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Can the Feds Force the Twin Cities to Tackle Segregated Housing?

Housing advocates want HUD to push the state’s planning board to open up housing options in the region’s more affluent suburbs and, in doing so, help tackle a growing segregation problem.

An aerial view of Minneapolis suburbs, with the city's downtown in the distance.
(Joe Ferrer/Shutterstock)
Sitting in his book-lined office in Minneapolis' Near Northside, Rev. Alfred Babington-Johnson can provide a unique perspective on the history of segregation in the Twin Cities area.

He’s lived in the region much of his life, a leader in the city’s once small but always well-organized African American community. Although Minneapolis remained over 90 percent white until the 1980s, civil rights activists scored serious victories in the mid-20th century. But as the city, and region, grew more diverse, desegregationist policies were increasingly stymied.

Today, housing and education integration programs in the region have stalled and reversed course. The majority of the region’s subsidized housing is built in lower-income areas, while over a quarter of Black students go to deeply segregated schools — up from almost none 30 years ago.

This trend isn’t unique to the Twin Cities. Last year, a study out of the University of California, Berkeley, found that 81 percent of American metropolitan areas with populations over 200,000 were more segregated in 2019 than they had been in 1990.

“All the affordable housing mustn't just go into the impoverished areas,” says Babington-Johnson. “Segregation with all of its ills has been aided and abetted by the practices that are currently operating in the affordable housing arena. All of that ends up being a real detriment to the communities that have the greatest need.”

In the Twin Cities, the geography of segregation has changed radically since Babington-Johnson’s youth. Historically much of Minneapolis’ Black population was concentrated on the city’s northside, with Rondo being St. Paul’s counterpart. There were few other nonwhite demographic groups. Then starting in the 1980s, the region began to be remade by immigration from Southeast Asia, Latin America and eastern Africa, along with domestic African American migration from more depressed industrial areas like Chicago and Milwaukee.

By the 2020 census both of the Twin Cities were still majority white, but not overwhelmingly so as they had been into the 1980s. Just as dramatic is the growing diversity of the region’s inner ring suburbs. In 2000, 93 percent of suburban residents in the Twin Cities region lived in majority white jurisdictions, according to calculations from the Institute on Metropolitan Opportunity. By 2020, only 24 percent of the suburban population lived in majority white municipalities.

But advocates like Babington-Johnson are worried that many of the older, inner ring suburbs are experiencing rapid re-segregation as their white populations move to more expensive jurisdictions or the exurbs. The fear is that some of these older suburban communities will become areas of concentrated poverty, akin to older nodes of urban segregation but without support from the larger tax base of a big city.

That’s why Babington-Johnson, and other African American leaders, are hoping to rally support for a 2014 Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) complaint against the Metropolitan Council, a state planning board that has the power to push localities, on pain of funding loss, to allow more subsidized and multifamily housing. During the 1970s and 1980s, the board did that — resulting by 1979 in 40 percent of subsidized housing being built in the then higher income and supermajority white suburban areas. (In 1970, only 10 percent of such units were built in those locales.)

But the Metropolitan Council backed away from such policies by the 1990s and, in 2014, some of the region’s lowest income and least white suburban jurisdictions joined forces with the Metropolitan Interfaith Council on Affordable Housing to author a complaint to HUD in an effort to reinvigorate more integrationist policies.

“The Met Council did a great job up until the late ‘80s in distributing transportation, parks and infrastructure money to reward good behavior in terms of affordable housing,” says Michael Allen, a national civil rights lawyer. “They have just completely retrenched from that and sit on the sidelines now. We are attempting, with a HUD administrative complaint, to restore some regional balance.”

Allen, Babington-Johnson and their allies hope that HUD will pressure the Metropolitan Council by, essentially, threatening to withhold funds to those municipalities who don’t build their fair share of affordable units. The regional body would then change its allocations to incentivize more subsidized housing in high opportunity, and often overwhelmingly white, municipalities. The goal is to essentially allow recipients of subsidized housing a diversity of options — including in areas with gold-plated public schools and other amenities.

The Metropolitan Council’s leaders are appointed by Minnesota’s governor, and while they cannot order the construction of new housing, they can set goals for different jurisdictions, based on metrics like existing affordability and density, and withhold funding if those are not met. The institution’s leaders in recent decades have, according to critics, downplayed those powers.

“The Council does not have authority to require cities to build affordable housing, but as part of the process of ‘comprehensive planning,’ does determine an overall housing need for the region, and allocates that across the local units of government,” writes Bonnie Kollodge, spokesperson for the Metropolitan Council. The council wouldn’t provide further comment.

The complaint’s progress stalled under Donald Trump’s administration, which explains the case’s long period of somnambulance. Now with a new administration in place, and more civil rights-oriented appointees at HUD, supports of the complaint are pressing their case again.

“Halfway through 2017, it was clear that there just was no interest on the part of the administration in addressing these kinds of problems,” says Allen. “It was enormously discouraging that the Trump administration effectively neutered the requirement of the Fair Housing Act. The Biden administration is seeking to put teeth back in the requirement.”

Babington-Johnson and other civil rights leaders have been holding mass meetings about the HUD complaint, with the goal of building more popular support for the campaign.

Prominent leaders in the region, like Minneapolis’ Jacob Frey, also express broad support of the goals of building more subsidized housing in more privileged neighborhoods and municipalities.

“There’s a very intentional concentration of poverty in certain areas,” says Frey. “Everybody's for affordable housing at the macro level until you start talking about putting it anywhere in the vicinity of where they live. I believe that affordable housing should be in every neighborhood.”

The complaint about the Metropolitan Council wouldn’t address housing in Minneapolis and St. Paul (those cities already settled a separate complaint brought by Allen). But Frey’s statements show that the larger debate around the issue has penetrated the highest political circles in the region and remains relevant even in the urban core.

But given how long the 2014 case has been left on the back burner, there are legitimate questions of whether this form of pressure will bring relief in a meaningful time frame.

“I've been in this business for 37 years now and understand the frustration of how long things take,” says Allen. “But something that took decades to develop as a problem or as a system that incentivized evasion of fair share obligations, just takes a while to remedy.”
Jake Blumgart is a senior writer for Governing and covers transportation and infrastructure. He lives in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter at @jblumgart.
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