The Full Story: How ACER Organizing and Tenant Power Prevented Mass Displacement in Brooklyn Park
(From left) ACER organizer, Hamza Hassan, with Huntington Place tenant leaders Fred, Annett and Barb
The campaign to keep more than 3,000 residents in their homes in Brooklyn Park started long before the issues at Huntington Place made headlines in local media.
Before the property was on the radar of a nonprofit buyer, before the issues of insecurity and disrepair made it onto the city council agenda, even before the residents themselves recognized their mutual challenges and power to make change, community leaders at African Career, Education and Resource Inc (ACER) were mapping the course and creating the conditions to ensure the state’s second largest apartment complex wasn’t sold for profit but preserved as affordable.
With 834 units, Huntington Place is one of Brooklyn Park’s largest neighborhoods all on its own. For years, residents have been raising concerns about the lack of basic maintenance and security, and this summer, after powerful organizing went very public, the Mayor called out the property owner as a slumlord for the unsafe and declining conditions. Earlier this month, celebratory headlines and emails from stakeholders declared victory when Dominium, a private company with $3 billion worth of properties in 22 states, sold the property to Aeon, a local, nonprofit developer that has pledged to keep rents affordable and make necessary repairs.
To an outside observer, the campaign to improve conditions and keep thousands of predominantly low-wealth and households of color in their homes may have looked quick and collaborative with advocates, policymakers and developers working together over the course of 2019 to find and secure a preservation buyer. But the catalyst for that campaign and the foundation for that effort was built on years of affordable housing advocacy and tenant organizing led by ACER — an essential part of the narrative that has been largely absent from the story of saving Huntington Place over recent weeks.
To paint a full picture of the significance of — and organizing required to secure — the recent win, Nelima Sitati Munene, ACER’s Executive Director, begins with the Blue Line Coalition. As ACER conducted outreach around the extension of light rail into the northwest suburbs, they engaged tenants at Huntington Place. As early as 2015, they started hearing concerns about poor maintenance and management practices from Dominium, the property owner. Working with organizers at Asamblea de Derechos Civiles (now Pueblos de Lucha y Esperanza), they developed a tenant-centered blueprint for housing justice.
But advancing that blueprint faced a serious barrier: a lack of political will. In 2015, Brooklyn Park joined a lawsuit alleging that the city had too much affordable housing, creating a toxic narrative that contradicted the reality of a growing number of residents forced into substandard housing with unaffordable rents. “There was a mismatch between what the city government was alleging and what community was experiencing,” Sitati Munene said. “That became very important to us; that people have the opportunity to speak for themselves.” As part of the Fair Housing Advisory Committee, ACER was able to bring an accurate counter-narrative from tenants like those at Huntington Place to a table of housing decision makers from across the region, including the City of Brooklyn Park.
Continuing to bridge that disconnect between directly impacted community and policymakers, ACER also called attention to the epidemic of evictions happening at Huntington Place and across the city, galvanizing Brooklyn Park to commission a quantitative analysis from HOME Line. “It was worse than we ever thought,” Sitati Munene said. “Brooklyn Park had the highest rate of evictions in the state and Huntington Place had the second highest rate of any property after Minneapolis Public Housing Authority. Through that work, the city realized that housing was an issue.”
And, with the political soil ready to nurture policy change, ACER made sure the city knew what community needed to address those issues. Working in coalition with organizations like Asamblea, HOME Line, and Jewish Community, ACER advanced a set of housing policy changes, including a powerful inclusionary housing measure in 2017 — among the first in the region — to ensure that any new production receiving city subsidy include affordable units.
Because of those relationships — with residents, organizers and city allies — ACER was in the loop as soon as word began to circulate that, rather than working with tenants to address their concerns, Dominium was looking to sell Huntington Place to a private investor in Chicago. ACER recognized the urgent threat that presented to the 3,000 current residents who would be displaced if that outside investor did what so many others have done across the region: renovate the property, raise rents and increase profits by catering to a more affluent demographic.
Already in deep relationships with many tenants at Huntington Place, ACER was able to mobilize quickly. “We started to work with tenants to have them come out and share their issues from their perspective,” ACER housing organizer, Hamza Hassan, said. “We heard about deplorable conditions including mold, and the lack of security that was playing a role in the lack of safety. It was clear that a lot of money was being siphoned out of the property without a lot of money being put back in.”
When her refrigerator was infected with mold, it took Annett more than two months to get her landlord to replace it. Nevermind the hole in her bathroom wall and the roaches that would infiltrate her tidy unit when other residents moved out. Despite paying her rent on time and promptly sharing concerns with the front office, Annett couldn’t get the property owners to provide basic habitable conditions — despite daily self advocacy.
Angelique, another tenant, says she got a similar run-around when it came to chronically unsafe conditions in her unit. From deficient plumbing that leaked water into her kitchen and bathroom, to a hazardous stove that took 45 minutes of effort to ignite, she suffered for months despite calling attention to the issues. “With the stove, I was having headaches,” she says. “My allergies are now year round when they used to be seasonal. My eczema is worse and my skin is horrible and I don’t know if it’s because there are pollutants or bacteria in the water because of the pipes. Why do I have to put up with this?”
Encouraging residents to share those concerns required trust. Barb, a tenant leader who has lived at Huntington Place for five years, acknowledged that organizing for better conditions has been made more difficult because many residents fear that speaking out will get them kicked out. “A lot of residents are afraid of being evicted or getting an infraction or not getting their lease renewed,” she said. By working in partnership with residents for years, investing the time and accountability to show up again and again, ACER was able to create a space for tenants to claim their expertise, engage in leadership development and work collectively to establish a resident board for the massive complex and a list of demands from Huntington Place tenants.
Working with other members of the Suburban Hennepin Housing Coalition to host community forums, ACER elevated those concerns and demands to city leaders. The call for change was loud and clear to Wynfred Russell, a Brooklyn Park City Council member and staff at ACER. “We had to push Dominium to get these issues resolved,” he said. “It got to a point that even the mayor referred to Dominium as a slumlord — which got their attention. When they decided to try to sell this place, we wanted to ensure that whoever they sold to wasn’t going to try to make money off the backs of these folks. We used our leverage to say, ‘Look, we’re not interested in a property owner coming from out of town to buy this property and flip it.’”
Resident concerns from a tenant meeting convened by ACER
Once the city was dedicated to using its leverage, it still took ACER’s advocacy to move toward action that aligned with renters’ interests and provided long-term solutions. “At first, City Council and Dominium wanted to put in $50,000 that would pay families who were evicted a maximum of $1,000 to help them move — but there was nowhere to go,” Sitati Munene said. “It was the middle of winter and staff at the county homeless shelters said they were full. We knew the tenants said ‘We want to live in this community; we just want conditions to improve.’ So we were committed to supporting the tenants to stay. We wanted to build political will for the city to support a preservation buyer to purchase the property and commit to sustainable solutions that wouldn’t price families out of their homes.”
Given their deep understanding of the city funding and policy landscape, ACER surfaced a solution. Four years prior, the city had established a tax increment financing (TIF) district with $11 million earmarked for affordable housing. Advocates pressed the city to tap into those dollars to support a mission-based buyer, who would keep rents affordable while addressing tenants’ concerns. Ultimately, that strategy worked: Brooklyn Park extended $5 million to Aeon, a non-profit affordable housing developer, to purchase Huntington Place.
On a bright Saturday last month, purple balloons fluttered outside the leasing office as the sale to Aeon was official and residents came out to share food and community and meet the new managers. For Sitati Munene and tenants the sale to a nonprofit that has promised to make repairs and keep rents affordable is a significant credit to the power of organizing. But that effort is only beginning. Residents like Annett, Angelique and Barb are committed to holding their new landlords accountable and playing a central role in shaping the community they want to see.
“Now that we have brought everything to a head around the issues going on, we need to come together,” Barb said. “We, as tenants, are not going to depend on Aeon. We, as tenants, need to see what we can do, how we can come back to the village and build it on our own.”
ACER isn’t declaring victory and moving on to other campaigns, either. As they have been for so many years, they’re committed to continuing to build tenant power at Huntington Place. “The residents have a board now that’s recognized and we’re doing a lot of leadership development for the tenants,” Sitati Munene said. “We’re also continuing to work with them to push for accountability from Aeon, the property owner, and a strong partner role for the city, too.”