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Building a Housing Movement on the East Side

A true grassroots movement emerges to pursue housing justice in one Saint Paul neighborhood.

By Kevin Dragseth

In our fragmented and digital world, it’s sometimes hard to remember that large-scale, on-the-ground, grassroots activism has been humanity’s primary agent of structural change for centuries - not to mention an American tradition. It’s always a David-and-Goliath story: Frustrated, powerless individuals come together and build power, mobilize and take on the injustices they see.

Initially ignited in the late 19th Century, the Labor Movement bravely took on powerful industrial titans, ended child labor and gave us weekends, overtime, occupational safety laws, collective bargaining - the list goes on and on. At great personal cost to countless Black Americans, the Civil Rights Movement finally forced White America to legally concede a fraction of its power in the name of equality. The anti-Vietnam War movement put foreign policy under a public microscope and was instrumental in changing US policy. The anti-nuclear movement took on both military and peacetime uses of that dangerous technology, all but ending the construction of nuclear power plants. It’s a simple fact that when ordinary humans organize around important issues, they can change the world.

Grassroots movements continue - around climate change, police violence against communities of color, even gun rights and protests for haircuts. So it should come as no surprise that an issue as fundamental as basic housing could generate an organic movement. With very little structure and direction, a housing movement coalesced in Saint Paul’s East Side. Will it change the world, too?


This story is part of the collection, Under One Roof: Stories on Minnesota’s Housing Crisis, which is funded by a grant from the Pohlad Family Foundation.

Can tiny homes help to curb Minnesota’s issues with homelessness? One local organization is experimenting with the small homes, an effort that has proved successful in other parts of the country. And one local church is working up plans to house homeless veterans on its property.

Along with other urban centers across the country, the Twin Cities have a history of racially discriminatory housing covenants that prevented people of color from buying homes in certain neighborhoods. That history ripples in the present-day affordable housing crisis: By limiting opportunities for home ownership, people of color were stripped of one key way to build equity over time. Discover more in “Mapping the Roots of Housing Disparities in Minneapolis.”

When Twin Cities PBS Producer Kevin Dragseth was a teenager, he was mesmerized by the Living Colour song “Open Letter (To a Landlord).” Years later, the song impacted his documentary Sold Out: Affordable Housing at Risk. Aiming to learn more about the song’s origins, he reached out to one of the songwriters, Tracie Morris, who sheds light on the roots of the New York City housing issues it addresses.

Kevin Dragseth Read More
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