Marcy landlords seek representation and challenge MHNA

This map shows non-homesteaded properties in Marcy-Holmes, the owners of which are being excluded from becoming members of the Marcy-Holmes Neighborhood Association (MHNA), claims Marcy Landlord Jason Klohs.

Photo by submitted image

Stakeholders show support for addressing housing issues and improvements

Editor’s note: The cover of the June print issue of The Bridge newspaper carried the “teaser” headline ‘Marcy landlords challenge neighborhood group,’ followed by the words ‘WILL CHANGE.’ This is not only an obvious proofreading error, but is not an entirely accurate explanation of the situation. We apologize for the error.

Because they claim that their voices aren’t being heard, a group of local landlords and a representative of the Minnesota Greek Alumni Association recently banded together to form the University Neighborhood Improvement Association (UNIA).

The UNIA, which has an office at the University Technology Center, 1313 SE Fifth St., is a community group with a focus on housing issues in the University district, according to information from the UNIA. A nine-member board that was elected in April leads the group. Its 60 members — including student-housing providers (rental), homeowners, business owners and U of M officials — come from Southeast Como, Marcy-Holmes and Prospect Park.

Funded through private gifts and donations, UNIA is in the process of incorporation, according to William Wells, its executive director, who also owns a local design firm Wells and Company. Whether it will seek nonprofit status or standing with the city remain open questions, he said. At this early stage, the group is endeavoring to increase membership and develop bylaws. It has started to meet monthly, he said.

One reason the group was formed is that many of its members aren’t able to join the Marcy-Holmes Neighborhood Association (MHNA), the city’s officially designated neighborhood group for the area. According to MHNA bylaws, membership is restricted to Marcy-Holmes residents, Wells explained.

Other channels, such as the Dinkytown Business Association, only draw from a three-mile radius, he said. As a result, non-resident stakeholders don’t have a say when it comes to some publicly funded planning efforts. Such restrictions “build a wall between [us] and the city and U of M. I want to tear down this wall of discrimination,” he said.

By contrast, Wells said, the UNIA doesn’t discriminate. It’s open to anyone who is interested in its mission to collaborate with the city, U of M and University District Alliance (UDA) to ensure that all stakeholders are fairly represented, he said.

The goals of UNIA are to establish true civic collaboration, in hopes of working together to solve the challenges of living, working and owning property around the University of Minnesota (Minneapolis Campus),” according to a prepared statement from UNIA.

Wells said that the group hopes to address problems with landlords who don’t take care of their properties. “It has always been my personal philosophy that change can happen faster through positive peer pressure and positive rewards,” he said. “This is why I fundamentally disagree with [MHNA’s] approach to dealing with landlords, to exclude them from the neighborhood association … In the end, it’s the students that are caught in the middle, which is really unfair.”

While some people see the group as a means to an end, critics fear it has been organized to work against MHNA. Wells responded via email: “If it is the intention of the Marcy-Holmes board to discriminate against, and exclude, the majority of property owners in the neighborhood, and not fairly and equally represent the concerns of the student-residents that live in the neighborhood …. then, yes, I would be working in opposition to that. Because my vision is one of fairness, inclusiveness, equal representation, and democracy,” he said.

Marcy property owner takes legal steps against MHNA

On May 19, Marcy-Holmes property owner Jason Klohs, who serves as the UNIA’s secretary, sent a letter to the MHNA, via his attorney Ryan Ahlberg, expressing his intent to file a grievance against MHNA for excluding some stakeholders from NRP activities and other community development efforts.

The letter states that MHNA’s “past and ongoing activities violate the Citizen Participation Program Guidelines regarding Eligibility and Citizen Participation Services.” The grievance to be filed would address the issues of expenditure of Neighborhood Revitalization Program (NRP) funds; MHNA’s Neighborhood Action plan process; and MHNA’s status as the city’s contracted organization.

Ahlberg said that Klohs’ case and the matter of UNIA are unrelated.

Arvonne Fraser, who leads the MHNA board, said Klohs has “every right to file a grievance … We have a grievance procedure and he’s perfectly welcome to do it, but I want to know on what basis?”

Only residents can become MHNA members, she said.

Fraser supports the UNIA’s formation, however. Depending on how it governs itself, she said a UNIA representative could at some point serve as a voting member on the MHNA board, which currently has seats reserved for a local business association, nearby churches and the university student body.

Too exclusive?

Some UNIA members claim that other neighborhoods aren’t as exclusive as Marcy-Holmes. Bob Cooper, Senior NRP/Citizen Participation Specialist for the city, said neighborhood groups have to provide for the participation of all segments of the community. However, “As far as membership goes, it can be just residents,” he said, noting the requirement that no less than 60 percent of the board be resident-filled.

That reflects a change that the City Council made in 2006 to ensure that residents could participate, he said. Before then, neighborhood groups were open to all community members, according to the city’s citizen participation program guidelines. However, “Neighborhood groups are independent entities that get to shape themselves the way they feel is appropriate, as long as it meets the city’s eligibility criteria and guidelines,” Cooper said.

Cooper said he always encourages groups to be as inclusive as possible. “There are varying degrees for how neighborhoods define membership, from the very inclusive, with anyone who lives, works or owns property in the neighborhood. It runs down to the other end of the spectrum to mean anyone who lives in the neighborhood. Our guidelines set a minimum threshold for neighborhoods,” he said, adding, “Neighborhoods can expand on it.”

NRP Director Bob Miller characterized the scenario as a dispute between one group of stakeholders and another, both of which argue that they have too little say.

Miller praised MHNA’s NRP Phase One planning for getting many different people involved. Meetings were open to everyone, with the results reflecting diverse interests. “But it doesn’t mean those same people have to be involved in the governance of the organization,” he said, adding that a Minnesota statute doesn’t require representation of commercial interests.”

About Klohs’ allegations, Miller said: “I’d be surprised if he had a case.” Miller also questioned the UNIA’s motivations. “It’s one thing if it’s organizing because they don’t like the way MHNA does business,” said Miller. “It’s another thing if they’re trying to do something different,” such as “… trying to get back at the neighborhood” for not supporting certain projects, he said.

Support for UNIA

Ron Lischeid is a representative of the University District Improvement Association (UDIA), a separate group that represents stakeholders on the U of M campus. He said the UNIA doesn’t interfere with his group’s work. Lischeid made the point that if the UNIA is going to represent rental property owners, it needs to make sure that its member landlords’ properties are up to par.
Tim Harmsen, co-founder of the UNIA and owner of Dinkytown Rentals, said that Dinkytown alone has 90 percent non-homesteaded properties. In the neighborhoods surrounding the U of M, there’s an anti-student feeling from permanent residents. “With the area changing so much, there’s a large group of people who aren’t being heard,” he said. The fact that he owns 60 buildings in the area “makes me a neighbor,” he said.

Harmsen said that, historically, there’s been little communication between landlords, residents and MHNA. Over time, things have worsened, he said, citing the Spring Jam riots. “This is an attempt to change that and get rid of the animosity between groups,” said Harmsen.

Stan Masoner, Dinkytown Business Association representative to the UNIA, contractor and business owner, said the UNIA has many shared goals with the University District Alliance (UDA), which he cited as a catalyst for the group’s creation.

Considering the fact that the U of M isn’t building any more off-campus student housing, “We think we’re fulfilling a need,” he said. “But we’ve heard criticisms from neighbors about wrecking the character of the area. I think we’ve made a positive difference.”

UNIA has a long-term goal to hire a private management company to cut the grass, shovel snow and pick up trash for its members. It wants to resolve issues with bad landlords. Other ongoing concerns are blighted properties, over-occupancy and side effects of the Gopher Stadium. “I think some ideas of the alliance are not taking into account future demographic changes,” said Masoner. “It’s not based on the market and economy. That’s the part that we think we can bring.”

Jerry Rinehart, Vice Provost at the U of M, supports the group. “I welcome the involvement of landlords to address student behavior,” he said. “There’s a clear need for something,” like the standard lease, he said, “to influence student decisions.”

Over the past decade, there’s been a huge influx of students who want to live close to the campus. While that helps increase graduation and retention rates, people in the neighborhood want the reverse, Rinehart said. Tension stems from the increase in rental and dwindling homeownership. “We’re struggling with the consequences in terms of how many students there are.”

Further, “What struck me is that, throughout time, we’ve heard complaints from landlords about students. Now, we’re hearing from tenants who are concerned for their safety … No one wants things to get out of control,” Rinehart said, also referencing Spring Jam.

A standard lease is a first step to prevent problems, said Rinehart “We want to make sure it’s transparent and protects the rights of landlords, with a conduct code for students,” he said.

Rinehart said the UNIA should be action-oriented, but he cautioned that the partnership “does not mean that the student affairs office will become a tool for landlords. We’re here to support students and the community and help the community for the students,” he said.

City Council member Cam Gordon, who attended a recent meeting concerning the standard lease provisions, is optimistic about the group’s opportunities to improve the area.
“Maybe they can provide some training on best practices [in property management/ownership],” he said. “It’s an interesting group … They realized that if they were more organized, they would have more influence.”

last revised: June 15, 2009