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Photo of Edward N. Tilsen, St. Paul Recorder, 21 May 1954

Edward N.Tilsen:
Open Housing Pioneer

Families May Purchase New Homes on "Open" Market for First Time

May Set National Pattern

By Ed Blackwell, Staff Writer

St. Paul Minnesota Recorder

Friday 21 May 1954, p. 1 ff.

For the first time anywhere in the nation, new private housing in Minneapolis will be available to Negro Americans on the "open" market. Heretofore new homes that could be purchased by Negroes and other minorities has followed a strict Jim Crow ghetto pattern.

With a few notable exceptions, low-income public housing projects even above the Mason-Dixon line are operated on a segregated basis.

The Sumner project in Minneapolis was run on a Jim Crow plan for years and it was only after a bitter struggle a few years ago the project adopted an integrated policy.

Housing for Negroes has always been in a dead heat with employment as the number one problem confronting the group and it has only been within the past few years that the human relations and social agencies began to shift their programs from employment to housing.

Being Watched Over Nation
In many respects, the Tilsen development, located in south Minneapolis between 40th St. and 47th St. on Third, Clinton, Fourth and Fifth avenues So., is a pilot project and is being watched with keen interest by the FHA, the housing division of the Veterans Administration and real estate boards and agencies.

Some housing experts have predicted that if the Tilsen development is successful, builders in other cities will undoubtedly follow Minneapolis and open private housing developments to Negroes on an integrated basis.

It has only been recently that the National Real Estate Board has begun to show any real concern about the Negro market.

The Supreme Court decision outlawing restrictive covenants has been a great help in the housing situation because prior to the decision, Negroes and other minorities could be prevented legally from occupying property that had covenants which denied non-whites occupancy in covenanted property except as servants.

However, in most communities the decision didn't change the attitudes or practices of real estate companies of not selling or renting to Negroes and other minorities outside of prescribed areas that they (the real estate firms) set aside for them.

As a matter of fact, most real estate boards have in their code of ethics for members that it is not proper for them to sell or rent a home to a person who does not conform to the racial or religious pattern of the existing neighborhood.

The FHA and the veterans housing section, both government agencies, also have been very reluctant to go contrary to the practices and policies of the local real estate boards.

In the current Afro-American newspaper, Jimmy Hicks, columnist and writer, is exposing the Jim Crow practices of the FHA and the Levitt Corp., reputed to be the nation's largest home builder. Levitt has systematically excluded Negroes from all its developments on the eastern seaboard.

The findings of a housing study made by the Mill City Urban League in 1953 showed that in Minneapolis between 1946 and 1952, 9,568 single and two family dwellings were built and no more than 20 Negro families "have gained access to such property as purchasers."

From 1940 to 1950 the Negro population in Minneapolis increased 60 per cent compared to the city's overall increase of six per cent the study revealed.

Survey Showed

The survey went on to state:

"Negro families cannot buy or rent property under the same conditions as white families; that this condition places Negro home seekers in an exploitable economic and social position and that a carefully designated program of decentralization seems in order unless Minneapolis wants to invite conditions comparable to some other less fortunate cities in this regard."

Prior to the Tilsen development, a few private housing projects were planned, but failed to get community support and endorsement when it was learned they would have been segregated developments and not open to whites as well as Negroes.

One of the firms involved in the earlier plans is currently developing a large suburban project but is extremely reluctant to show any of these homes to Negroes.

Encouraged by League

The Tilsen project was conceived when the Minneapolis Urban League had N. P. Dotson, midwest racial relations officer for the FHA, meet with the members of Negro real estate firms last year.

For a while it seemed as though none of the realtors were interested in Dotson's suggestions as to how FHA approval for an integrated project could be obtained.

It remained for Archie Givens, real estate salesman, an enterprising young man, to start the ball rolling.

His first problem was to find land where such a project could be built and then find a builder who would go along with the idea.

Luck seemed to prevail in that he found both the land and the builder. Sixty-three lots advertised in the [Minneapolis] Spokesman were found in the area adjacent to the southern boundary of the predominantly Negro community in south Minneapolis.

In the past, the area beyond 42nd St. has shown more antagonism than any other section of the city whenever a Negro family has moved into the neighborhood. At the present time there are only two Negro families living beyond 42nd St.

Edward Tilsen Agrees

Givens found a willing builder in Edward Tilsen who is one of the largest home builders in the upper midwest and a former national officer of the Home Builders Ass'n., who incidentally had tried, unsuccessfully, four years ago to build six ten-plexes in St. Paul that would have been occupied on a racially mixed plan.

In Tilsen's 1948 effort mortgage loans were relatively easy to get but the banks wouldn't O.K. a loan for the apartments if they were to be occupied on a non-segregated plan. They finally agreed to approve the loan if three of the buildings were for whites and three for colored, but Tilsen vetoed this.

In the 1954 program it was necessary for Mr. Tilsen to convince the FHA and Veterans Administration that such a project was feasible.

Original Newspaper Photo with Caption:  "One of 63 Tilsenbilt Homes Being Built in Minneapolis," St. Paul Recorder, 21 May 1954

Construction Begins

After many conferences both agencies gave their O.K. and construction was finally started. For a while it looked as though the agencies were dragging their feet.

Most new housing is FHA or Veterans approved. Such approval means that the federal government underwrites or guarantees a loan made by a bank or other lending institution for a home.

A most significant feature of the development is that because of the good neighborhood and the homes will be reasonably priced, this will undoubtedly attract a number of white families.

Housing surveys made by the Minneapolis Urban League and the Joint Committee For Equal Opportunity showed conclusively that there is a definite trend to increased segregation in housing.

Reason For Good Price

It should be mentioned here in all fairness to the sellers and potential buyers, that the reason the homes are priced considerably less than the same quality of home in other sections of the city is that for years the land on which some of the homes are being constructed was thought to be of little value because of peat bogs that were supposed to be in the area.

Boring Reveals Error

However test boring revealed that only a negligible portion of the lots were so contaminated and that it would be economically feasible to pile these few lots and proportion their cost in the overall project and still own the land at a considerable saving. Tilsen says that the other major factor of the economy price is due to the fact that the homes are all basically the same floor plan with many and varied exterior elevations. This sameness in the homes provides for the greatest economies in materials and construction costs. This means that the builder is able to pass on these savings to the purchaser.

Three Bedrooms

The homes are being built to strict FHA specifications and have steel beams and all contain three bedrooms.

Already a large number of the homes have been contracted for and this is the first time in this area a Negro purchaser has been able to take advantage of the low down payments and other advantages when homes are advertised for sale in other sections of the city but unobtainable as far as Negroes are concerned.

People in the real estate business feel that this project will in all probability affect the price of the existing homes in the area.

Will Affect Market

For some time unscrupulous real estate firms and salesmen have exploited the Negro market by hiking the price of homes that Negroes could purchase.

Particularly has this been so in south Minneapolis, where the price has been raised sometimes as much as a thousand dollars when offered for sale to Negro buyers.

When the Tilsen homes are ready, no doubt the price of other homes put up for sale will drop to their real market value.

Tilsen Top St. Paul Builder

Ed Tilsen is reputed to be the largest home builder in St. Paul and is credited for having had a major part in the development of Highland Park, an exclusive residential area in St. Paul and the complete development of the Essex Park in St. Paul's Eastside of over 250 homes in a price range slightly higher than these homes now available in Minneapolis.

He is looked upon by some persons in the home building field as a "neophyte or upstart" because he didn't start in the building game until 1943.

But since that time he has won recognition both in the state and nationally for his ability and skill as a home builder.

Even before the project is ready for occupancy, some of the residents in the community have voiced their objections to the project.

Tilsen's Reply

Tilsen told of one conversation he had with a woman who said that she was in favor of the project but was concerned about the rumor that was going through the community that the value of the property would drop because Negroes would move into the neighborhood.

Tilsen stated that he told the lady that he was willing to guarantee her that if she stayed, that in two or three years her home would increase in value.

Photo 1: Edward Tilsen. Building 63 New Homes in Minneapolis.
Photo 2: One of 63 Tilsenbilt Homes Being Built in Minneapolis. Pictured above is one of the 63 new Tilsenbilt homes being constructed in the desirable South Central residential district in Minneapolis. These homes are to be sold on the "open market" on a non-segregated basis. Busy carpenters are shown at work on one of the structures. Story of the new home development is told by staff writer Ed Blackwell in this edition.

For more information contact Jon-Jay Tilsen at jjtilsen@beki.org