Emily Johnson was running out of options when the heat went out Saturday at her St. Paul Public Housing apartment building.
There is no on-site manager at the 201-unit Edgerton Hi-Rise on weekends. The on-call maintenance staff said they were working on it, but the heat wouldn’t be back until Monday afternoon. Worried about elderly and disabled residents, Johnson, the resident council secretary, first tried public housing officials, then the Red Cross, the United Way, even the police.
“I was calling everyone I could think of to call to see if we could get someone to do something,” she said.
At 7 p.m. Sunday, Johnson grabbed a campaign flier left earlier Saturday by Nelsie Yang, who is running for the City Council’s Sixth Ward seat. “I just thought, ‘Well, I’ll give her a try.’ ”
Yang, who’s 23 and an organizer for TakeAction Minnesota, took action. First, she called Ramsey County Commissioner Jim McDonough, who went to a hardware store and bought every space heater they had. Yang sent out a plea on the neighborhood Facebook page. Within a few hours, heaters and hand warmers were arriving at 1000 Edgerton St. Ramsey County Sheriff Bob Fletcher offered blankets. A sheriff’s deputy knocked on doors in the 14-floor building, seeing if residents were all right.
Yang and a deputy picked up chicken dinners donated by Tin Cup’s restaurant on Rice Street and brought them to the apartment building.
McDonough got through to public housing officials and convinced them that the building shouldn’t have to wait to have its heat restored. Apartments were warming up again shortly after 9 p.m. Sunday.
“I really emphasized that waiting until Monday was just not sending a good message here,” McDonough said. “They agreed to send a contractor right away.”
Yang said it didn’t take long for people to answer the call for help. She estimates that more than 30 people eventually pitched in.
“It was just this impressive movement of people getting together and making things happen,” Yang said. “That’s what community is all about.”
McDonough, who represents the area on the County Board, agreed.
“I just think it sent a strong message that people care and that we were with them in a moment of need,” he said.
And what message did it send that it took his phone call to get repairs started on a failed boiler in February?
“I give public housing a lot of credit,” McDonough said. “It’s too bad the phone call had to come from me on a Sunday. But they responded.”
Louise Seeba, deputy executive director of St. Paul Public Housing Agency, disputed that maintenance crews only acted after prodding. She said crews responded “as best they could” as soon as they found out about it. In addition, she said, she doubts anyone from St. Paul Public Housing would have told residents that they would have to wait until Monday for heat. “That is unacceptable,” Seeba said.
She stressed that officials in no way want to minimize residents’ inconvenience or discomfort while the heat was out. “Our tenants are our top priority,” Seeba said.
Yang said advocating for people like the residents of Edgerton Hi-Rise is why she is running for City Council this year. Two other candidates have announced bids for the Sixth Ward seat: former Planning Commissioner Terri Thao and Alexander Bourne, a former small business owner.
“We need responsive leadership,” Yang said. “People in public housing are often left out. We don’t want this to happen again.”
Johnson, who said many of the building’s residents do not speak English, was just happy that Yang answered her phone — and quickly started to help.
“If Nelsie hadn’t come, we probably wouldn’t have had heat until Monday,” she said.
Johnson said a note slid under building residents’ doors on Monday apologized for the inconvenience of being without heat and noted there were refreshments available in the common room downstairs.
“Your health and safety are our first concern,” the note said.