Charlie Warner was involved in nearly every aspect of affordable housing in Minnesota over the past 40 years, from tenant organizing to public policy work to creating two significant housing nonprofits that thrive today.
He was the founder of Home Line, the first statewide hot line for tenants grappling with landlord troubles, which reports fielding 185,000 calls over its 25 years. He also was a founder of the Minnesota Housing Partnership, a nonprofit that has worked to expand and finance affordable housing statewide for 30 years.
Warner was instrumental in organizing the tenants behind a 1973 Minnesota Supreme Court decision permitting tenants to withhold rent when landlords failed to keep buildings up to code, housing attorneys say.
He died Nov. 8 at age 77.
"He was a central figure in the whole area of affordable housing for decades," said Warren Hanson, president of the Greater Minnesota Housing Fund. "He had a social justice agenda before most people realized that housing was important."
An upbeat, gregarious man with a deep knowledge of housing policy, Warner inspired generations of Twin Cities housing leaders, Hanson said.
Chip Halbach, former executive director of the Minnesota Housing Partnership, said many considered Warner to be the "heart and soul of the affordable housing and tenants' rights movements."
Warner, son of Twila and Raymond Warner, grew up in the Milwaukee suburb of Whitefish Bay. He graduated with a bachelor's degree from Brown University and a master's in business administration from the University of Chicago. In 1969, he landed a job at the U.S. Housing and Urban Development (HUD) office in Chicago, and two years later moved to the Minneapolis HUD office.
He worked with tenant rights groups in the Cedar-Riverside and Seward neighborhoods to fight urban renewal projects that would displace low-cost housing, said Halbach. He also took on mismanagement at his own apartment building in Minneapolis, organizing occupants to withhold their rents until major repairs were made. The building was ultimately converted into a cooperative, one of many Warner supported over the years, Halbach said.
After leaving HUD in the 1980s, Halbach said, Warner parlayed his expertise of federal housing policy to organize Minnesota's first major effort to preserve federal subsidized housing complexes at risk of leaving the program. He said Warner worked with advocates, tenants and nonprofit housing developers to push for legislation tapping public funds to rehabilitate low-cost housing units.
Warner wore many hats in the 1980s and 1990s, when public interest in affordable housing and tenant rights issues grew. Lawrence McDonough, former managing attorney of the housing unit at Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid, said Warner worked closely with legal aid attorneys on those issues for many years.
"He had a lot of energy and was very smart," McDonough said. "And he didn't present as an academic, but as a blue-collar guy. He could talk to developers, academics and folks on the street."
Cecilia Schiller credits her stable family life, and her profession, to Warner. A single mother of two young children in the late 1970s, she couldn't find a safe, affordable place for her family until she discovered the Park Cooperative Apartments. Over the years, Warner became a friend and introduced her to his woodworking shop in the basement.
Today, Schiller's daughters are grown and she works as an artist specializing in wood sculpture. "I don't know if I'd be doing [it] today without him supporting me," she said.
A memorial for Warner will be held at Park Cooperative Apartments on Dec. 9 from 2 to 4 p.m.