For Abdi Warsame, trust is everything.
It’s a sentiment the former City Council member thinks about often as he navigates his first year in his “dream job” leading the Minneapolis Public Housing Authority.
For months, he’s worked through Zoom video calls from his office at 1001 N. Washington Av. But he said in a recent interview the best way to build confidence is by delivering results for the 26,000 people depending on the agency for housing.
“I don’t think residents are looking for a leader in terms of what they look for in a Minneapolis City Council member or mayor or elected official,” said Warsame, who’s the first Somali American to lead the agency. “What they are looking for is that their properties are safe, that they themselves are safe, that they can find shelter and housing that they deserve.”
Warsame’s appointment as executive director last January surprised his fellow council members and was greeted with fanfare and selfies with supporters. But it came at a time when the public trust in the agency was shaken by the November 2019 fire at its Cedar High apartments that killed five residents.
The agency found itself confronting questions about why sprinklers had not been installed sooner on the upper floors and facing blowback from residents, many of them Somali Americans. The agency has also endured criticism over a lack of communication about plans to renovate aging properties using private funds, and struggled to quash residents’ fears of displacement, even though many were fed by misinformation.
Mary McGovern, a resident at the Elliot Twins and president of the Minneapolis Highrise Representatives Council, which represents 5,000-plus tenants, was unsure if Warsame could handle the job.
But now she meets with him every Friday. She said he has worked hard to secure funding for capital improvements for the 42 aging high-rises and keep residents safe during the pandemic.
“He’s always been 100% behind the residents and that’s what I have looked for in any kind of director for MPHA,” McGovern said. “He wants to make sure the high-rises are comfortable and feel like home to residents.”
During Warsame’s first days on the job last spring, the deadly COVID-19 virus was closing businesses and schools across the country. By the end of 2020, the agency had lost 38 residents to the virus. In the last week alone the agency has seen only seven new cases, a number they say is a testament that staff and resident that precautions are working.
Warsame, who is paid $180,927 as executive director, is guiding the agency through several major efforts. This includes the $26 million renovation of the Elliot Twins high-rise apartments, revitalizing the scattered site homes, coping with an estimated $174 million in capital needs and keeping residents and staff safe when the Derek Chauvin trial begins.
The agency is also planning to move forward with an $8 million plan to add sprinkler systems to nine high rise buildings. The agency is seeking additional city and state funding to get sprinklers in two more buildings.
Warsame has previously said public housing units should be required to have sprinklers and sees the plan as an important way to restore trust among the residents. MPHA currently has 27 buildings that lack sprinklers, though three of them, including the Elliot Twins, are in the process of getting them.
“We’re not going to go to people and say can you give us resources, can you give us money for the sprinklers, while not demonstrating that we’ve looked at every resource, we checked every fund, we turned every rock,” Warsame said. “We’re demonstrating that we’re serious about it and we’re asking the city, the state, the county and even the federal government to help us address this issue.”
Leading during a pandemic
While Warsame’s City Council ward included several public housing buildings, he is still getting to know residents through virtual town halls and his mornings are spent with his staff getting updates.
He is also navigating the loss of people he knows to the virus, and taking care of his four children alongside his wife. He and his wife had mild cases of COVID-19 in November. Warsame said they’ve fully recovered and not had lingering symptoms.
Warsame says the agency has supported residents through the pandemic by distributing thousands of masks, working with the Minnesota Department of Health to help get residents tested for COVID-19, and partnering with the health agency to vaccinate residents in the coming weeks.
Earlier this month, Warsame helped deliver boxes of food from East Side Neighborhood Services to residents at the Hiawatha Towers. The monthly food distribution has become a lifeline for the public housing community throughout the pandemic and during the winter.
Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey, who has a close friendship with Warsame, said they have worked together during the pandemic to expand the Stable Homes Stable Schools program, which gives housing subsidies to homeless elementary children’s families. So far, it has served about 2,646 kids.
“He’s one of the most well read people that I’ve ever met,” Frey said about Warsame. “Though he wasn’t born in the United States he probably knows more about U.S. history than us. He’s very knowledgeable and one thing about Abdi is he doesn’t speak or make a decision until he has the facts.”
Warsame and other city officials are waiting to see if the Biden administration will fulfill a campaign promise expanding public housing and helping housing agencies with repairs. Warsame said he’s also looking to local officials to pay more, as happens at public housing authorities of comparable sizes in other cities.
“You can’t expect to say you’re an integral part of the city, you’re an integral part of Hennepin County, you’re the largest landlord, you’re taking care of all of these vulnerable populations but your problem is [the Department of Housing and Urban Development],” Warsame said. “I think there’s a certain responsibility for local government to play a role.”
Greg Russ, who preceded Warsame as the agency’s director and now runs New York City’s housing authority, said Warsame was one of the first people he met when he took over the agency. Warsame, he said, will eventually have to make choices that are in the best interest of the housing authority but could put him at odds with residents.
Even with a strong staff by his side, Warsame faces a steep learning curve, Russ said. He will need to master the policy of public housing, construction, aging buildings and proper timelines for turning around a vacant unit.
“He will be an effective advocate for sure,” Russ said. “The business is public housing and rental, but there’s so much behind it.”
Jamal Osman, the City Council member who succeeded Warsame, is convinced his leadership at the agency will improve the living conditions for East African residents in public housing, many who are still reeling from the deadly fire that engulfed their community.
“Minneapolis public housing needs a lot of work,” Osman said. “Warsame understands that and he can relate to the struggle many East African residents face.”