

Blons, 47, is engaged in an endless negotiation process with residents and city leaders, and there’s never a shortage of obstacles. The latest came in early December, when a Tangletown group unsuccessfully appealed the Planning Commission’s approval of one of PCNF’s projects. That group wants to reach out to residents in other neighborhoods who are wary of PCNF’s developments.

Dealing with the debate has become the norm for PCNF, but it’s not what they’re seeking.

“We try not to make it about conflict,” Blons said. “We share the same goals. That’s part of what we’re trying to talk to neighbors about.”

Getting off the couch

A couple years ago, Arice Dennings, now 21, was couch hopping.

His grandma’s home become too crowded, so he had to move out, he said. He stayed with relatives and friends, carrying a backpack everywhere, living on a diet of chips and noodles.

He was jobless and, much of the time, hopeless.

“I didn’t ever want to wake up the next day,” Dennings said. “It felt like there was no point to waking up; it was just going to be the same day every day. Every day seemed like it was getting worse rather than getting

In January of 2006, he signed up for an apartment at St. Barnabas, an affordable housing complex in Elliot Park hosted by youth service provider YouthLink, an organization PCNF partnered with for its Kingfield development. Dennings was on a waiting list for several months but eventually got into the building.

In short order, he was working and supporting himself.

“I never knew how it felt to have a good life,” he said. “I never thought I’d get used to it. It felt like a dream to me… I feel like anything I want can really happen now.”

Dennings said he would probably stay at St. Barnabas for a couple years, though he could stay longer.

Like at St. Barnabas, tenants at PCNF developments could stay indefinitely. At Lydia House, a PCNF development in Stevens Square, 20 percent of the tenants have been there since the development opened four years ago. Blons said allowing tenants to stay is important psychologically.

“If you put someone in housing and then say here’s a time limit, even if it is two years away, all they hear is ‘you can’t stay here forever,’” she said.

Dennings said he knows of many other youth and young adults who are still living his former life, and he’s a strong advocate for expanding affordable housing throughout the city.

That’s a goal of Minneapolis and Hennepin County, who are collaborating on a project called Heading Home Hennepin, meant to end homelessness within the next decade.

Hennepin County Commissioner Gail Dorfman said PCNF’s projects play an important role in accomplishing that goal.

“The creation of this housing project very much meets the needs of this plan,” she said about the Kingfield development planned for 3700 Nicollet Ave. “It’s youth housing for kids who don’t have an option.”

‘Enormous amounts of scrutiny’

The Kingfield Neighborhood Association (KFNA) is hosting a series of community meetings to discuss the 42-unit project proposed in that neighborhood.

KFNA redevelopment committee chairman Tom Parent said the process would probably take a few months to complete, something Blons agreed to wait out, though it pushed PCNF’s

“We don’t want this issue to drag on forever, but we want to get as much information as possible,” Parent said.

The KFNA board has not taken a position on the project yet. It will probably make a recommendation to the City Council eventually, Parent said, but the group can do little more when it comes to making the final decision about what is built.

Parent said Plymouth has been cooperative, attending meetings and answering questions. Having tasted a bit of what Blons and her colleagues go through regularly, Parent said he was impressed by their fortitude.

“They are under enormous amounts of scrutiny,” he said.

Some residents in Kingfield and other neighborhoods have been concerned about how seriously their viewpoints are taken by PCNF and decision-makers.

Harry Kaiser, spokesman for an organization called Minneapolis Residents for Smart Density, which appealed the 30-unit Tangletown project planned for 54th Street and Stevens Avenue, likened PCNF to a steamroller.

“It seems like there’s a political agenda for affordable housing and if the land is there, it’s going to be done,” he said.

Kaiser said his group’s main concern about the development planned to go up across the street from his home is its mass. PCNF reduced its size by 10 units in response to resident complaints, but Kaiser said the project is still too large for the neighborhood.

“I wouldn’t have moved into my house if I knew a four-story building was going in there,” he said.

Kaiser said the issue in his neighborhood isn’t affordable housing itself, though he contends rental is not the best way to solve the problem. He said the process was not respectful and many residents didn’t feel listened to.

“It’s not that it’s ‘not in my back yard,’” he said. “It’s ‘yes, in my backyard, but please respect my backyard.’”

Kaiser said his group is looking to sue the city over its approval of the project and hoping to reach out to other neighborhoods concerned about PCNF.

Minneapolis City Council Member and Zoning and Planning Committee Chairman Gary Schiff (9th Ward) said he’s never encountered such opposition to affordable housing projects in his ward. His committee voted to reject the Tangletown appeal.

“The building overall is compatible with the characteristics of the block it sits on,” he said.

Schiff said the city does have a goal to reduce the concentration of poverty by expanding affordable housing options beyond Downtown, but resident concerns are always taken into consideration.

City Council Member Elizabeth Glidden (8th Ward) echoed that statement.

“Regardless of the city’s goals, every project has to be judged on its merit,” she said.

Proving merit

PCNF is always looking for development sites, Blons said, and it isn’t easy to find large parcels in the city.

After a site is deemed suitable for a particular development — every one has a different purpose, and things such as proximity to mass transit and community need are considered — the process of proving the project’s merit to the neighborhood and city leaders begins.

At recent sites further away from the city’s core, that process becomes more challenging, but PCNF is looking for those locations specifically.

“The whole idea is that people are being integrated into the community, so we are looking to site our housing in middle-class neighborhoods in Minneapolis,” Blons said. “Kingfield and Tangletown are both middle-class neighborhoods.”

Blons said the stereotypes of affordable housing — that crime will increase and the neighborhood will deteriorate, are largely unfounded.

The Minneapolis Police Department did recently present some startling arrest numbers for a few Southwest affordable housing developments. One report said 26 people arrested in various locations in the 5th Precinct during the last two years listed their address as Lydia House, but police couldn’t verify that the residents actually lived there.

Blons said 17 of the offenses did not involve people who were living at Lydia at the time and only one tenant was arrested for a “serious” offense, narcotics. Seven others were charged with livability crimes such as littering and driving without a current drivers’ license.

She said PCNF is ready and willing to give tenants the boot if they are involved in a serious crime or chronic livability offenses and it has done so in the past.

“No one wants to live in a neighborhood filled with crime and so we need to convince [neighbors]that we’re not bringing crime into the neighborhood,” Blons said. “We’re not there in any way to oppose their values and their great neighborhood. What’s hard is, we can only convince them after it’s built.”

That’s what happened in Stevens Square, where residents once picketed Lydia. Stevens Square Community Organization members said that controversy is dead and the neighborhood just gave $245,000 to PCNF to help start another project in an existing building.

But PCNF will probably never be out of the fire completely.

“Just in life, those that are fearful of something are more apt to come to neighborhood meetings … A lot of people who support affordable housing think its going to get built and don’t know that we need them to step up and actually say ‘I think this is a great thing in this community,” Blons said.

Reach Jake Weyer at 436-4367 or [email protected]