Affordable housing advocates hope to join TCAAP lawsuit


The Alliance for Metropolitan Stability hopes to join a lawsuit against the City of Arden Hills over the redevelopment of 427 acres of vacant land in the city. The organization claims that by not planning for adequate affordable housing at the site the city has violated the federal Fair Housing Act by effectively excluding families of color. (file photo)

Advocates claim Arden Hills violated Fair Housing Act

Affordable housing advocates are seeking to join Ramsey County’s lawsuit against the City of Arden Hills over Rice Creek Commons, a mixed-use development going in on 427 acres of land at the north end of the city.

The complaint, filed by the Alliance for Metropolitan Stability, claims that the city has violated the federal Fair Housing Act and the Metropolitan Land Use Planning Act by declining to place a significant number of affordable housing units on the site.

Russ Adams, the alliance’s executive director, said this effectively excludes from living in the development many households of color, as well as people with disabilities and others protected from housing-related discrimination by the Fair Housing Act.

 

Project background

While the majority of construction on the project has yet to begin, Ramsey County and the City of Arden Hills have been working together since 2012 to plan and clean up the county-owned land under a joint powers agreement.

So far, roughly $40 million has been invested in the acquisition and remediation of the former Twin Cities Army Ammunition Plant site, land now owned by Ramsey County.

Although the county has always shown a desire for more density than the city, both parties agreed to a 2016 master plan calling for 1,460 units with 10% affordable to people making 80% of the area median income. An initial study showed the site could support up to 2,500 residential units.

Last fall, the county again renewed its push for greater density and affordability for the development. Midway through negotiations with its developer, Alatus, the county cited financing reasons, as well as regional need, in again asking for more units. 

After Arden Hills expressed a desire to stick to the initial plan and not increase density or affordability at the site, negotiations broke down between the two parties. 

In May, the county filed an official complaint alleging that the city had breached the terms of the joint powers agreement. The county claimed Arden Hills had failed to make a good faith effort to resolve conflict by refusing to enter into mediation with the county. Ramsey County asked that the joint powers agreement be dissolved.

If the courts side with the county, Arden Hills would become a more traditional reviewing authority, signing off on development specs but without its current active role in the planning process.

The alliance’s motion to join the county’s lawsuit takes a stronger stance on the city’s refusal to put more affordable housing on the site. Its request to intervene will be heard on Aug. 7 during the first hearing of the county’s complaint in Ramsey County District Court. 

If the organization is then allowed to formally join the lawsuit, it’s asking that the city be required to meet increased affordability requirements at Rice Creek Commons, something that was not explicitly part of the county’s suit prior to the alliance’s involvement. 

Arden Hills Mayor David Grant did not return a request for comment for this story.

 

Effective exclusion 

Adams emphasized that TCAAP is the largest undeveloped tract of land in the region. He said his organization has been keeping a close eye on the planning stages and took issue with the fact that the proposed residences will be out of many people’s price range. 

“If you’ve got somebody who’s making $15 an hour, they can’t afford to live at the TCAAP site as it’s being envisioned,” he said. “We think that’s a violation of the federal Fair Housing Act and we certainly think that’s a violation of the spirit and letter of the Metropolitan Land Use Planning Act.”

In 2018, the Metropolitan Council defined the area median income as $94,300 for a family of four. With two full-time earners making $15 an hour, a household of four would bring in only $62,400 per year. 

Statewide, the minimum wage is just under $10 an hour. 

The federal Fair Housing Act is designed to protect citizens from discrimination when renting, buying a home or seeking housing assistance. The act prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, ability and gender, among other things. 

In this case, the alliance and its partners in the lawsuit, advocates from the Housing Justice Center legal organization, have focused on how not providing a range of affordable options effectively excludes families of color from living at the site.

“Households of color are four times more likely to be more low income, cost-burdened renters than white households,” said Margaret Kaplan, president of the Housing Justice Center.

She added that, under the state’s land use planning act, the city is required to “include standards, plans and programs to meet existing and projected local and regional housing needs.”

 

Desired outcomes

Currently, 42% of renter households in the city are cost-burdened, according to data from the American Community Survey. This means that more than 30% of their household income is going toward housing expenses. 

The city’s current rental vacancy rate is 0.2%, according to the survey. Such a limited market can also drive up housing costs and rents.

The affordability standards requested by the alliance for the Rice Creek Commons development are: 14% of units affordable to households with incomes at or below 30% of area median income; 11% affordable at or below 50% of the area median income; and 16% affordable at or below 80% of the area median income. 

According to Kaplan, the alliance has asked for mediation to see if the issue can be resolved outside of court. Beyond that, she said they have asked for a declaratory judgment, finding the city in violation of the federal and state statutes.

 

–Bridget Kranz can be reached at bkranz@lillienews.com or 651-748-7825.

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