Whittier is ground zero for the housing crisis in terms of rising rents and displacement of residents. In just the last few years, we have seen numerous 5 and 6 story buildings proposed by developers and subsequently approved by the Planning Commission (several within a couple blocks of this one and virtually equidistant from Nicollet Ave) despite the fact that the building materials are often poor quality, the rent levels are far beyond the reach of the average Whittier resident living here now, and there is no discernible benefit to the existing community--most often quite the opposite.
This parcel will almost certainly be developed, whether it happens through this project proposal or another slightly smaller building. The Goldstein family owns the parcels and wants to develop them. The variance that the City staff on this project did recommend for approval was the request to rezone the collective parcels to an OR2 High Density Office Residence District, which according to the zoning descriptions on the City's website, "The OR2 district provides the opportunity for a mixed use environment of moderate to high density dwellings and large office uses, with additional small scale retail sales and services uses designed to serve the immediate surroundings. Most development occurs at no more than 4 stories." (http://www.ci.minneapolis.mn.us/cped/planning/cped_rezoning_studies_zoning_district_descriptions).
Members of our Housing Issues Committee have been researching new development issues and the process, and what we’ve learned is that often in new construction a smaller building with less units will translate into higher rent levels per unit (to maintain the developer’s ROI), and the higher rents in that new building can translate to increased overall rates for both new development and naturally affordable units nearby. We have also learned that as it is right now, the affordability/rent level is not in itself under the purview of the Planning Commission, however the decisions made there about design, materials, public realm, etc. ultimately impact how much the building will cost, which can play into the rent levels when all is said and done.
With the high bar of the interim inclusionary zoning ordinance, the City of Minneapolis, let alone neighborhood organizations, has few if any levers they can pull right now to require any measure of designated affordability be incorporated, which is what our Housing Issues Committee pushed for first and foremost in a variety of fashions and did not get. The very last thing we want to happen -- knowing that development on this parcel is likely imminent -- is to see another new, multi-story building with high rents and residents completely disconnected from the existing community fabric in Whittier.
The Housing Issues Committee has been engaging with Yellow Tree and the Goldsteins since they first brought the project to us in May. Volunteers put together a survey and door-knocked the immediate area, and while we acknowledge that we were far from perfect and were not able to engage directly with every person, of the 87 responses 73% said that their #1 concern was rent levels either directly within this building or impact of rent levels on nearby properties. While still not anywhere near affordable (30% or less of a person’s monthly income) for the average Whittier resident, Yellow Tree’s rents are typically positioned at the lower end of “market rate” for a new building in this neighborhood. Few developers operate in that space of the market. We know this project is far from ideal, but in terms of what we can actually do now to influence the affordability problem in a new development and considering the feedback provided to Yellow Tree at the Committee of the Whole (which was generally positive) we felt this is truly the best that we could get. This is something, when the community currently in Whittier usually gets nothing or worse than nothing.
As mentioned in the article, the agreement we have made with Yellow Tree will be to:
1.) Co-design a volunteer rental rebate program in which residents can volunteer at a participating Whittier nonprofit organization (not just for Whittier Alliance, but for any organization operating here that aligns with the residents’ own interests and has agreed to participate) and in exchange for a certain amount off their monthly rent capped at a certain amount. The amount is to be determined, but we have both agreed it will be a meaningful amount so that residents want to take advantage of it. This will go a long way to integrate new residents into our community already here and to support Whittier’s many nonprofit organizations who are often in need of more volunteers. We are excited about the potential of this program to grow in scale to other buildings and properties in Whittier.
2.) Co-design a flexible use space that would be available part of the week to tenants and part of the week for WA to program, host free community events or meetings, organize small business pop-ups or maker markets, bike repair clinics, etc. or for community members just to reserve for their needs. Whittier Alliance would manage the schedule and programming in this space during the community-use times. It will provide a much-needed gathering space available free of charge or required purchases.
3.) Relocate the Whittier Alliance office to the ground floor of the building adjacent to the flexible use space in order to effectively manage and program the space and also to ensure Yellow Tree follows through on the rental rebate program by closer proximity. This agreement is first and foremost about the first two points and the idea of what benefits or utility we are able to tangibly facilitate for our community members, and I will add that the WA staff and board members have been exploring new office space options for years, long before our Housing Issues Committee was even created and certainly long before our current staff were in place. The new location would be slightly smaller in total square footage than our current office, and would be an increase in rent and utilities overall (though subsidized by about $5 per square foot off the market rate in exchange for programming the joint-use space) in comparison to what we pay now. Our current space is physically limiting in many ways; the building and property are poorly-maintained, as evidenced yet again by the hours our staff and board members spent yesterday dealing with a flooded office for the second time this year.
We understand that not everyone will agree with our position or perhaps see the potential of these negotiated community benefits in the same way, but I take a lot of pride in how our Housing Issues Committee volunteers have organized creatively to try and address big, complex problems that are often out of our immediate control as individual citizens or a neighborhood organization. Minneapolis is growing, and new developments are going to keep coming through whether or not we (you, me, our neighbors) are involved, so we may as well fight like hell to have a say in what they become.
- Kaley Brown, Whittier Alliance Executive Director