Minneapolis CM Abdi Warsame Accepts Position as Director of Minneapolis Public Housing Authority; Becomes New Face of Public Housing Privatization in Minneapolis

By Otto K.

February 3, 2020

MINNEAPOLIS: Last Wednesday, January 29th, Minneapolis two-term City Council member Abdi Warsame was unanimously approved by the Minneapolis Public Housing Authority’s board of commissioners to become the next Director of the MPHA. This comes after previous director, Greg Russ, resigned from the position in order to accept the equivalent position within the New York Public Housing Authority.  Warsame must still gain approval votes from the Minneapolis City Council and Mayor Jacob Frey in order to be confirmed, but given his close association with and support from Frey along with many CMs on the Council, it is anticipated that the Mayor and City Council will vote in the affirmative – Warsame’s appointment may be finalized as early as mid-February.

Warsame already appears poised to continue the current policy priorities that were consolidated under Greg Russ’ leadership of the Authority; namely, that of under-handed privatization via the federal Dept. of Housing and Urban Development’s Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD) program. 

            Under RAD, properties that are fully owned and administered by a local Housing Authority are converted into either Project-Based Vouchers (PBVs) or Project-Based Rental Assistance (PBRA); this includes arrangements like Section 8 programs.  The program allows a nonprofit or even for-profit entity to own and manage the property, and allows the owner to obtain other funding sources (like Low-Income Housing Tax Credits or state/local grants) to repair the property. The program is promoted under the guise that seeking private investment and management is the best solution to the immense backlog of needed repairs to public housing property.  We know, however, that the introduction of private ownership of housing driven by the profit motive and investor’s/shareholder’s desires to see returns inevitably creates an antagonistic contradiction between residents and the new private owner-administrators, where the necessity to make a profit creates the incentive for ownership to cut corners in renovations/maintenance and gradually push out public housing tenants (by dubious and occasionally patently illegal methods) to make way for tenants to whom they can charge higher rents; this is especially so in cases were these properties are converted into so-called “mixed income” developments where some units in the same building or complex are rented at market rates, which is a phenomenon we have seen with some RAD conversions. 

The prior (pre-RAD) demolition and/or conversion of Chicago public housing into “mixed income” developments has been the primary impetus for the recent gentrification the city has seen, as a great number of former residents were not given the new accommodations promised to them by the CHA.  It serves as an example of the consequences of this type of housing policy, and the RAD program, which facilitates the same sort of public housing policy transformations, can only have similar results in practice, regardless of the supposed good intentions of any individual or set of individuals involved in this structural process of privatization. RAD, therefore, ultimately amounts to an attempted neo-liberalization of public housing, and as Warsame is actively pushing the application of these programs, he is deeply complicit in this neo-liberalization and will only be more complicit when he assumes directorship of the Authority.  In fact, he is complicit to the degree that he and fellow CM Andrea Jenkins were actually the principal architects of the resolution regarding the implementation of these programs.

RAD nominally includes a number of provisions intended to ensure resident’s rights and interests are respected, such as the right to remain at the property after renovations without being subject to rescreening.  However, it has already been demonstrated that there is a severe lack of oversight in the implementation and enforcement of these protective measures – we have seen countless stories of tenants in RAD-converted properties being denied the right to remain post-renovation, still being subject to re-screening in clear violation of RAD stipulations, un-accountable and spurious evictions with no clear grievance or appeals process, and more. 

Warsame, and the MPHA more broadly, despite the empty appeals to “resident involvement” or “transparency” in regards to the enforcement of these stipulations, have been quite the opposite in handling these matters. He has repeatedly been a no-show at resident meetings where he promised his attendance, which were intended to address resident’s concerns about the potential implications and consequences of RAD conversions to their property, and numerous residents have complained that his actions have fallen well short of his stated desires.  He has continued to ensure residents that these stipulations will be honored despite the fact that the plans drawn up for RAD conversions in the city have no clear procedure for actually enforcing them, and this is by design as a result of the true primary function of these RAD conversions: state-sponsored programs for the displacement of the working and oppressed people of this city and gentrification of their former communities. 

In addition, the MPHA claims that they sent out surveys to over 1,000 residents regarding the character of leadership they’d like to see at the helm of the MPHA, yet local community organization Defend Glendale and Public Housing Coalition, founded by Ladan Yusuf (herself a resident of an MPHA property), has noted that none of the residents nor on-site MPHA staff they have asked about these surveys have known about or acknowledged these surveys.  Residents were not notified that the survey was available online, which is largely moot anyway as most MPHA residents do not have a computer in the home, something of which the Authority is undoubtedly aware.

Warsame continues to push the notion that RAD is the solution to a supposed lack of funding, but Defend Glendale and Public Housing Coalition, has published an analysis of the resolution (linked in the above paragraph) which demonstrates that the MPHA only spends a small fraction of their HUD-allotted funding – in the last five years, there has been two in which the MPHA has spent exactly $0 of the tens of millions allotted to the MPHA via the Capital Fund Program Grant from the HUD.  What are these unspent funds being used for?  Clearly not for truly needed renovations, as a recent fire at a Cedar-Riverside complex demonstrates – the building was not equipped with any anti-fire sprinkler system, and when asked why there were none, a representative of the MPHA explained that the building was old enough that the sprinklers were not required according to regulations that permit the absence of sprinklers on buildings of a certain age.  This is an utterly inadequate response, only made worse by the fact that the building was recently renovated and equipped with an $800,000 security fence and surveillance system of questionable necessity – what therefore is the possible excuse for the continued lack of sprinkler systems in this and other properties in light of these other renovations? 

This discrepancy in expenditure lays bare the fact that the City and the MPHA are primarly focused on merely warehousing and surveilling our city’s disproportionately Black/New Afrikan and East African working-class public housing residents with zero regard for their actual long-term safety or health.  The city has a habit of focusing on mostly external, cosmetic renovations while ignoring crucial internal repairs and safety updates, and this is the direct consequence of such backwards priorities. Five residents died and three were injured due to this appalling negligence on the part of the MPHA.

It is crystal-clear that Warsame has no plans to fundamentally change the current trajectory of MPHA policy.  However, it is also clear from their resolute vigilance over and criticism of these programs that, despite the false promises made, the masses of this city are not easily fooled – all progressive-minded people should support the correct struggle of these public housing residents against Warsame and the MPHA, and Warsame must be called to account and labelled for what he is – an opportunist intent on hoodwinking the residents of Minneapolis public housing out of their own homes.