City staff waive supportive housing spacing requirements to avoid discrimination

Credit: Michelle Bruch

The Whittier nonprofit NuWay House Inc., which treats chemical dependency, is advancing a plan to provide temporary housing for its clients in the Pillsbury Mansion at 22nd & Blaisdell. City staff recently waived spacing requirements for the location, and a neighborhood resident is appealing that decision. 

NuWay wants to convert the mansion and the attached former nursing home into apartments for up to 47 people, almost all of them living in the three-story addition to the mansion. The project wouldn’t require exterior changes.

Under city code, the new housing wouldn’t technically be allowed, because it is considered “supportive housing” and located too close to other similar facilities.

But NuWay challenged the spacing rules under the federal Fair Housing Act, which makes it illegal to deny a dwelling to any buyer or renter because of a handicap, or refuse to make reasonable accommodations in rules or policies to provide equal opportunity in housing. The Act also applies to people recovering from substance abuse.

The Minneapolis city attorney and zoning administrator subsequently approved a waiver for quarter-mile spacing requirements. Upon further study, city staff found that Minneapolis rules make “establishing supportive housing impossible nearly anywhere in the city,” amounting to 1.7 percent of city land.

The city requires new supportive housing to stand a quarter-mile from places including motels, community residential facilities, correctional facilities and overnight shelters, and it’s not permitted in low-density districts.

“By contrast, approximately 74% of the city is residentially zoned, and 85.6% of the city allows residences as a permitted use,” states the city staff report. “Limiting the housing locations for certain handicapped persons to 1.7% of the City’s land area violates the intent of the 1988 FHAA [Fair Housing Amendments Act] and illustrates the necessity of the request.”

According to a city staff report, several “community residential facilities” are located within a quarter-mile of the mansion at 2118 Blaisdell Ave. A community residential facility is a place where people live under the supervision of a program licensed by the Minnesota Dept. of Human Services, including foster care or a single person with home-based care.

“In most instances, no benefit is achieved by requiring separation between these uses,” states the city staff report. “For example, no legitimate purpose is achieved by separating an immobile elderly person with a quarter-mile buffer from a home for mentally handicapped adults.”

Residents at the Pillsbury Mansion would not receive treatment onsite, though they would receive treatment for substance abuse at a NuWay counseling center a block away at 2217 Nicollet Ave.

When evaluating the “reasonableness” of the request for housing, city staff discussed the neighborhood environment.

“Persons recovering from substance abuse often are not able to drive, so walkability is especially important. In addition to the counseling center, the facility is located in close proximity to a large concentration of self-help facilities and several nearby organizations providing vocational training and/or the possibility of employment,” states the city report. “The applicant states, ‘Isolation is a common relapse trigger for those in early recovery from substance addiction (and/or mental illness). The supportive community setting eschews isolation and promotes community integration.”

At a neighborhood meeting last spring of the Whittier Alliance Community Issues Committee, residents questioned NuWay about why they were concentrating more housing in the neighborhood. Residents in attendance voted 13-9 to oppose the project, based on the neighborhood’s high concentration of supportive housing and poverty.

City staff noted that Whittier has the second-highest population density of any neighborhood in Minneapolis.

“While a preponderance of group homes in a small geographic area could potentially lead to negative clustering effects, the density of the proposed location dampens the risk,” states the city report. “The quarter-mile radius is in a dense urban neighborhood which encompasses a wide and intense array of land uses, greatly eliminating the risk of the proposed use overtaking the community.”

A neighborhood resident has appealed the city zoning administrator and attorney’s decision, and a hearing is scheduled for Feb. 19 at City Hall.

The Planning Commission must still grant a conditional use permit to establish the facility in the “OR2” zoning district.