Disillusion with Rybak

In July 2000, a community activist from south Minneapolis e-mailed his colleagues in the Minneapolis Forum:

“It’s important to remember that the issue in the city isn’t just about spurring the private sector to build new units. It’s about creating incentives for the private sector to preserve the housing stock we now have that is rapidly deteriorating.

Twenty-five years ago there were thousands of private parties who owned one or two, or maybe a handful, of small multi-unit buildings that provided affordable housing in the city. Some of them were people who could clearly be labeled slumlords. Thousands of them weren’t and they were playing a very important role in providing people inexpensive decent places to live.

The tax reform act had a massive, negative impact on this whole group of people. I could give you 20 names off the top of my head of small investors who simply no longer had any incentive to hold onto this property....
The net effect today is that this whole class of small time investors has been virtually removed from the city. There isn’t a lot of sympathy for the person today who is a landlord, and in many cases there shouldn’t be, but when an entire industry gets wiped out in a couple decades something’s gonna give. The retail equivalent would be if within two decades 80 percent of independent stores in this town were shut down, leaving us with a few widely scattered chains and coops.

The sad fact of the matter is for every four-flat that is opened by nonprofits with great sweat and expense, there are five 20 units that private parties are either boarding up or letting deteriorate into obsolescence. There is never going to be a serious dent in this problem until we also address the massive loss of private capital from the city’s low income housing market. And spending millions to build thousands of units won’t solve the problem if at the same time thousands of existing units are being lost.”

The writer was R.T. Rybak from Ward 11, now Minneapolis’ mayor. I first met Rybak at a forum on housing convened by Ted Mondale and Hennepin Commissioner Gail Dorfman about the time of the e-mail. He made a statement along the same lines as in that communication. I then stood up and commented that the previous speaker really understood housing. Afterwards, Rybak came over to me, introduced himself, and shook hands.

This incident was still fresh in my mind when, in December 2000, Rybak approached Charlie Disney, then executive director of Minneapolis Property Rights Action Committee (MPRAC), about his plans to run for mayor. Basically, he wanted our group to stay neutral. He stressed the fact that his stepfather, Chuck Mesken, had been a landlord and told a moving story about how this man had won his mother’s heart one fine day when she was despondent about having been robbed at gunpoint in the family drugstore on Franklin Avenue. Again, I thought, Rybak understands our situation.

As it happened, the group was pulled in various directions during the 2001 mayoral campaign. Charlie Disney announced his candidacy for mayor before the DFL city convention in May so that the group could maintain some semblance of neutrality regarding the four major candidates and could also have a platform for airing landlord issues. Then, after Charlie pulled out of the race, I ran. September 11th brought, besides the terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington D.C., a smashing primary victory for Rybak and a dismal showing for me.

A sleep-deprived Rybak came to the MPRAC monthly meeting at the Eagles Club on September 12th, the day after the primary, and stayed for an hour. There was a warm feeling between him and the group. When someone asked Rybak what we could do to help his campaign, he replied that the most important thing was to come up with a set of constructive proposals for city government which, if he was elected mayor, might be implemented in his 90-day plan.

In the following week, MPRAC activists came up with a list of about twenty specific proposals relating to city government, housing, and crime. We quickly made these available to the Rybak campaign. Then, at his request, we met again with Rybak at his campaign headquarters to discuss a shorter list of proposals, mostly aimed at reducing rental-housing vacancies. Rybak thought he might use them during the campaign. Though he did not, Rybak again appeared at our monthly meeting for a short visit. This was his third appearance of the year, taking advantage, as other candidates did as well, of the free cable-television time that the show offered to his campaign.

After the November 5th general election, which Rybak won by a landslide, the mood mysteriously changed. On the very next day, Rybak held a press conference to announce that David Fey, executive director of Seward Redesign, a housing nonprofit, would head his Affordable Housing task force. Eve White, the new MPRAC executive director, promptly telephoned Fey and was assured that the committee would be most interested in our views. I also introduced myself to Fey at a Housing Minnesota gathering in November. I mailed him copies of the policy proposals which we had prepared for Rybak during the campaign. Eve, I, and others from MPRAC decided not to push Rybak and his advisers with immediate requests and demands but give them time to get organized and get back to us at their convenience.

What was intended to be respectful may have been a mistake. Rybak and his campaign people had told us to deal with Fey; but Fey never returned phone calls. Rybak himself did answer my e-mail once when I passed along a rumor that Jackie Cherryhomes would be appointed deputy director of MCDA. He assured me that there was nothing to the rumor.

The next thing we knew, however, Rybak announced an Affordable Housing Task Force, chaired by Fey, which consisted of sixteen members. Only one represented a private-sector provider of housing, and he was from the Minnesota Multi Housing Association, which represents mainly the large suburban apartment complexes rather than the mom-and-pop operations in the city that rent to poor people. Representatives of housing nonprofits, public housing, housing advocates, and government officials made up most of the other members.
In mid December, the Task Force, chaired by Fey now slated to become Deputy Mayor, published an outline of its recommendations to the new administration for its “90-day housing strategy.” The most substantial recommendations involved what Rybak had warned against in his July 2000 e-mail - pouring public money into construction of new housing.

The section titled “Regulatory Reform” appeared to be congenial to our interests as private-sector landlords, especially with its vaguely worded references to such things as “revise building codes to reduce costs of rehabilitation”, but, reading further, we found a number of disturbing elements. For instance, under “successful preservation programs”, we found a proposal to continue and presumably expand the “Project 504/ tenant remedy act”, which means using the City Attorney’s staff to help enterprising lawyers sue landlords who did not complete their work orders fast enough and, if successful, take over management of their buildings and so gain access to the landlords’ checkbook to the extent of their equity in the buildings - hardly a reassuring proposal, from our point of view.

The Affordable Housing Task Force proposal also included a recommendation to “identify private partners” to support education and outreach activities. By this, it did not mean private-sector providers of housing but the constituent groups represented in Housing/ Minnesota, such as church-related groups that wanted government to dedicate a percentage of tax revenues to production of more “affordable housing” in whose expenditures, presumably, they would have a say. The Housing/ Minnesota subgroup which I had attended had chosen two discussion topics: rent control and tougher enforcement of fair housing laws.

In short, private-sector landlords such myself, who Rybak had said during the campaign were so important in providing affordable housing for low- and middle-income city residents, were now being left out in the cold by his incoming administration. Instead, the housing nonprofits and housing advocates, who fed sumptuously at the public trough, were being invited to shape Rybak’s housing program. And Rybak’s reneging on campaign promises seemed to be happening in record time.

Rybak had promised a politics of inclusion, specifically mentioning private-sector providers of low-cost housing. There could be little doubt, however, that his post-election policy was to exclude Minneapolis Property Rights
Action Committee, its leaders, and members from the housing discussions. So we had a particular bone to pick. Beyond that, Rybak’s message that the private sector was of critical importance to solving the affordable-housing crisis undoubtedly helped his campaign. The voters thought that was what they were getting. Now his administration was reversing course. It was going with the big-money non-profits, the housing advocates, and liberal elected officials.

Still, the prevailing sentiment among MPRAC members was that we should wait a bit longer before criticizing Rybak. Give his new administration some more time to get organized and develop its programs. If he and his lieutenants no longer answered telephone calls, letters, or e-mails from MPRAC members, it was perhaps because he was swamped with other obligations, such as developing a new proposal for a baseball stadium, and did not have time for us. Rybak now had bigger concerns to face than our petty complaints.

However, I smelled a rat. We had dutifully and respectfully waited for Rybak to get organized in the post-election period only to learn that his Affordable Housing Task Force excluded any input from us and their recommendations did not include any of those on our list of proposals given Rybak, at his request, during the campaign, not even remotely. We were asking mainly for good and honest government, not a place for ourselves at the trough.

The sop to outsiders such as ourselves was that the new administration convened a “Citywide Housing Summit”, open to anyone, on the morning of January 5th. I did not attend because I had returned from a trip to the East Coast at 4 a.m. the night before, but several MPRAC members did. Rybak and his people seemed glad to see Eve White and the guys and be photographed with her; but several things did not seem right.

First, the overwhelming majority of those attending the Summit were not private-sector landlords but the housing advocates and nonprofits. The imbalance was so severe that Steve Brandt’s report on the gathering in the Star Tribune included the observation that there appeared to be few representatives of the private sector in attendance - a pleasantly surprising comment in view of Brandt’s disparaging reference to MPRAC as being a “rump group of landlords” in a pre-election article about Rybak’s housing policies.

Second was David Fey’s unctious insistence to Eve White that the Rybak administration wanted and appreciated MPRAC members’ input. “Don’t let us ignore you again in the future” (or words to that effect) was his rather strange comment.

Third was newly elected Ninth Ward Council member Gary Schiff’s response to Phillips activist Jim Graham at the January 5th Summit who suggested that he should meet Eve White. “I don’t have to be nice to landlords any more now that I’m elected” Schiff said to Graham, in refusing to shake Eve’s hand and turning away. The fact that during the 2001 campaign Gary Schiff had held a key position at Central Community Housing Trust, a non-profit whose executive director was on Rybak’s Affordable Housing task force was also of concern considering that Schiff would become chair of the City Council’s committee for zoning issues.

So Eve and the other landlords of MPRAC were not exactly among friends. What to do about this was the question. Eve wanted to wait some more to give Rybak time to do the right thing. I had my doubts about that strategy. We all agreed that we would not come out against Rybak’s administration until after January at the earliest.

I tried to make an appointment to see the new mayor, following the procedure suggested by a telephone recording at his office. I made the request in writing by e-mail. Nothing happened. I called a close relative of Rybak’s to ask for advice. At that person’s suggestion, I called Rybak’s cell phone number which, again, turned out to be a recording, and left several messages. He did not return the calls. I wrote letters but it might as well have been to myself.

February came and also what I thought was an adequate period of waiting for the new administration to get back to us. Finally, four days before the monthly meeting, I mailed a letter to Rybak in which I outlined the causes of dissatisfaction with him and his aides and announced my intention to denounce him on camera at the meeting on February 13th. And that is what I did at the meeting. I called for a march on City Hall if the situation did not improve. That is where matters now stand. As of this writing, there has still not been any communication from the Rybak administration. I am not expecting any either.

Broken campaign promises and jilted constituencies are, of course, a dime a dozen in American politics. Now the question is not about Rybak, who has shown his true colors, but about us. One school of opinion argues that we should not anger the new mayor by coming out against him. After all, we will have to live with this guy for the next four years. Try to get on his good side.

I disagree. We lived antagonistically with Sharon Sayles Belton for four years after the 1997 election and that did not seem to hurt our group. She had many good personal qualities, but basically headed an administration that played hardball with private-sector landlords while pretending to seek better relations with them. We had to oppose her; and, indeed, we spared no effort in removing her from office. But the idea of going after Sayles Belton so fiercely and treating Rybak with kid gloves does not appeal to me at all.

So let’s continue the good old MPRAC tradition of ignoring the “wise” advice not to antagonize hostile city officials and instead hit them over the head with a 2 by 4 when they do something wrong. Political bureaucracies respond to that kind of treatment. They do not respond to polite complaints about not being heard.Postscript: Mayor Rybak announced that he would hold periodic open houses in which any citizen could come to City Hall and talk with him. Eve White took advantage of that opportunity on Thursday, February 28th.

Rybak told Eve that he was so busy with budget matters that he did not have time to respond to anyone’s inquiries - and his bloodshot eyes seemed to confirm that statement. He had appointed the particular individuals to his Affordable Housing Task Force, he said, because they were the ones who had worked on his campaign and helped get him elected. Furthermore, Rybak asked, if people in our group wanted to see him so badly, why weren’t they at his open house?

Answering the last question first, I would say that I did not attend Rybak’s open house because, at that point, we had little to discuss. My point of decision had come two weeks earlier. I did decide then to make a strong statement criticizing him. That cable TV show would air for the first time on the following day, March 1st. What purpose would it serve to have a “friendly” discussion with Rybak now with that event coming up?

Granted, Rybak had been in office for little more than a month; but it had been three months since he was elected. My criticism lay not so much with what he did or did not do since taking office but in decisions taken in the two-month period before he took office. He did decide to exclude MPRAC and, effectively, private-sector landlords from the housing discussion; and his task force, presumably with his approval, did issue a set of recommendations in December which did not address our concerns. It was appropriate for me and other MPRAC members, having seen these preliminary proposals, to make criticisms and comments before they were put into effect.

Regarding his personal work load, the new mayor did now have paid staff to deal with constituent service. It would be futile for us, however, to pin the blame on Fey or other of Rybak’s staff, not knowing what instructions they had. We had to assume that what we got from the Mayor’s office was what Mayor Rybak wanted.

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