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Housing board grants rent relief to tenants on extended absences

Public housing residents in Minneapolis will no longer need to pay their normal monthly rent when travel abroad erases their income, a change particularly sought by East African immigrants.

The board of the Minneapolis Public Housing Authority approved this week reverting to its previous policy of collecting only minimal rent during extended absences. The change takes effect once approved by federal housing officials, which is expected by year’s end.

Abdi Warsame, a City Council member, told the board that the policy in place for the past five years works a particular hardship on elderly East Africans who must save for long periods if they want to visit their homelands. He said that many receive federal Supplemental Security Income, which is halted when the recipient is outside the United States.

The abandoned policy required people to keep paying rent, which is income-based. Travelers gone for 30 to 90 days could apply for a hardship, which meant that they paid the minimum $75 monthly rent during their absence, but were required to make up the difference between that and their normal rent over the next year or two.

The change will mean that residents will pay only the $75 minimum per month, assuming they apply for the hardship status.

From 50 to 75 public housing residents report such absences annually, according to Mary Boler, an agency manager. She said the cost of the change will be less than $50,000. The agency found that the paperwork burden of tracking repayment was higher than anticipated.

“This was brought up to us again and again and again in every building we visited in our ward,” Warsame said.  “Everybody was afraid to leave the country.”

He said common reasons for travel abroad include visiting families left behind or participating in the hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca that Muslims are expected to make at least once.

The agency allows a maximum absence of 90 days, after which it takes steps to terminate a lease. With a long waiting list, “That’s a long time for the asset to be kept empty,” Boler said.   

The agency board now has two members of Somali descent, Mohamud Tamir and Abdullahi Isse. The agency’s resident advisory board also backed the change in rent policy for extended absences.  

Campaign PR pro to lead communications for Mayor Hodges

Above: Eric Fought recording his podcast, "In the Square," which ended earlier this year. (www.ericfought.com)

A veteran communications chief for left-leaning political campaigns, Eric Fought, is taking over as the public face of Mayor Betsy Hodges' office.

Fought took over the job this week. "The thing I’m really excited about is the opportunity to tell the story about how Minneapolis is moving forward under her leadership," he said in an interview.

He is the fourth person to serve in the sometimes high-profile role, following the recent departure of David Prestwood after just eight months. Prestwood had served as a lobbyist and Capitol aide in Washington, D.C., before joining the city.

“We kind of came to a mutual agreement between both sides that we had some different priorities for the communications program and the way things were done," Prestwood said last week. "And I decided that … they would probably be better with someone else, and I wanted to give them time to do that before 2017.”

Hodges' predecessor, R.T. Rybak, had three spokespeople over his 12-year tenure as mayor -- one of whom, John Stiles, is now the mayor's chief of staff.

But the circumstances are also somewhat unique, as Hodges' first spokeswoman left to take maternity leave and ultimately took the top communications position at the Metropolitan Council. Her successor was initially intended to be temporary, but remained longer than anticipated.

A Wisconsin native, Fought has been director of communications at the Minnesota DFL, the campaign to defeat the voter identification amendment and Minnesotans for a Fair Economy. Most of his roles have been campaign-related, though he served as regional public affairs director for the U.S. Navy Recruiting office in the mid-2000s.

In addition to political communications, Fought has a background in theology. He recently earned a Master of Divinity degree from St. John's University, and is studying for a doctoral degree from Aquinas Institute of Theology. He is not ordained.

"I do consider myself to be a faith leader in general," Fought said. "And throughout my life all of my work has been driven by that faith and values."