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Minnesota housing program aims to mend years of economic damage in black neighborhood

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

In the mid-20th century, the interstate highway system brought mobility and prosperity to many Americans. Constructing those roads through major cities, though, decimated thriving Black neighborhoods across the country. Today in Saint Paul, Minn., there is a new effort underway aimed at reversing generations of economic damage. Matt Sepic of Minnesota Public Radio reports.

MATT SEPIC, BYLINE: Anthony Bradford opens the front door to his modest, two-story brick house and welcomes a group of visitors inside for a tour. But first, he introduces his new kitten.

ANTHONY BRADFORD: I have my cat. His name is Hermes. He's 3 months old. Is this a lot for you? Oh, you're purring, so I'm guessing you're fine.

SEPIC: Bradford, a software engineer who also works a couple of side gigs, closed on the house this summer. The 22-year-old says he was homeless three times growing up and never thought he'd be a homeowner at such a young age.

BRADFORD: This is the world to me.

SEPIC: Built in the 1890s, Bradford's house sits on a quiet residential street, seven blocks from Interstate 94, near what remains of the old Rondo neighborhood. For decades, Rondo was the cultural and economic center of Saint Paul's African American community. Businesses thrived here, along with social clubs and churches. But in 1956, bulldozers began cutting an eight-lane path through the neighborhood's heart.

(SOUNDBITE OF CARS PASSING)

SEPIC: Most of the 700 Rondo residents forced out of the neighborhood received only a pittance for their property. A recent study estimates that collectively they lost 157 million in equity in today's dollars - wealth they would never pass on to their children. Bradford is the first Rondo descendant to buy a home with the help of a new program that city leaders call the Inheritance Fund. A $90,000 forgivable loan covered 40% of the purchase price, putting the house within his financial reach. Setting up this fund was a priority for Mayor Melvin Carter, who, like Bradford, has Rondo ancestry.

MELVIN CARTER: My grandparents lost over a half a dozen commercial properties, and my father witnessed the Saint Paul Fire Department burn down his parents' home as a training exercise after they were displaced from their family home.

SEPIC: Before cutting a ribbon on Bradford's front porch, Carter said years of official apologies were never enough.

CARTER: We can't undo those historical wrongs. What we can do is to provide descendants of Old Rondo, like Mr. Bradford, the opportunity to reclaim that lost value.

SEPIC: While prospective Inheritance Fund buyers may purchase a home anywhere in the city, they must show proof that they're descended from a Rondo resident whom I-94 displaced. That encouraged Bradford to learn about his family history. He found that his great-great-grandfather, Dan Presley, moved to Minnesota after his business in the Greenwood neighborhood of Tulsa, Okla., known as Black Wall Street, was destroyed in the 1921 Tulsa race massacre. Decades later, more displacement followed when freeway construction began. Asked what his ancestor might say now, Bradford speculates that Presley would have offered some practical advice.

BRADFORD: I know for a fact that he would want to review money with me and discipline with money because Presleys for years have always been disciplined people. We have businesses. We know how to take care of ourselves and our own.

SEPIC: With only $2 million in city money available and a big response, the Inheritance Fund had to temporarily stop accepting new applications. Now, Mayor Carter says he's urging foundations and private donors to kick in cash so more people can reestablish their roots here and also build financial stability for themselves and future generations. For NPR News, I'm Matt Sepic in Saint Paul.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Matt Sepic