Minneapolis investigating major landlord for discrimination, hostile housing environment

Hodan Ali has lived at Riverside Plaza for more than two decades. She says Somali youth and their parents live in fear of the complex's security guards. Photos by Jared Goyette.

The Minneapolis Civil Rights Department is investigating allegations of discrimination and retaliation against one of the metro area’s biggest landlords, according to public records obtained by the Reformer.

The city’s civil rights agency has spent nearly six months investigating Sherman Associates for alleged violations at Riverside Plaza, a complex of six towers in the Cedar Riverside neighborhood built in the 1970s and that house about 5,000 residents, mostly of East African and East Asian descent. Workday Minnesota first reported the preliminary investigation. The Riverside Plaza Tenants Association (RPTA), a Sherman linked nonprofit based in the complex, is also under investigation.

A copy of the initial complaint obtained by the Reformer lays out allegations made by six mothers — all of Somali descent — describing a harrowing day-to-day reality in the complex. They allege Sherman and RPTA, “created an atmosphere of discrimination, in addition to hostile housing environment impacting tenants who are Somali women with children.” It concludes that residents, “have reason to believe the discrimination at Riverside Plaza is systematic and thus examples of discrimination are widespread.”

Sherman Associates’ spokesperson Valerie Doleman said the company will present evidence to refute the allegations.

“We are preparing our response and gathering the documentation, video, and photographic evidence that will prove our team has not discriminated against or violated the fair housing rights of any of our residents,” she said. 

A ‘Minnesota Icon’ 

George Sherman, the CEO of  Sherman Associates, was named a “Minnesota Icon” by Finance and Commerce in 2018. His $5 billion portfolio includes four hotels, more than 8,000 apartment units, and 600,000 square feet of commercial space. He also manages property worth $2 billion, including the Riverside Plaza complex, which includes a charter school, a community clinic, a public market and a Minneapolis Police Department Safety Center on site.

Former Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak once referred to what is now called Riverside Plaza —  known for iconic colored panels, brutalist architecture and for being a first home for many immigrant families — as “our Ellis Island . . . our Statue of Liberty.” 

Built in 1974 as part of a large scale federal urban redevelopment program, the complex was initially called “Cedar Square West.” The development ran into neighborhood legal and political problems — including residents who protested the plan’s proposed density. That stalled its progress, and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development foreclosed on it 1986. This set the stage for Sherman to lead a group of investors to purchase it for about $17 million in 1989, when it was renamed. In 2011, Sherman completed a $90 million rehab of Riverside Plaza, using a mix of private and public money, including state, city and federal dollars.  

Former Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak once referred to what is now called Riverside Plaza — known for iconic colored panels, brutalist architecture and for being a first home for many immigrant families — as “our Ellis Island . . . our Statue of Liberty.”

A Star Tribune analysis of housing code violations between 2013 and 2016 concluded that Sherman Associates had a relatively low number of violations per unit compared to other large landlords. City records show two cases involving code violations at Riverside Plaza last year, including one for fire alarm maintenance. Both cases were resolved. 

The company is currently the only firm to have submitted a bid to develop the “African Market,” a proposed mixed use housing and retail complex on a city owned parking lot called “Lot A.”  

Mothers say they are protecting their children 

The mothers at Riverside Plaza cited in the complaint say that building security harassed and made false allegations against Somali-American youth, including erroneous claims that their children were trespassing there, effectively forcing them to live away from their families. The mothers also allege their children were “surveilled, photographed and assaulted” by building security guards 

Management correspondence on important issues related to their leases — including fines, violations and potential evictions — were not translated into foreign languages and interpreters were not provided, the residents say. They claimed that RPTA, while nominally an advocacy group for tenants, coordinates with management to target residents deemed troublesome.  

According to the investigative report, residents were threatened with lease violations and eviction, and possible loss of public assistance such as subsidized housing. The result, the report says, was that, “Some have lost their public assistance, and some have lost their housing.” Hennepin County Court records show that 16 evictions were filed against residents at Riverside Plaza last year, with one filed in January of this year.

Frank Reed, the director of the city’s civil rights agency’s complaint division, said that he cannot comment on an active investigation, but he did describe the process by which cases generally proceed. Once a charge has been drafted following a preliminary investigation, the department attempts to resolve it by having both parties go through mediation. If that is unsuccessful, the case goes back to the investigators, who issue a determination. 

“My kids are afraid, and when we speak up, we don’t know what’s going to happen to us.”

Sherman’s spokeswoman Doleman said the company is confident that if the case proceeds that far, the determination will be in their favor. 

“Sherman believes that, at the end of the investigation, the city will conclude that Sherman did not engage in discrimination,” she said. “We comply with fair housing law in all management practices, including when we must enforce the lease, which includes our crime-free drug-free policy and smoke-free policy,” she wrote in an email response to questions.

If the determination does not go in favor of Sherman and RPTA, they can appeal to the Civil Rights Commission — whose monthly meetings are currently suspended because of the ongoing pandemic. 

The complaint focuses on incidents that occurred beginning in April 2019, when about a dozen Somali mothers met at a community meeting at the Brian Coyle Center to discuss concerns with Riverside Plaza.

Among them was Hodan Ali, 50, who has been a resident at Riverside Plaza for more than two decades, and currently lives there with her husband and two children. She came to the meeting last April because she was concerned about what she saw as the unfair labeling by building security of all Somali teenage boys as gang members.  

“Our kids become victimized, any kid who comes in this area is considered a gang member whether they are or not, and the people who do that are Sherman and RPTA,” she said through an interpreter. 

Ali said RPTA staff were present at the meeting when she spoke, and three days later, she received a notice of infraction of her lease alleging that her son had damaged property on the premises, which he denied. That note is now part of the retaliation case against Sherman Associates. 

Residents say RPTA works “hand in glove” with building security and management, while failing to address resident concerns. 

RPTA declined a Reformer interview request. 

Doleman said Sherman allows RPTA to operate independently. “Sherman does not coordinate with RPTA in processing or responding to concerns,” she said. 

Doleman acknowledged that Sherman gives RPTA money, including $280,000 last year. 

Deckow Hanshi — another Somali mother listed in the civil rights complaint — has lived in Riverside Plaza for six years with her three children, 16 and 18-year-old sons and a 19-year-old daughter. 

Deckow Hanshi lives at Riverside Plaza with her three teenage children and is part of a Minneapolis Civil Rights investigation into allegations of discrimination at the complex. She says residents have been afraid to speak out.

She said in a Reformer interview that security guards follow her children and other youth who live at the complex, often asking them to leave common areas like the lobby, even in the mornings when they are waiting for their school bus.

She said guards can be quick to physically confront youth or to allege they are trespassing, effectively banning them from the property and kicking them out of their own homes.

“My kids are afraid, and when we speak up, we don’t know what’s going to happen to us,” she said. “It’s constant fear, whether it is the youth or the mothers. We can’t focus on anything positive. We’re just looking over our shoulders.”

An executive order by Gov. Tim Walz has suspended evictions, and residents say they are staying in their apartments and avoiding contact with building security. Still, they wonder what’s next.  

“We don’t feel worried right now because we can’t get kicked out, but we don’t know what will happen when this is over,” Ali said.