Advocate helps public housing tenants fight privatization, gentrification

Submitted photo Angela Williams

Scarce as affordable housing is, one needn’t be victimized to hold onto it. Renters need not be abused by landlords who take ruthless, at times illegal advantage to provide poor living conditions, cheat tenants, and otherwise exploit people who need to keep a roof overhead. Those who most need to know this, however, often don’t. 

Housing Resource Network-Minneapolis (HRN) was established in March of this year to change that, providing information in accord with the time-proven truism “knowledge is power.” HRN Director-Minneapolis Region Angela Williams told the MSR, “It seems everything is set up against the tenant—the landlord, eviction court, judge and police. Some of these pro bono legal organizations don’t help, either. 

“That’s why I educate people so they can fight for themselves. Landlords get away with too much. There is nothing holding them accountable. Sometimes I go to court with tenants and the law is clear, but the judges do what they want to do in favor of the landlord. 

“People are so afraid and just go along with what the landlord is telling them because there’s nothing to protect them, and that isn’t fair. That’s why I do what I do, educating people about their rights so they fight as hard as they can.” 

Williams has no illusions about this work being a cakewalk: “It’s a hard fight, but it can be won.”

Housing Resource Network’s present fight is against the Minneapolis Public Housing Authority over a Section 18 Disposition and Demolition Program application MPHA is pushing for U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development approval. It’s an action Williams finds highly suspect, convinced as she is that landlords aren’t the only predators targeting tenants and doing so with disingenuous tactics. 

“[This action] would displace over 700 families. They claim the properties are dilapidated. That’s not true. At most, they need minor repairs.”  It is, she attested, sorely needed subsidized housing the Authority plans to tear down in order to move toward privatization and gentrification.  

Williams went on to state, “MPHA created this nonprofit, Community Housing Resource, [to which] they sold 736 scattered site properties, 729 of them occupied, for $1 apiece. They aren’t proceeding correctly. They’re supposed to give [a] tenant council an opportunity purchase those properties first, give residents a chance to purchase [their dwellings]. But the scattered sites have no tenant council.” 

So, there’s no voice for tenants to whom paying only 30% of their income isn’t merely an economic benefit, but for some a matter of survival. It’s a case, she believes, of using the letter of the law to undermine the spirit of the law. “Absolutely, that’s what they’re doing. 

“MPHA isn’t [operating] the way they are supposed to. They’re not asking the people what they want to do. They held three meetings (Feb. 2, 7 and 12) that 75 people total attended. That is 25 people per meeting [about] more than 700 addresses.” 

This, she asserted, was deliberate, keeping those directly affected in the dark. “You had meetings but didn’t tell tenants where.” There were, Williams acknowledged, automated “robocalls,” the sort of messages telemarketers and bill collectors use to pester consumers and people routinely ignore. 

She attended a Resident Advisory Board (RAB) and MPHA Board meeting on Section 18 in February. “They made decisions [for] people who weren’t in the room. There were only about five MPHA residents on the RAB, none representing a scattered-site location. When I mentioned [that], Wanda Tonkin, the RAB Board president said, ‘That is on them’.”

Housing Authority Communications Specialist Marin Devine said of Section 18, by email, “MPHA has applied for a federal program that will provide more funding for essential family public housing. We are committed to improving and preserving these single-family homes for the residents who call these more than 700 units home.” 

Regarding resident notification, Devine contradicted Williams’ assertion that MPHA made insufficient effort to alert tenants to the meetings. “Every resident of our scattered sites received two of these letters and a phone call about the meetings before the RAB and Board [of Commissioners] meeting at the end of February.” She contended that though “tenants will have to sign a new lease with MPHA’s own public nonprofit,” the authority is not selling the properties and inhabitants won’t be forced out.

HRN has allies against the application. MPHA commissioner Tessa Wetjen stated in a July 22 memorandum to HUD Program Analyst Christopher Golden, “There was minimal engagement with MPHA tenants during the application creation… I suggest [it] be halted. It would be appropriate to send the application back to MPHA to [do] due diligence before possibly resubmitting.”

Cam Gordon, city council chair of the Housing Policy and Development Committee, in a May 13 communication, directed concerns and questions to MPHA Executive Director Greg Russ (since hired to lead the New York City Housing Authority). “I attended a community listening session hosted by the Harrison Neighborhood Association,” Gordon wrote, “and heard several residents raise concerns and share fears about the program. I was already concerned about there being no resident council for the scattered-site residents.

“[This] leads me to believe that the participation of residents in this decision has been insufficient… It is my opinion that the best course of action at this time is to postpone the application until…and only after a functioning Scattered Site Resident Council is in place to review it and be authentically involved in monitoring and guiding any subsequent actions and decisions that may result.”

Williams continues her efforts to mobilize affected renters. “Sometimes I run into stumbling blocks because people just go along. They’re so scared of the system. They don’t know that if they fight against [it] they will win. You don’t have to have a hundred people. You just have to have a few who want to fight through it.”

“People are so afraid and just go along with what the landlord is telling them because there’s nothing to protect them, and that isn’t fair.”