Legacy Story: Standing Up For Themselves (1992)

Brooklyn Park residents Diana Walker (left) and Cynthia Buford (right) fought for their homes and won. Photo Mary Lee Slettehaugh

The following story appeared in the July 15-28, 1992 issue of Minnesota Women’s Press. Twice per month in 2024, MWP is uplifting select pieces from our 39-year archive with a focus on longstanding issues. In tandem with our “Solving the Housing Crisis” print issue, our February focus is on affordable and dignified housing in Minnesota. 

Chalk up a victory for some low-income residents in Brooklyn Park — at least for now.

For nine months, Diana Walker had been on a waiting list. She was hoping to move with her three children from a two-bedroom apartment at Willow Brook Apartments in Brooklyn Center to a three-bedroom unit in the same complex. In fact, she had already started packing.

Sometime around the middle of May — just two weeks before she planned to move — she got a phone call from the apartment manager, Ginger Schlueter. According to Walker, Schlueter suggested she stay put, explaining that the apartment management company, Mid Continent Management Corporation of Saint Paul, would not renew her lease the following year.

Walker said she was further informed that no Housing and Rehabilitation Authority (HRA) leases, such as hers, would be renewed and that no new HRA leases were being accepted. 

HRAs (also known as “Section 8s”) are rent-subsidy certificates issued by the federal government to low-income people. Those who qualify for subsidies can take their certificate wherever building managers will accept them. The government then pays part of the monthly rent.

At first, Walker accepted the situation and decided not to take the 3-bedroom unit. Agreeing with what Schlueter apparently had told her, she didn’t think it would make sense to move into the larger unit only to have to move again in another year. Besides, moving would be expensive, and she thought she should save money by staying in the smaller, cheaper unit. 

But something didn’t seem to square. If she had never damaged any property or created any other problems, she wondered, could the management company legally refuse to renew her lease?

To find out what her rights were, she contacted Homeline, a program of the Community Action for Suburban Hennepin County (CASH) agency and was referred to Liz Johnson, CASH’s tenant organizer. She also talked to Eric Cooperstein with the Legal Aid Society and Helen Carlton at the Metropolitan Council.

Walker learned that, although accepting HRA leases is voluntary on the part of landlords, once a landlord accepts HRA, the landlord cannot evict the residents or refuse to renew their leases with “just cause.”

So Walker talked to other residents and found others who were “Section 8” tenants. Most were single mothers, and a few were differently abled. They too had apparently been told their leases wouldn’t be renewed. (Willow Brook has 42 HRA leases out of 400-plus units.)

Like her, they wanted to stay at Willow Brook. The apartments were clean and well maintained. 

More important, said resident Kim Wilson, some renters have children attending nearby school Orchard Lane Elementary School, which is a good school. But, because the school district is small with few apartment complexes, she and other residents would have little chance of keeping their children in the school if they had to leave Willow Brook. 

About the only other option was Willow Park Apartments, also managed by Mid Continent, but those apartments are not suitable, according to residents.

Diana Walker (left) with daughter Annjilla and her friend.

During the next few weeks, the HRA residents got to know each other, gathered more information and contacted others who could help, including Hennepin County Commissioner John Derus and State Senator William Luther.

But, rather than rely on everyone else to take care of them, said Eric Cooperstein, a staff attorney with the Legal Aid Society, the tenants “did an awful lot of the work themselves.”

By early June, residents had met twice as a group and organized a meeting for June 17. They invited representatives of Mid Continent to attend the meeting and sent out press releases to several news organizations, including the Minnesota Women’s Press.

Twenty-nine out of 49 HRA renters showed up. Dulcie Hagedorn, who is acting director of the Hennepin County Housing and Redevelopment Authority and who was asked to go on the behalf of Commissioner Derus, was also there. 

Observed Hagedorn, “I’ve seen a lot of residents’ groups, and this was not a disorganized bunch of angry people who just wanted to scream and holler. They were people who had their act together. They were disciplined, calm, forthright and to the point and they managed to stay on the task.”

But no one from Mid Continent came. Instead, the company’s vice president, Susan Schnarr, sent a statement saying the company never meant to evict any HRA residents and that management makes no distinction based on who pays rent.

“We have problem residents who are in the HRA program, as well as problem residents that are not in the program — and, our policy is to handle all cases individually,” said the statement.

This was good news to Walker and other residents, who saw the company backing down from what they believed to be an attempt to get rid of its HRA renters. Had they not banded together and learned what their rights were, they might be looking for new homes, said tenants.

And, come August 1, Walker will finally get the three-bedroom apartment she had been promised.

“They [managers at Mid Continent] thought we’d be passive people,” said Walker. “But I know how to stand up for myself and how to ask questions.”

“This demonstrates that just because someone is poor doesn’t mean they can’t defend themselves,” said Cooperstein of the Legal Aid Society. “These people are poor, but they’re not stupid.”

Yet, said Cooperstein, poor people usually have extra stress in their lives, so often they don’t have the energy to battle such problems. 

Charlie Werner, who is the housing programs manager for CASH, said the situation also demonstrates the power tenants have when they work together. “Usually nobody believes they have any power at all until they organize themselves and win. There’s power in numbers.”

But the residents’ work isn’t over. Walker said renters are planning to stay in touch with each other and that a committee has been formed to monitor the situation. 

Some residents believe the company will be scrutinizing their behavior, as well as that of their children, looking for any excuse they can find to throw them out. As a precaution, Walker approached on-site manager Schlueter with a plan for parents to take turns monitoring the playground. 

She said she’s still waiting for a response. 

Also, Mid Continent has said it will not accept any new HRA leases. When asked why, Schnarr said she couldn’t say, that it was simply a “business decision.”

Walker and Hagedorn of the Hennepin County Housing and Development Authority expressed concern that Mid Continent’s refusal to accept new leases is part of a broader picture. 

As the poverty rate rises in suburbs like Brooklyn Park, property owners often worry that their property values will go down and therefore may try to keep HRA residents out of their neighborhood. “The long-term effect of not taking Section 8 leases is that eventually you won’t have Section 8 people,” said Hagedorn.

For the time being, however, residents are pleased with themselves and the results of their actions. “We went beyond what the management expected us to do,” said Walker.

“Every time we get a tenant group together,” said Warner, “one of the real delights is to see the leadership emerge. People find they have innate talent and capabilities when given the opportunity to exhibit them. It’s a treat to see them come forward.” — July 1992

Editor’s Note: According to Hennepin County Housing and Redevelopment Authority, the affordable housing context has changed dramatically since 1992. In a statement to Minnesota Women’s Press an HRA representative wrote:

“Since 1992, the Hennepin County Housing and Redevelopment Authority created and grew the Affordable Housing Incentive Fund, which has financed the creation or preservation of more than 10,000 affordable housing units throughout Hennepin County, invested in the Naturally Occurring Affordable Housing (NOAH) Investment Partnership, created the Supportive Housing Capital fund, and launched the Single Room Occupancy Housing Strategy. All of these efforts work to ensure a strong continuum of housing options across income levels. 

 The outcomes of these efforts — creating and preserving over 1,000 units of affordable housing every year — wouldn’t be possible without partnerships with cities, developers, property owners, and neighborhoods. Since 1992, we have seen a strong transition from “NIMBY” to “YIMBY” in most parts of the county. Minneapolis has enacted stronger renter protections that prohibit landlords from discriminating on the basis of source of income (i.e. Section 8), and zoning changes that remove barriers to developing affordable housing. 

 We still have a long way to go in increasing production of affordable housing, and increasing household incomes to afford housing, but we have come a long way since the late 20th century in protecting renters.”