Privatization resistance: public housing residents make their voices heard

Photo by Ridwan Omar

“He’s in there, ignoring us,” said Ladan Yusuf on the front lawn of the Minneapolis Public Housing Authority (MPHA) headquarters. About 25 members of a resident coalition gathered there on a sunny June 26 afternoon as busy drivers zipped by on Washington Avenue.

Defend Glendale & Public Housing Coalition, a Minneapolis public housing resident group, wrapped up another protest during the regularly scheduled MPHA meeting held on the last Wednesday of the month. The meeting was canceled, but Yusuf, the campaign director for the resident group, said she believed MPHA CEO Greg Russ was sitting in his office.

  “He hasn’t come out,” she said.

No one went inside this time. Protesters have gone inside the MPHA building before during the monthly board meeting, say coalition members, but were escorted out by security.

Some in attendance spoke of toiling on year-long public housing wait-lists. Tenants from Glendale Homes, Elliot Twins Towers, and single-family homes scattered throughout Minneapolis delivered testimony of their experiences with homelessness, and of their fear that the MPHA might enact policies that return them to that nightmare.

The group was out protesting as they did at the end of May in their Keep Public Housing Public series of rallies, an effort to voice their vehement opposition to federal programs Ross is attempting to apply in Minneapolis.

The programs are Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD), in which cities look to private investors to repair and maintain public housing, and Section 18, which is an application for more federal funds.

Ross and the MPHA have acknowledged that the city’s 6,245 public housing units need repairs to preserve them. MPHA Director of Policy and External Affairs Jeff Horwich said policies courting private money are singularly for repairing existing public housing, that no units are to be lost, and that there will be public control over any private investment.

The MPHA, he said, is hamstrung by insufficient federal funding and is doing what it can to maintain its public housing. The housing authority estimates $140 million would be necessary to fix up housing, but it only receives $14 million from the federal government. 

“No person with public housing benefits can lose their benefits,” Horwich told the MSR. “The idea that anybody can be made homeless, anybody left on their own, is first and foremost a complete fiction.”

Residents in Defend Glendale, however, worry that inviting private money into public housing makes way for total privatization. They fear that such a for-profit agenda would hike rents and displace residents, or demolish high rises, temporarily relocating tenants for the construction of new buildings they likely will not be able to afford.

 “It’s privatization, but they don’t want to say that,” said Yusuf. “And tens of thousands of people will be affected.”

 The group’s greater aim is to have public housing expanded. “But right now, our demand is defensive,” said coalition member Sanjeev Mishra. “It’s to pause these applications right now.”

The coalition says the MPHA has done little to consult tenants or community members before considering RAD and Section 18. They say the haste in which the programs are being adopted is troubling — the Minneapolis City Council drafted a Memorandum of Understanding with the MPHA in April.

Horwich disagreed. He said MPHA reached out to every single affected resident with information about both programs “prior to applications.” He said every household received info packets, contact information for questions and resources, and invitations to info meetings in January and February.

 “Right or left, the government has backed public housing authorities into these impossible situations,” said Horwich. “This is where programs like RAD come into the picture.” The RAD program, Horwich pointed out, was created by President Barack Obama in 2012. 

 Horwich also noted the Protect Glendale group does not represent all of the thousands of public housing residents in Minneapolis. He said that there are residents who regularly engage in conversations about the programs, and there are even resident groups who have submitted designs for new remodels. 

The coalition also expressed disappointment over officials outside the MPHA, like Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey; former Minnesota Fifth District Congressman Keith Ellison (now state attorney general), who first entertained the controversial programs; and U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar. 

Yusuf, who noted both President Donald Trump and Department of Housing and Development Secretary Ben Carson support RAD and Section 18, said she found Frey’s and the city council’s apparent support puzzling.

As for Omar, currently in Washington, D.C., “She needs to go to HUD and stop this,” said Yusuf.

Ross, the MPHA boss, has one foot out the door — he has been appointed to head New York’s public housing — and thus, said Yusuf, is not as committed to those in Minneapolis.

The plan, for now, said Yusuf, is that the coalition — including some of the state’s most vulnerable residents — continue protesting and applying whatever pressure they can to politicians and officials. Their next protest has yet to be planned, but coalition members say they will continue to follow up protests with further protests until their voices are heard.