At issue is the project’s commitment to deeply affordable housing
Apparently, St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter is willing to risk his reputation and the well-being of his former Rondo neighborhood on the likelihood that the developers of a proposed 288-unit $57 million primarily market-rate project will voluntarily add deeply affordable housing. The city council voted April 7 to deny Alatus LLC its Lexington Station development proposal to be built on land adjacent to the Wilder Foundation headquarters at 451 Lexington Parkway. But the mayor vetoed the council’s vote.
“The planning commission found that [the project] was inconsistent with our zoning plans,” said St. Paul City Council Member Dai Thao at a press conference last week denouncing Carter’s decision to override the council’s vote.
“Every political leader in this city has talked about the destruction of this community and how generations of poverty were created as a result,” said Thao. “We have an opportunity to change that, but we are doing exactly what they did in the 1960s—$1,100 for a studio is too much for this community.”
According to housing experts, state law and the city zoning codes declare that the city council and not the mayor is empowered to make decisions about zoning and housing developments. The St. Paul City Council has asked the Minnesota Attorney General to weigh in on the issue.
Mayor weighs in
“I don’t think it’s an all-or-nothing proposal,” said Carter. “It’s consistent completely with the zoning. Our goal is to always invest in our community and to make sure there is a place for families, for the business leaders.
“This project is a complement to the neighborhood,” said the mayor, who noted that he is a part of the fifth generation of the historic Rondo neighborhood. “I am one of the concerned neighbors on this project.”
Carter said he disagrees with those who say that the neighborhood shares a different opinion. The mayor pointed out that he and opponents of the project all agree that “we should put more affordable units in that project.”
Danielle Swift, an anti-displacement community organizer for the Frogtown Neighborhood Association, said that Carter’s decision to override the city council’s veto “approves the original site plan, which erases all of what they had promised while going through the process, so we are back to their original plan, which is zero affordability.”
Related Story: Wilder Foundation charged with selling out its mission
One of the programs that could aid Alatus in bringing in deeply affordable housing is the 4(d) Affordable Housing Incentive Program, a metro area program that offers rental property owners a 40% tax rate reduction and limited grant assistance for units that remain affordable for a consecutive 10-year period.
“The 4(d) resources would have been able to allow Alatus to bring in 22 units at 30% Area Medium Income (AMI) and they refused to do that. But they said they were not interested in applying to 4(d) resources,” said Swift who added that she does not share the mayor’s faith that Alatus will include affordable housing in the project.
“The folks who said they want more affordability should know that they have been heard by their mayor-slash-neighbor,” said Carter. “I am going to be working very diligently with the developer to add more affordability there.”
The mayor said it would be difficult to argue that the current use of the property—storing snow and providing excess parking to the State Fair and sporting events—is the best use for the space.
“If it’s not this project, it will be the next project,” said Carter. “My suggestion is let’s not throw the whole baby out with the bath water. The legal standard is the zoning code. We have a project that doesn’t need any city funding.
“I have heard people say, ‘We don’t like the type of people that are going to move in here,’” said the mayor, insisting that a speaker at the press conference made this accusation explicitly. However, the MSR could not find any indication of hostility against the kind of people potentially moving in. Those in opposition have simply voiced concerns that the project could lead to gentrification.
The mayor acknowledged that he has concerns about gentrification. Carter said that those who oppose the project are saying, “People from outside our community will come into our community and move into those [units]. Those are the same concerns that were used to create the covenant against Black people moving into the neighborhood.”
“That’s pretty silly, to say the least,” said Jack Cann, housing attorney for the St. Paul Housing Justice Center, when told about the mayor’s concern over a kind of reverse discrimination.
Outside funding needed
“The challenge of affordable housing is that it costs,” said Carter. We will have to find money within the city taxpayer budget, from the state and the federal government. They [Alatus] are willing to provide deeply affordable housing if we can help them find sources.”
According to the mayor, the city attorney advised the city council on the record that because the project “adheres to the underlying zoning, the City has limited ability to say you can’t build this here.”
The mayor pointed out that the City has put “unprecedented money into affordable housing. Our values are very much in action,” he said.
I think it’s incumbent on us to build housing at every level of the income spectrum,” Carter said. “People are moving into this neighborhood fast. If we don’t build new housing, that’s the quickest way for us to ensure that people will get displaced, because that will mean that every time somebody moves in somebody has to move out. We are saying wait a minute, somebody can move in without somebody having to move out because we are adding new housing.”
Cann says that building affordable housing is a better way to prevent displacement. “The main issue with Lexington Station project is it is taking up space that ought to be used for affordable housing altogether. This project is taking up land that ought to be set aside for affordable housing because people who need affordable housing are often in need of public transportation.
“It drives up rents and it drives up taxes for homeowners. It gets more and more dramatic as more and more housing is added,” said Cann.
“I think our best strategy to keep people from getting displaced is to build new housing,” the mayor said. “I wake up every day concerned about that. If people come into our city faster than we build new housing, the highest bidder will always win.
“I think this is an opportunity for a win-win. I think this is an opportunity to build this as a great project. It shows people that St. Paul is a great city to invest in and creates living opportunities for deeply affordable living opportunity for working families in our community, a project we can all be proud of,” said Carter.
At the press conference, St. City Council Jane Prince said, “The mayor has made a mockery of the process. Now the developer will have no obligation to provide affordable housing.”
“We agree with the community that there should be a deeper affordability,” said Amherst Wilder CEO Armando Camacho. “We at Wilder help people stay in their houses, so we understand. Right now it’s all privately financed. How do we get to the point where there are some public dollars? In order for that to happen, we need help from government.
Camacho said that his organization is committed to doing all that it can to make sure affordable and deeply affordable housing is built at Lexington Station.
At present neither Camacho nor Carter can offer guarantees.