Housing task force needs more color, Richfield mayor says

Richfield's large stock of aging apartment complexes like this on the city's south side have been part of the city's discussions about its housing future. (Sun staff photo by Andrew Wig)
Richfield’s large stock of aging apartment complexes like this on the city’s south side have been part of the city’s discussions about its housing future. (Sun staff photo by Andrew Wig)

The group being formed to help guide the future of housing in Richfield is in need of greater racial diversity, according to Richfield Mayor Debbie Goettel.

Frankly, there isn’t any.

The city began recruiting residents late last year for the new Housing Visioning Task Force, which is scheduled to convene in March to help form a housing policy that will shape Richfield’s demographics for decades to come.

City staff have not met with all 26 applicants in person, but as far as anyone can tell, they all have one thing in common.

“There aren’t people of color on there, and that’s a big issue for me,” Richfield Mayor Debbie Goettel said during a Jan. 23 meeting of the city’s Housing and Redevelopment Authority.

Although the applications don’t ask about race, Goettel said she said she could make that observation because “I know a lot of them.”

To attract more nonwhite applicants, the city voted unanimously Jan. 23 to push the registration deadline for applying to the Housing Visioning Task Force to Feb. 14.

The group was meant to be more representative of a Richfield, which is 30 percent nonwhite. The policy the group helps formulate will be a factor in determining to the kinds of residents who call Richfield home in the coming decades.

The city’s decision to form the task force came after last year’s Pillsbury Commons controversy forced the question of how much affordable housing should be built in Richfield.

Plans called for Pillsbury Commons apartment complex to be completely comprised of units reserved for those meeting certain maximum income qualifications, but were defeated when neighbors of the old city garage site — the planned location for the apartment building — mobilized against the complex.

City staff said they did what they could to attract a more diverse pool for the Housing Visioning Task Force, which is expected to include 12-18 members.

“It’s frustrating,” said John Stark, director of community development. “I know it’s frustrating for you. It’s frustrating for us. You can’t make people participate. I do feel like we reached out to the communities you mentioned and didn’t get the response.”

But Goettel suggested it would have helped if city staff had better engaged leaders like herself in recruiting minorities.

“I’m sure we can bring people of color into this realm and I want to go back and do that,” said Goettel, adding that Richfield Councilmember Edwina Garcia also has helpful connections in the Latino community.

City Manager Steve Devich told Goettel she could take it upon herself to enter the process and did not need to wait to be contacted by city staff. “I don’t want to walk over staff,” the mayor responded.

Going into last month’s Housing and Redevelopment Authority meeting, the lack of diversity among the task force applicants was not top of mind for everyone.

Diverse in other ways

Compared to their racial makeup, the applicants have diverse backgrounds. Three are members of the Richfield attainable Housing Committee, Stark told the HRA.

Four are members of the group Richfield Commoners United, which helped defeat the proposed Pillsbury Commons income-capped housing complex last year. As the applicants are filtered, the city plans to accept one representative each from both grous.

Two applicants come from the field of real estate sales or design, and two are members of the clergy.

The pool is comprised of mainly homeowners, but two renters have applied, Stark said. HRA Commissioner Doris Rubenstein believes the committee is missing representation from condo-owners at places like City Bella and Wood Lake Village, and asked that the task force include at least one such member.

There was also a call for more geographical diversity among the applicants, with many of the hopefuls clustered in western Richfield.

“We would have liked to have seen more geographic disbursement,” Stark said.

Racial makeup not withstanding, HRA Commissioner Steve Quam was otherwise satisfied with the applicants’ backgrounds, and suggested he was at one time ready to end the recruiting process.

“Had I not been enlightened a little bit by some of my fellow commissioners I probably would have voted ‘yes’ for what you recommend tonight,” Quam said, noting a staff report that recommended the task force be approved as is.

However, race should be just one of the factors considered for task force applicants, Quam noted.

“I don’t think automatically what color you are makes you better at deciding what housing needs are for the city, but I think there may be insights you may get that way that might be worth seeking out,” he said.

Contact Andrew Wig at [email protected]