A campaign for “ignored voices” — not really

Saralyn Romanishan entered the race for Ward 10 City Council, framing her campaign in a recent Southwest Journal profile as one of “ignored voices”. I’ve written elsewhere about Romanishan’s approach to local outreach (see: Wedge Club, 2014), as have others. It’s worth noting that she, and her family and friends, have long been the sole voices in area housing policy to the exclusion of everyone else who she now claims to stand for.

Throughout Lisa Bender’s term as Council Member, I’ve watched as Romanishan posted on a Facebook page that she administrates, Minneapolis Residents for Responsible Development Coalition, about housing issues, comparing city planning to nazism and the third reich, or describing a new city plan for equity-driven outreach and community involvement as a “pogrom”. I have seen her put a painting of the Tower of Babel on an overhead projector in a city hearing to describe the apparent folly of a proposed 42-story condo tower in Northeast (now in litigation, thanks to area property owners), which would add much needed condo units at a time when there are very few available or getting built. You can read a summary of these posts here.

Romanishan is closely involved with the ‘original gentrifiers’ of Lowry Hill East (“the Wedge”), a group of baby boomers and their children and friends who moved to the area at a time when property values were extremely low. They bought up houses — many of them boarding houses (Romanishan’s own, in fact) — renovated them, and converted them to single family housing, doubling or tripling their property values. In the 1970s, they founded a neighborhood organization (Lowry Hill East Neighborhood Association, LHENA) whose actual founding purpose was to stop the development of more 2.5 story walkups, now the area’s naturally occurring affordable housing (NOAH), and were active in preventing large single-family houses from being converted to multi-family. They succeeded in these efforts, and large parts of the area were downzoned to enshrine these desires in law.

In the 1990s, LHENA received funding as part of the Neighborhood Revitalization Program, determined by the amount of low-income renters living there at the time (a long-time majority, currently 85% of the area), yet most of this money has gone and still goes to providing zero interest and — until recently — forgivable loans for single family housing renovation (and historic renovation grants), almost none of it to any programs for these low-income renters. LHENA’s role in the area has largely been gentrification: by constantly blocking more housing, working against further zoning reforms to allow lower-cost units, funding increases in the value of its members single family homes through renovation (historic and other), or by driving up housing cost by demanding more parking and costlier construction materials. They have even succeeded in further downzoning small parts of the Wedge in the past 4 years, and gained a historical district to further protect single-family and exclusionary zoning policies, a probable result of Councilmember Bender listening to and working to satisfy their exclusive club.

Since causing the present housing shortage in one of the most walkable, transit rich, and desirable areas in the city, they have continued to oppose any efforts to drive down housing cost, while spreading common housing misconceptions (new units driving up rent, more people causing more crime, negative impacts on adjacent property values). They scream “gentrification” at any attempt to reverse their own history of gentrification, and merely pay lip service to affordable housing and NOAH as a means of denying more housing when it’s proposed. They denigrate their renting neighbors, and anyone new who would like to live in the area. Further, they frequently accuse current CM Lisa Bender, who has a master’s in city planning, of ignoring these issues. They have coined the terms Bender Boxes and Bendrification, to describe recent multifamily housing, most of which was ironically approved during the tenure of her predecessor, Meg Tuthill. The latter is a disparaging combination of Bender and gentrification.

This is a platform that candidate Saralyn Romanishan firmly believes in, and has made clear from her many posts on Facebook, public appearances and writings. It is a platform that her core constituency lives and breathes. Yet suddenly, in a disingenuous break from local history, her campaign stands for “All People” and drops affordable housing platitudes left and right. This is miraculous, because it comes from someone who has worked against every attempt to alleviate the area’s housing shortage. The only reason her campaign is emphasizing how much she is for “All People” is because of her long history not working for “All People.”

The incumbent, Lisa Bender, won the election by a large margin because she promised an agenda that served the entire ward rather than the narrow constituency of her incumbent opponent, who appealed to these same longtime participants in neighborhood associations backing Romanishan. Lisa Bender is already working to alleviate our city’s housing shortage and make city policy that is inclusive of underrepresented voices such as renters, queer people, people of color and indigenous people, and in another term will no doubt continue to do so.

Bender’s record is already clear on issues like paid sick leave, fair scheduling, the $15 minimum wage, and consistently showing up to protests and being there for constituents — from this alone, it is clear who she supports. Her work on housing affordability is also a clear point: she has proposed and passed ordinances to: decrease parking minimums, legalize accessory dwelling units, extend the pedestrian overlay, and has changed zoning to allow duplexes in R2B districts — all of which reduce the cost of new housing construction, proven to be passed onto tenants in several recent projects. We knew in the beginning of 2013 that the status quo was a problem, and this is why Bender won, and why a subset of her constituents have been loudly demonizing her: they liked how things were.

If you want to believe in Romanishan’s “ignored voices” platform and core issues of housing affordability and inclusion, you’d have to believe a lot about the area and housing policy, and the role of white landowners in city politics that simply isn’t true. Further mystifying is the apparent belief that rich white landowners from Lowry Hill East are the underrepresented voices in city politics, at a time when the city political conversation has been very clearly centered around racial disparities in policing, employment law, housing, and wages? It is incredibly frustrating to hear language of oppression and social justice co-opted in this way, by a privileged subset of residents of Southwest Minneapolis whose main concerns are historic mansions and the drunken misbehavior of the renters next door. This is a campaign run by someone who has spent a great deal of time publicly demonizing city planning and not just local leadership, but the concept of local leadership, and now wants to represent Ward 10 and make decisions for the city as a whole. Looking at national politics, this seems familiar, and is something that has no place in Minneapolis city leadership.