St. Paul mayor: every city department needs to watch for racial inequity

Melvin Carter thanks everyone who showed up.
Melvin Carter thanks his supporters and family after it was announced that he had been elected mayor of St. Paul inside Union Depot on Nov. 7, 2017.
Evan Frost | MPR News 2017

On the eve of an anticipated snowstorm earlier this week, Melvin Carter considered how to make a possible snow emergency reflect his campaign pledge.

The new mayor of St. Paul said he's told all of his department heads to use equity as a lens as they deliver basic services. That includes plowing snow, filling pot holes, or even picking up trash — especially in areas where people feel neglected by the city.

"I was talking to a group of young people once and I was asking them about college and there was a bunch of litter on the block that we were standing on," Carter said. "And this group of young people said, 'College? Look around you. We live in a trash can. Why would we think about college?'"

Some of St. Paul's racial disparities are glaring. For instance, in 2016 the St. Paul police department released more than a decade of traffic stop data showing that black motorists were much more likely than whites to be stopped and searched.

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Carter has pledged to work with police Chief Todd Axtell to restore police community trust and review the department's use of force policies.

The black unemployment rate in St. Paul is more than double the rate for whites. And the most recent data show students of color consistently score lower than their white counterparts in reading, math and science tests.

Some say for the mayor to make an impact, he should focus on an issue that is linked to so many of the problems the city's racial and ethnic minorities face.

"People can't be solid in our workforce if they don't have a place to live. Students can't succeed in our schools if they don't know where they're going at night," said Nancy Brady, the president of Neighborhood House, a nonprofit that has worked to help under-served communities for 120 years.

She said increasing affordable housing will require cooperation between a lot of different levels of government and various non-governmental organizations. And Carter can bring those groups together, she said.

"He's very inspirational. And he intentionally tries to bring people together," Brady said. "And I think that's what it's going to take."

Alan Arthur, president and CEO of AEON, a nonprofit which develops, owns and manages nearly 4,000 affordable housing units in Minnesota, said cities around the country, not just St. Paul, are struggling with the issue of affordable housing.

"Because of lack of action and policy decisions we've made. We've jumped off a cliff," Arthur said.

Arthur said as cities have grown, the demand for affordable housing has greatly exceeded the supply, and the federal government has the most resources to help.

"But I don't see that they're going to come to the table in the near term. And so state and local governments are going to have to do as much as they can," Arthur said.

As with his counterpart in Minneapolis, Mayor Jacob Frey, Carter says he supports retaining already existing affordable housing as opposed to building new units. Arthur says St. Paul will need both.