The committee that oversees construction of the Blue Line light rail extension through the Northside and the northern suburbs voted unanimously on June 8, to adopt recommendations from a University of Minnesota report to curb displacement resulting from construction.
The recommendations, authored by the University of Minnesota Center for Urban and Regional Affairs (CURA) and released in early May, call for strengthening tenant power, ensuring diverse Northside communities get priority consideration in building the extension, request that government agencies develop an intentional policy of disposing of surplus land instead of selling it to the highest bidder, as well as incentivizing first-time homebuyers.
In 2021, Metropolitan Council and Hennepin County planners and engineers decided to build the light rail line extension through North Minneapolis on the way to Robbinsdale, Crystal and Brooklyn Park after they were unable to successfully negotiate right-of-way with Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF). Initially, planners wanted BNSF to share its railroad with Metro Transit’s light-rail line between Theodore Wirth Park in North Minneapolis and 71st Avenue in Brooklyn Park.
Planners had also tried to route the extension through North Minneapolis once before, by way of Penn Avenue and West Broadway, but abandoned the idea because it would have involved demolishing homes. At the same time, residents began getting priced out of housing as rents increased because landlords were excited about the prospect of such a line going through the community.
Worries about displacement intensified when planners decided to give the heart of North Minneapolis another shot at the Blue Line extension alignment. This time, after hearing from local activists who have been working with communities along the line to address their concerns, planners decided to work with CURA to develop guidelines to mitigate the impacts from building the light-rail extension.
“We heard very clearly from our community residents and businesses their concerns about displacement,” said Hennepin County project manager Cathy Gold at the May meeting of the Blue Line Extension Corridor Management Committee, the committee that is overseeing the project’s construction. “We want to make sure that we are preparing our community, and we’re going to have things in place for them to survive the construction elements and then thrive into the future.”
The recommendations include:
- Provide basic income for all residents living in neighborhoods affected by the Blue Line extension.
- Landlords who own buildings in neighborhoods affected by the Blue Line extension must provide relocation assistance if they choose to terminate a lease with a tenant.
- Tenants who are displaced from the neighborhood because of the Blue Line extension project should be given priority to return to similar units at the same rent they paid before they were displaced.
- Tenants facing eviction receive the services of a government-funded attorney.
- Tenants who live in neighborhoods affected by the Blue Line extension get first right-of-refusal for buildings put up for sale by landlords.
- Limit the use of background and credit checks on prospective tenants.
- Empower tenants to organize for better living conditions.
- Implement rent stabilization, which could include rent control.
- Preserve naturally occurring affordable housing, which often consists of older housing stock.
- Require that new multifamily housing projects include a percentage of affordable units for low-income renters.
- Zero- to low-interest loans for longtime resident homebuyers who have lived in Blue Line extension neighborhoods, with disincentives for those intending to flip homes.
- Collective land ownership, similar to the Rondo Community Land Trust.
- Implement regulations limiting corporate-landlord ownership in impacted cities.
- Develop city and county policies to manage disposal of surplus land that does not prioritize profit-generating sales of properties.
- Provide support for small businesses such as marketing support, grants for lost revenue because of light rail construction, and technical assistance.
- Prioritize BIPOC vendors in building out the Blue Line extension.
- Preserve cultural and physical features that reflect the character of the communities that live along the Blue Line extension.
The recommendations do not address how much money is needed to invest in their implementation and suggest it can be funded by a combination of public and private sources, as was done when the Green Line was being built through St. Paul. The recommendations also include developing groups to implement them, as well as an agenda to lobby for state funding in the next legislative session. Implementing the recommendations, in addition to realigning the Blue Line through North Minneapolis, could very well increase the $1.536 billion budgeted for the original alignment.
KB Brown, who owns Wolfpack Promotionals on West Broadway, sees the anti-displacement recommendations as a bargaining chip to save the North Side from gentrification. He neither supports nor opposes the project. “By having the Blue Line coming now, you have the anti-displacement measures in place to actually dictate the resources that will come to the community,” said Brown.
“The city and county own more property on Broadway than most private business owners. If the light rail doesn’t come through, [Minneapolis and Hennepin County] will just turn around and sell those properties to the large developers that we’re trying to keep out [by selling surplus land to the highest bidder]. Then gentrification will take its toll, and [the Met Council] will come right back and put the Blue Line here, eight years from now.”
Met Council member Reva Chamblis, who represents Brooklyn Park, believes such an investment needs to be substantial. “I know I’ve personally been waiting for over four years for this presentation. It’s much bigger than anti-displacement. It’s making sure that, as has been said, our community benefits. Those investments need to be substantial in order to have a substantial impact,” said Chamblis.
The Blue Line Coalition, the organization that has been organizing local communities around the Blue Line extension project for close to a decade, supports the recommendations.
“We’re advocating for the people-centered development strategy, one that is going to uplift the lives of our community members and prevent them from being displaced. We don’t want to see mistakes from the past repeated,” said Nelima Sitati Munene, executive director of the Brooklyn Park nonprofit African Career Education and Research Inc. Munene added that Brooklyn Park has the biggest share of proposed Blue Line extension stations, and with that comes pressure from developers who want to build housing that community members might not be able to afford.
Some of the recommendations may face an uphill battle. Although Mayor Jacob Frey, who serves on the committee, voted to adopt the recommendations, he has gone on record as opposing rent stabilization, which is one of the key recommendations. During his campaign for mayor he said that he supports fostering dialogue on controversial issues such as rent stabilization.
The recommendations don’t necessarily help Northside residents who want to develop the corridor near-term. Some, like Makram El-Amin, are wondering how the light rail would affect the properties that they want to develop. El-Amin’s family owns a building near Penn and West Broadway that they want to redevelop into a commercial kitchen for caterers and small entrepreneurs, with professional offices and small business incubator spaces upstairs.
“If something did get put on that site,” said El-Amin, “if it’s determined that’s where [the light rail is] going to go, then whatever we did would have to come down.”