Abdi Warsame was chosen Wednesday as the next director of the Minneapolis Public Housing Authority (MPHA), giving up his City Council seat to lead the agency that provides homes and housing assistance to more than 26,000 people.
The two-term Minneapolis City Council member received unanimous approval by the authority’s board of commissioners. With the council’s approval likely to follow next month, Warsame will replace Greg Russ, who left the Minneapolis authority in August to oversee the New York City Housing Authority.
Warsame is stepping into the role as the agency copes with the upkeep of hundreds of aging properties. The deaths of five people in a November blaze in one of the authority’s high-rises drew attention to the aging building’s lack of sprinklers, while the authority has struggled to assuage fears that residents will be displaced by MPHA property renovations.
Warsame said the position “would be a noble mission” to help residents and preserve public housing as the city confronts a growing affordable housing crisis. He pointed to his own experience working with tenants before and during his tenure as a council member, growing up in public housing in London, and his passion for affordable housing as reasons he wanted to lead.
Before Warsame was elected to the City Council in 2013, he was executive director of the Riverside Plaza Tenants Association, helping advocate for more than 5,000 mostly low-income families and individuals in the Cedar- Riverside neighborhood, many who used MPHA housing vouchers.
After Wednesday’s meeting, Warsame was greeted with cheers, hugs, handshakes and picture-taking by a crowd that followed him through MPHA’s lobby to the sidewalk, as snow flurries began to fall.
Warsame later said that the Cedar High public housing fire in November was also a motivating factor to why he applied. He also said public housing units should be required to have sprinklers.
“We should work toward making sure that tragedy doesn’t happen again,” Warsame said. “I lost five people there, friends, family, constituents, and that was one of the key moments that made me more determined to go for the role. Because again that tragedy should never happen again, and also the staff — there are 300 wonderful people that work for this agency that also need to be motivated and uplifted.”
CohenTaylor, the agency hired to recruit a new director, sent 1,000 residents surveys of what attributes they wanted from the next executive director. Of the 101 responses received, three top themes emerged: the director should be commited to diversity, equity and inclusion; be able serve as a trusted and credible leader; and have good communication skills. Candidates on the shortlist were mostly local.
Tessa Wetjen, a commissioner on MPHA’s board, said that she acknowledges CohenTaylor’s work but the agency’s Resident Advisory Board should have been more involved.
“We have a lot of work to do in broadening our engagement and what we understand our community to be, and then really recognizing the voice of our residents,” Wetjen said. “I was not pleased that they were not involved more in our process.”
Warsame’s candidacy has also sparked concern about whether he has adequate experience to lead the housing agency.
Defend Glendale and Public Housing Coalition, a group that frequently criticizes the authority’s decisions, in a statement Tuesday expressed concerns about Warsame’s involvement with the planned renovation of the Elliot Twins high-rises and lack of communication with residents living there. The group and MPHA officials have expressed disdain over how the other operates, with organizers saying residents are being misled and MPHA accusing them of spreading misinformation.
“Abdi Warsame is not qualified to lead MPHA because he is not about the people,” the groups said in a statement. “He and his best friend Mayor Jacob Frey have been very divisive and toxic in the East African communities of Minneapolis.”
Warsame said during the meeting that when he becomes executive director, he wants to have listening sessions with residents, particularly those living in the agency’s “scattered site” single-family homes to explain “why the agency is not trying to turn their houses into hotels” and why the agency has to catch up on needed repairs. He said honest, frank and consistent messages and more visual aids about what the agency is doing will be key.
“I think folks do not understand all of these different acronyms, but what they understand is, am I going to get back to my unit, how long is it going to take and will I be relocated,” Warsame said. “I think to be clear, to be precise, is the best way to do that.”
Warsame may find himself having to persuade his former council colleagues, one of whom wants to slow down the authority’s renovation plans. The Minneapolis City Council and mayor still have to vote to approve him for the role, which could happen as soon as Feb. 14.
After that, Warsame would resign from office, triggering a special election to fill the remainder of his council term, which runs through 2021.