Sins of Omission

August 14, 2000

Dear Ms. Fine:

I am the person in the front row of the “Media at the Millennium” NewsCapade who criticized Twin Cities journalism. I also spoke with you after the session. You said that you welcomed comments and specific suggestions for possible stories.

One issue has stuck in my mind. I had used the word “corrupt” to describe certain operations of Minneapolis City Government. You asked if that condition could be proved - a good question. I think it may boil down to definitions.

One aspect of public corruption might be illegal acts committed by city officials. A recent story by Steve Brandt exposed legally improper acts by City Council President Jackie Cherryhomes in purchasing a subsidized home in north Minneapolis. We will see if this incident rises to the level of concern that anything is actually done about it.

I know of efforts by a landlord group, Minneapolis Property Rights Action Committee, to expose illegal acts committed by a Minneapolis housing inspector supervisor, Woody Dixon. Mr. Dixon illegally lived in a condemned building, used a homestead exemption to which he was not entitled, etc. The group tried for years, without success, to get Twin Cities media interested in this story. Finally, the Inspections department quietly removed Mr. Dixon from his position and the landlord group stopped requesting that attention be given to this matter.

Another aspect of public corruption - even more important in my estimation - is a situation where public officials have a conflict of interest with their official duties and where their practice works to the detriment of the public. The fact that both the Mayor and President of the City Council have attorney husbands who do work for the city ought to alert us to possible conflicts; but the problem is deeper.

I want to focus on the city’s action in the area of housing. Much of my information comes from experiences gained as a member of Minneapolis Property Rights Action Committee and may be colored from its perspective.

When I accused Twin Cities journalists of being “limp” in their reporting of public issues, I was thinking of coverage of the affordable-housing crisis, especially the explanations and interpretations given to it. The standard line is that, because the private sector cannot handle the need for this housing, government (or foundations) will have to chip in with millions of dollars for new construction. Changes in tax law, etc. account for private investors’ unwillingness to build the housing.

An equally important reason for the housing shortage, in my opinion, is that Minneapolis city government has torn down thousands of units of affordable housing in the past ten years and, also, that city policies discourage private investors who are not connected with city officials from fixing up condemned or substandard housing and putting it back into service. City government is part of the problem rather than the solution.

I am including several case histories to show how the city operates in the housing area - especially to tear down buildings which are structurally sound. There are a half dozen different ways this is done; I have tried to give you a sampling. From the standpoint of taxpayers, it makes no sense to pour millions of dollars of government money into affordable housing when the city of Minneapolis is needlessly demolishing housing at an equal or faster rate. This is a story crying out to be told, but your newspaper won’t touch it.

Minneapolis Property Rights Action Committee held a demonstration late last summer at the site of an MCDA-owned house at 3330 Chicago Ave. South which was in the process of demolition. It had the building’s former owner and several housing experts to testify that the building was structurally sound. Several television stations sent camera crews, but the Star Tribune ignored the event.
Several months later, there was a similar event at a building in the 2500 block of south Minneapolis. The Minnesota Daily and other media covered it; the Star Tribune ignored it.

Earlier this year, the group again highlighted the example of Central Neighborhood Improvement Association’s housing committee recommendation to demolish three buildings in south Minneapolis using extremely high estimates of expected renovation costs. Lou Harvin of Channel 2 covered the event; the Star Tribune, again, ignored it.

In all these cases, we had concrete examples of structually sound housing for low-income city residents which were in the process of being torn down through dubious decisions of Minneapolis city officials (including MCDA officials). This situation exists in the context of an extreme shortage of rental housing for low-income people in Minneapolis.

Yet, the Star Tribune showed absolutely no interest in investigating these situations. Why not? Is the issue unimportant? Was this particular group of landlords so despised within your organization that they were thought incapable of producing relevant and factually accurate information about housing problems?

What I do know is that one of your top city editors, Claude Peck, used to be the editor of the now defunct Twin Cities Reader. In one of its last issues, Mr. Peck wrote a sarcastic and factually inaccurate column about Minneapolis landlords using personally derogatory language. This was followed by publication of an anonymous and what seems to have been a bogus letter to the editor restating Peck’s position. The landlords threatened to sue the paper and, in one of its last issues, the Reader printed a retraction.

With respect to the “corruption” issue, I think it fair to say that the City of Minneapolis is actively engaged in activities that result in the destruction of many structurally sound buildings that could house low-income city residents. In other words, these policies work to the detriment of a large segment of our population.

At the same time, city policies work to the distinct advantage of certain persons or groups which have ties to city officials and to the disadvantage of others who are not part of the club, so to speak. Individuals such as Richard Brustad and George Garnett are part of the club; most of us are not.

The club members contribute to the Council member’s campaigns or, as Brustad has done for Jackie Cherryhomes, take an active part in hosting fundraisers for them. There is a “revolving door” situation involving government officials and housing non-profits like NRRC or PPL. And, as I suggested, some spouses of city officials may benefit personally from the legal work needed to demolish homes.

Some politically connected individuals may benefit from raising or handling funds for subsidized housing. Some contractors and building-trades craftsmen benefit from the various restrictions placed upon individuals who try to fix delapidated housing.

In short, the city housing policy is characterized by the sharply differing treatment of insiders and outsiders - a sign of corruption, I would suggest. The insiders are allowed to buy MCDA-owned properties for $1.00 or receive various public subsidies. Outsiders are harassed by city inspectors, or their buildings are condemned by MCDA using eminent domain, or their rental licenses are revoked on trumped-up charges of permitting crime.

Read some of these case histories to see how the city of Minneapolis treats many of its private-sector landlords. Then you will get an idea of why private investors seem to be unwilling to invest in new construction or renovation of affordable housing despite skyrocketing rents.

Why is the Star Tribune uninterested in this aspect of the affordable housing crisis? I think it should be.


William McGaughey

(Note: The situation changed dramatically in the five years after this letter was written. The housing "shortage" changed to a housing glut. Property values and taxes rose sharply. Rental vacancies rose.)


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