NuWay sober housing plan advances

City board affirms decision to waive spacing requirements for supportive housing at 22nd & Blaisdell

Whittier resident Ted Irgens testifies Feb. 19 against a proposal for sober housing at the Snyder mansion at 22nd & Blaisdell. Credit: Michelle Bruch

The city’s Zoning Board of Adjustment unanimously denied an appeal last week seeking to block the addiction treatment center NuWay House from converting a century-old mansion at 2118 Blaisdell into temporary housing for its clients.

Neighborhood resident Ted Irgens filed the appeal with the backing of the Whittier Alliance neighborhood group, arguing that the area holds plenty of supportive housing and the city should abide by quarter-mile spacing requirements that would prevent the conversion.

NuWay plans to convert the original mansion into a five-bedroom apartment, with 21 apartment units inside an existing three-story addition. Residents would receive treatment for substance abuse at a nearby NuWay counseling center. A zero-tolerance policy would be in place for drug use and criminal behavior.

City staff determined they must waive spacing requirements to avoid discrimination under the Fair Housing Act (FHA), because nearly all of the city is technically off-limits for new supportive housing.

The Zoning Board of Adjustment agreed, voting 6-0 in favor of the project.

“It’s not about passion for property or passion for recovery. It’s about what we have to deal with,” said John Finlayson, board member of the Zoning Board of Adjustment. “[City staff are] basically telling us we don’t have a choice. … It’s very simple for me.”

He noted the precedent regarding Lydia House at 1920 LaSalle Ave., which houses formerly homeless residents. A Hennepin County District Court judge ruled that the city’s decision to waive spacing requirements for the supportive housing was not “arbitrary, capricious or unreasonable.” The decision held in federal court.

Irgens countered that there are many distinctions between Lydia House and the present case.

“This is not a crappy old apartment building, this is a historic property,” he said.

The city’s Heritage Preservation Commission nominated the Snyder mansion as an individual landmark last week, and placed the interior and exterior of the property under interim protection.

The house was built for John Pillsbury Snyder and his wife Nelle, survivors of the Titanic.

“Few walking by the exterior of the Mansion would guess that it contains a stunning double marble staircase, Honduran mahogany paneling, quarter cut herringbone floors, beautiful crystal chandeliers from Czechoslovakia, intricate wedding cake plaster ceilings and a lower level ballroom where the Pillsbury-Snyders hosted the City’s leading families during one of its most significant historic periods,” Irgens said in an email. 

Irgens also questioned whether people recovering from substance abuse should be covered under the Fair Housing Act. If you’re a recovering alcoholic, are you considered disabled for the rest of your life?, he asked. He also detailed the number of police calls in the surrounding area, and said he fears that drug dealers target the neighborhood’s recovery community.

People who had undergone recovery treatment through NuWay and other neighborhood facilities lined up to testify at the hearing, including William Cope Moyers, Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation’s vice president of public affairs.

“I do have a disease, it is an illness and a disability,” one North Minneapolis resident said.

“I’m just as terrified of crime and drug dealing as anybody else,” said another woman in recovery.

Jen Kennedy underwent treatment for addiction in the past, and helped open Bright Spot Sober House for Women in South Minneapolis two years ago. She spoke in favor of the new housing, and said some people perceive addicts as stuck for life.

“Those around me thought I had no chance,” she said. “It is there forever — it’s whether or not you choose to surround yourself with people who will get you through it. People with addiction and alcoholism … do have a place in the world, and they do have a place here.”

“NuWay is part of the solution, not part of the problem,” said George Antrim III, another neighborhood resident in recovery for two years.

Fewer residents testified against the NuWay proposal at the hearing, although a Change.org petition generated 250 signatures in opposition.

One man who testified conveyed a letter from the Urban League Academy High School across the street, and said the neighborhood is oversaturated with supportive housing.

Some in Whittier worry that nonprofits are taking over too many properties in the area, creating an overconcentration of supportive services.

NuWay Executive Director David Vennes confirmed that NuWay has a purchase agreement to buy the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy building at 2104 Stevens Ave. S. He said NuWay plans to expand outpatient services at its existing building at 2217 Nicollet Ave. S., and use the new Stevens Avenue building for administrative offices.

Irgens said his own home in Whittier, a foreclosure that had been vacant for two years, was slated to become a halfway house before he purchased and restored the house.

There are at least 30 facilities licensed by the Minnesota Dept. of Health within a quarter-mile radius of 2118 Blaisdell, a designation that includes group homes, foster care and home-based care.

“We already serve that community,” said Marian Biehn, executive director of the Whittier Alliance. “We’re not asking anyone to leave, we’re asking that services that need to expand look beyond this neighborhood.”

Irgens argued that abundant affordable housing in Whittier has a long history of accepting former alcoholics and addicts, and are required not to discriminate against them.

“No reasonable reading of the FHA suggests that municipalities must make available an infinite supply of supportive housing in any neighborhood,” he said.

As precedent, Irgens cited the 8th Circuit Court case Familystyle of St. Paul v. City of St. Paul, a case that halted a concentration of group homes for the mentally ill.

“To quote the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals in Familystyle, ‘had the city intended to discriminate against the mentally ill, one sure way would be to situate all group homes in the same neighborhood,'” Irgens wrote.

A city attorney said the Familystyle case isn’t comparable to this one, because it doesn’t seek approval via a “reasonable accommodation” application, as NuWay has done.

City Planner Joseph Giant said the accommodation of NuWay is necessary because of the new housing’s proximity to treatment.

“It makes sense to provide services where they’re needed,” he said.

He described the vitality of the Whittier neighborhood, with its density, diversity and shops.

“It’s clear that this neighborhood has no resemblance to an institutional environment,” he said.