Fearing Privatization: Public Housing Activists Push Back Against RAD Plans

As their city rapidly gentrifies, a group of public housing residents are anxious about potential RAD and Section 18 conversions and battling the public housing authority to resist them.

Public housing residents hold up signs that read "No RAD at Elliot Twins" and others.
Minneapolis public housing residents show their displeasure in the housing authority’s plan to convert the Elliot Twins towers using HUD’s RAD program. Photo courtesy of Ladan Yusuf

This article was updated and revised for clarity, including corrections, on March 28, 2019.

In January, the Minneapolis Public Housing Authority’ hosted an informational forum for residents who live in two of its high-rises—the Elliot Twins Apartments. The buildings will soon be remodeled and renovated using HUD’s Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD) program, which allows housing authorities to work with nonprofit or for-profit entities to preserve and repair aging infrastructure.  

Relations between the MPHA and some of its residents have been tenuous since 2015, when the agency proposed using RAD to convert another property—Glendale Townhomes, the city’s oldest public housing property—into mixed-income apartments. Activist residents accused the housing authority of trying to gentrify their homes, which are adjacent to the recently opened Green Line light rail station, close to the University of Minnesota’s flagship campus.

At January’s meeting, the contentious relationship between the housing authority and Glendale residents, who had formed a group called Defend Glendale and Public Housing Coalition (DG&PHC) in the wake of the 2015 RAD proposal, was on full display. Several videos captured by DG&PHC show police officers telling public housing residents—many of whom were Somali and Somali-American women—that they were acting “uncivil” because they had filmed the meeting and demanded that the housing authority address their concerns. Jeff Horwich, MPHA’s director of policy and external affairs, says only non-residents of the building were asked to leave. He adds that the housing authority would be violating residents’ privacy to expose their status as a recipient of housing assistance benefits, so it is the agency’s policy not to allow photographs or filming of people’s faces without their consent at non-public events for residents.

Meeting attendees say MPHA officials treated white allies associated with DG&PHC differently: at the meeting, one white supporter, Nathaniel Hart-Andersen, said he was repeatedly told by Horwich that the housing authority was on the same side as the residents. The residents who were asked to leave did not live at the Elliot Twins, says Horwich, and their presence at the non-public meeting was a disturbance to those who were hoping to learn more about the proposed plans.

Throughout the past several years, the housing authority has prepared several plans for its housing stock, developed in consultation with private consultants. Officials have always insisted that their intentions are to continue providing quality housing to low-income residents. The MPHA, which has more than 6,000 units of housing under its jurisdiction, says it has a backlog of $140 million in capital needs investments for repairs like heating and cooling systems, piping, unit modernization, and more. The long-term decline in HUD funding for public housing repairs has led to a similar backlog for housing authorities nationwide. About 1.1 million public housing units in the U.S. require $49 billion in repairs, and as a result, about 10,000 public housing units are lost each year via demolition and disposition.

According to HUD, housing authorities across the country have used RAD—which began in 2012 during the Obama administration—to maintain affordability and preserve 100,000 units so far. But housing activists have raised concerns that RAD follows in the footsteps of HOPE VI, a policy used by HUD in the 1990s to convert public housing to mixed-income communities, which in some cases resulted in displacement.

Overall, the MPHA is attempting to privatize roughly 1,200 of its 6,245 public housing units. It has received approval to use the RAD program to convert 174 units at Elliot Twins, which house primarily (though not exclusively) seniors, many of them Somali, to project-based vouchers. The land would remain owned by the housing authority, and a nonprofit controlled by the housing authority would be the developer and managing partner in the company that would own the buildings. Private investors would also have a significant equity stake in that company, though RAD regulations require this to be done in a way that maintains continued public ownership or control. MPHA officials insist that RAD is the best means they have to modernize apartments and fund major building improvements, but for many residents there’s a fear of displacement, even temporarily. Although RAD offers significant tenant protections—for instance, residents have a right to return to their homes once construction is completed and they will not be subject to rescreening—and the MPHA has promised to provide relocation assistance for residents who must move temporarily, there has been a lack of oversight of the program at the federal level.

“I’m an older woman, I have [high] blood pressure,” said Elliot Twins resident Noor Adar through a translator. “I’ve lived here for 13 years, I don’t know any other community. If I leave here, I’m going to get lost. I refuse to be pushed out.”

The process raises important challenges for other authorities considering RAD and how conversions might shape the future of the nation’s public housing stock. Such large changes in the housing that serves some of the city’s poorest residents, including the addition of private investors, should entail a careful planning and communication process that residents say hasn’t been present in Minneapolis. MPHA officials haven’t listened to their concerns, say residents, who saw the housing authority’s RAD proposal for the Glendale Townhomes as an effort to destroy their homes.

“We Were Nobody to Them”

The Glendale Townhomes, constructed in 1952 to house returning veterans and their families, exist in an area that’s seen massive transformation in a short span of time. On the community’s southern edge lies Prospect Park, one of the city’s wealthiest neighborhoods. Thanks to the 2014 opening of the Green Line, part of a nearly $1 billion Twin Cities transit investment, Glendale’s northern border is now one of the city’s fastest-gentrifying areas, with the University of Minnesota just a mile westward.

Since 2000, the entire city has seen intense gentrification: while just 7 percent of eligible census tracts were gentrified in the decade prior, more than half have experienced gentrification since then. According to research from the University of Minnesota, Black and Latinx renters are especially vulnerable to increasing rent prices; not one neighborhood’s median rent is affordable to the median Black household.

Ladan Yusuf and her daughter, 18-year-old Kaaha Kaahiye, have called Glendale home for 15 years. While the gently sloped, tree-lined housing complex—home to 28 two-story rowhouses that shelter almost 600 residents—feels idyllic and peaceful, the area was largely separated from its surroundings for years, lacking transit options and bordered on one side by a largely unused industrial area. That all changed with the arrival of the Green Line, and an influx of new, largely white residents from apartments surrounding Glendale now regularly walk through the community.

Yusuf first discovered MPHA had intentions for Glendale in 2014, when she was going door to door on a “get out the vote” effort with her wealthy Prospect Park neighbors and was told by a homeowner that the city would soon submit a proposal to raze the townhouses and construct new homes. (In 2014, an MPHA commissioner and an MPHA staffer also discussed Glendale’s redevelopment in an email, saying the agency should “research the history of Glendale before it gets torn down.”) City Pages reported that the MPHA had discussed the idea of redevelopment at various meetings in 2013 and 2014, including the neighborhood-wide (but mostly homeowner) Prospect Park Association, at which they said residents were present, but Yusuf says she did not hear directly. “Nobody called us, nobody told us about what was going on,” Yusuf said. “We were nobody to them.”

Though residents were eventually given notice of meetings to discuss the plans specifically with them starting in April 2015, Yusuf says the notices were published only in English, and some of the meetings were held during Ramadan. Non-English-speaking and Muslim residents compose almost half of Glendale’s population.

The MPHA was exploring conversion of the 28-building development into a RAD property, replacing all of the public housing units, but increasing the density by also adding market-rate units. The housing authority promised that residents would be rehoused in the development, supported by project-based Section 8 vouchers, and initially offered temporary relocation during construction. In a resident fact sheet, MPHA noted that changes were necessary because more than $15 million worth of critical repairs were needed at Glendale: “[The] physical needs are past the point where it can be effectively rehabilitated, requiring that it be demolished and replaced.”  Yusuf has disputed this claim. In response, she founded Defend Glendale (which later became DG&PHC) to protest the housing authority’s actions, which she’s continued to do ever since.

After resident meetings in April, May and June saw continued resistance to the idea of selling Glendale to private investors, City Councilmember Cam Gordon placed a one-year moratorium on potential redevelopment.

Poisoned Waters?

In the years since the Glendale conversion proposals, the MPHA has developed new plans for the future of its housing stock. Throughout this process, the housing authority has worked largely with private consultants (including one who was found to have held a revolving-door relationship with a consulting firm while working at the New York City Housing Authority).

The planning culminated in a set of Guiding Principles, which stated the housing authority’s intentions to continue providing housing for the city’s low-income population, as well as including residents in all aspects of the planning process going forward—a frustrating claim to the residents involved with DG&PHC, who believe they weren’t adequately involved in the development of these principles for the future of the MPHA’s housing stock, and the strategic vision that came out of them. Hoda Isak, a former resident of Elliot Twins and then secretary of its the resident council suggested in a 2017 Facebook post that the planning process had been inaccessible and representations of resident support were inaccurate.

According to University of Minnesota Professor Ed Goetz, it was in this period that the housing authority should have focused on rebuilding trust with its residents, particularly as it pursued plans that would likely disturb their housing in the coming years.

“That was their opportunity to really try to build goodwill and a common perspective, but they squandered that chance,” said Goetz, author of New Deal Ruins: Race, Economic Justice, and Public Housing Policy. “It was in that situation that the residents really started digging in their heels, and frankly at that point I don’t blame them one bit.”

Instead, planning pushed ahead. At the end of May 2015, the city planning department released its own report suggesting a redevelopment of Glendale’s 184 public housing units via RAD and the addition of market-rate units to create a mixed-income development. In January 2016 the MPHA released a consultant report, known as the Sherman Report, that compared four options for Glendale, only one of which suggested preserving the development exclusively for low-income residents. The report proposed phased development with all tenant relocations on site.

During this planning period, the housing authority further alienated activist residents who had begun closely monitoring the agency’s actions. Those residents say MPHA officials didn’t successfully demonstrate that they understood their frustrations. Instead, in one exchange in the comment section of a news article documenting their concerns, Horwich called the residents “conspiracy theorists.”

“People quite justifiably bring skepticism and fear to these conversations—that’s fine,” Horwich says now. “But that’s different from fact. Feeling doesn’t change federal law, it doesn’t change the protections that public housing residents have as recipients of this federal subsidy, and their lease with us.”

The four options floated in 2016 for Glendale have not been acted on.

In 2016, the housing authority hired a new director, Greg Russ, who had previously worked at the Chicago Housing Authority during its implementation of the Plan for Transformation, which ultimately resulted in the net loss of at least 17,000 public housing units. DG&PHC activists are also concerned about Russ’s ties to Thies & Talle, a Twin Cities-based property management company owned by Russ’s father-in-law that controls voucher-assisted (or “Section 8”) housing across five states, concerns which the housing authority denies are an issue. (With RAD, units move to a Section 8 platform—project-based rental assistance, administered by HUD, or project-based vouchers (PBV) administered by the public housing agency or a partner. Elliot Twins will convert to PBV.)

Horwich insists that Defend Glendale has “deliberately distorted” the housing authority’s intentions to renovate and modernize the housing authority’s properties. But residents who felt they had been kept out of the housing authority’s strategic visioning and capital planning process were skeptical about idea to apply for RAD conversion for Elliot Twins, which was first officially broached in the strategic vision document in May 2018. MPHA officially presented its RAD proposal for the Elliot Twins Apartments to residents in August 2018. Horwich says resident councils were in fact involved and do support the MPHA’s plans, in general and for Elliot Twins.

“I think the waters have been well and truly poisoned by Defend Glendale over the years, without any contribution from us,” Horwich says.

MPHA’s Plans and What Residents Suggest

In addition to converting the Elliot Twins to RAD properties, the housing authority hopes to use HUD’s Section 18 to convert its 730 scattered-site housing units to a PBV model. The housing authority says it’s moving quickly on these plans in order to take advantage of a competitive new pool of HUD funding, which it believes will disappear quickly. But residents are concerned about the use of Section 18, which has seen some of its resident protections loosened during the Trump administration.

At the core of the disagreement between activist residents and the housing authority is the question of funding. MPHA says it faces $140 million backlog in capital needs investments and expects the backlog to grow to more than $500 million over the next two decades. The MPHA currently receives nearly $15 million annually from HUD for these purposes, a marked increase from recent years, but still considerably less than housing authorities received decades ago.

Still, residents argue that the MPHA could adequately fund its repairs by seeking other available public funds. They also argue that the main argument for RAD—that it offers financial assistance currently unavailable to housing authorities in a way that will make the units sustainable over time—is questionable. As James Hanlon, a professor of urban studies at the Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville, asks, “If we didn’t have enough money for public housing, but that’s the money that we’re converting to [vouchers], how is that going to be enough money to keep the units online?” (Editor’s note: The two are actually totally separate appropriations pools which Congress can treat differently.)

DG&PHC argues that there are other potential funding sources. For example, the reinstatement of a city property tax levy could provide MPHA with upward of $8 million annually. MPHA has recently publicly supported the reinstatement of this levy, but DG&PHC says the housing authority appears to see it as a way to leverage private funding, not a replacement for it. Then there is the potential for state grant and bond funds—the agency secured a $2.2 million state of Minnesota housing preservation grant in 2018, for example. The housing authority reports that it needs $30 million in additional investment over current funding levels to recover from its capital needs backlog, but DG&PHC suspects that number is inflated and would like to see an independent audit. Members believe repairs could be accomplished while keeping the city’s housing stock under public control.

While HUD has previously claimed that housing authorities employing RAD had leveraged upward of $19 in private capital per dollar of government spending, an independent audit from the Government Accountability Office released in 2018 found that the ratio was actually closer to $1.23 per dollar of public funds.

While deteriorating housing conditions remain a concern for public housing residents everywhere, recent experiences with RAD have proven wildly uneven, including evictions in some jurisdictions. The MPHA says it will use RAD only to modernize its housing stock while maintaining long-term affordability, but way the planning process has been carried out worries residents, who don’t believe the housing authority’s claims that residents will not be displaced.

Needed: A More Involved Process

Before submitting its application, MPHA held two meetings to explain its plans to residents, which is required by HUD before a housing authority can submit a RAD application. (The housing authority has since held further meetings with residents to discuss changes that will be brought by RAD.) Dozens of public housing residents aligned with DG&PHC showed up to each event, in part to hear the authority’s plans, bu­t also to express their continuing frustration at the housing authority’s approach.

Jessie Cassella, a former attorney at the National Housing Law Project, believes residents deserve a thorough explanation of what RAD will mean to them, as conversions likely involve temporary relocation, as well as transferring control of a property to a spinoff nonprofit, which could change how residents interact with a housing authority.

“From what we’ve seen around the country where RAD has resulted in the preservation of public housing, early and more often tenant engagement is critical,” Cassella said. “We believe that three meetings with residents is not nearly enough to explain the many changes they’re going to experience.”

Although Cassella believes HUD officials have learned from the shortcomings of previous efforts like Hope VI, putting RAD into practice will be unlikely to benefit residents should a housing authority not make their needs a central priority every step of the way.

“There are these very clear tenants’ right protections that are enforceable, but we worry when folks on the ground are not being made aware of those rights,” she said. “I think RAD has a strong foundation to support tenants, but how it’s actually implemented will impact the local RAD conversion itself.”

While the city government has extensive regulatory powers to govern the MPHA’s actions, elected officials have failed to make public housing a priority as part of the city’s long-term housing plans. For example, the city’s public housing received no attention in Mayor Jacob Frey’s $53 million affordable housing proposal last year, which directs approximately 40 percent of its funds toward subsidizing developers in exchange for the construction of affordable units.

City council members have declined to stop MPHA from making plans without their approval, even though in 2016, Minneapolis and St. Paul were forced to settle a lawsuit that claimed that local officials had failed to follow federal guidelines to “affirmatively further fair housing” practices in the city. Then-councilmember Frey was one of two dissenting votes in the 10-2 decision accepting the ruling; the other, Lisa Goodman, has suggested that the MPHA deserves to operate without oversight as it continues to develop its privatization plans.

“This is a multimillion-dollar organization with a multimillion-dollar financial problem,” Goodman told Councilman Cam Gordon at a Housing Policy & Development Committee hearing last June. “Should you be indicating that you want the city to help solve that problem, that will be at your peril.”

Most recently, the city council unanimously voted on a resolution “establishing guiding principles in support of investments in public housing and the people who live there,” which focused on tenant protections, but also included formal support of MPHA’s RAD application process. Gordon, whose ward includes the Glendale Townhomes, had previously expressed skepticism of the decision to use RAD to privatize public housing, and activists felt betrayed by the one public official who had been willing to support their efforts.

Residents are still concerned about the future of their housing and the ongoing lack of clarity from MPHA officials. Whether the MPHA’s promised good intentions play out in practice is yet to be seen—though activists like Yusuf hope that their efforts to hold officials accountable will make a difference.

“What keeps me going is the faith that justice will prevail,” Yusuf said, her voice shaking. “The truth will come out, no matter how much we’re demonized.”

Rise Local, a project of the New America National Network, also helped support this article.

Corrections:

  • The article originally stated that the January 2019 meetings at Elliot Twins were public meetings. They were not; they were for residents of the buildings only.
  • The placement of Edward Goetz’s quote in the original article implied that he was referring to the post 2016 strategic planning and/or Elliot Twins process. He was referring to the time period of 2015–2016 only.
  • The article originally stated that MPHA receives $2.2 million/year from the state of Minnesota. MPHA does not receive any regular state appropriations. It applies for bonds and grants. In 2018 it received a $2.2 million grant.
  • The article originally stated that MPHA had expressed an annual total need of $25 million to address its capital needs. It has expressed a need of $30 million of additional investment above current funding levels.
  • The article originally implied that Hoda Isak’s comments were referring to the Elliot Twins plans. They referred to the earlier strategic planning process. Isak moved out of Elliot Twins before the specific RAD plans for those buildings were presented.
  • The article originally stated that MPHA was not asking for a reinstatement of the property tax levy. MPHA did make that request in 2018.

6 COMMENTS

  1. Click here to read about a threat of mixed-income redevelopment of a public housing site in Cambridge Mass.
    http://www.actcambridge.org/node/339
    Before coming to Minneapolis, Greg Russ was executive director at Cambridge Housing Authority (CHA). That’s when CHA started to convert all its properties to RAD and Dispo. However RAD hasn’t removed any apartments from our former housing stock. Indeed, CHA used RAD to add more apartments. Though we know that the story hasn’t been so good in other cities, in Cambridge our housing has been financialized, but not privatized.

  2. I found this article to be biased. The hope vi program was largely successful in integrating public housing into
    Mixed income communities. We kniwnpublic housing does not work when it isolated low income households. The RAD program is the best source for getting development dollars into
    Public housing. Residents are guaranteed by federal law the right to return and generous relocation benefits. What is the beef?

  3. The “HUD funding” link in the article connects to a $5 million set-side for certain Multifamily properties – not Public Housing. The PHA could not apply for this money to help convert 730 scattered-site units to PBV using Section 18. The operative sentence in my NLIHC Memo to Members and Partners article that is linked is:
    “The two potential triggering events are the maturing of mortgages or the expiration of affordability restrictions at various Section 236, 331(d)(3) Below Market Interest Rate (BMIR), or Section 202 Direct Loan properties.”

  4. Russ and Horwich in Minneapolis are not showing sensitivity or concern for multi cultural language needs in oral or written presentations UNLESS OR UNTIL the community demands translations and enlargements. That one aspect demonstrates their blatant disregard as an ignoring of community’s needs. Of course people will lose their homes if moved from their grass roots town homes…. To wait it out in student dormstyle warehouses.

    THIS IS AN EXISTING COMMUNITY WITH BAKED IN SUPPORTS AND CULTURAL NUANCE. FARMING FOLX out during massive construction devastates community and 1/3 to 1/2 of longterm neighbors are At-Risk to land elsewhere in the interim. The PHA knows it. The City council knows it. The private investors want in on it. The developers who are flipping older affordable whole neighborhoods all along the new commuter train route between the Twin Cities are consuming properties like a runaway train in and of themselves. Greed at any speed. While people before profit is what values need enacted, PROFIT FIRST, NEIGHBORS LAST is what is underway. Without tenant voices like these campaigning tirelessly Minneapolis is going to become the San Fran of the Great Plains. If government doesn’t listen to its residents…. & Residents are saying These are Our Homes, Our Communities. And your profits are not more important than people already in place. Then we are de-humanizing our poor. Our deeply poor are on stepping stones to new strengths in best futures… Yes!! And our Elders on fixed low incomes need comforts of home too. Home IS Health. (Not about wealth). Personally I have witnessed the racism and classism inherent in these white men patronizing SomaliAmerican citizens; acting-as-if they get to decide what is best for “the other”. White, male, monied dominant city planning is a problem in MN more broadly but these Glendale Townhomes should be on the national historic register as a first in the nation adjoining neighborhood planning site where post WWII soldiers as Dads and student VFWs lived intentionally side by side with professorial families and university administration households. The history of VFWs, Korean, then Viet Vets, next Hmong refugees and immigrants followed by our current SomaliAmerican community in place is alive here now. Glendale Townhomes ~ as is ~ are an American treasure deserving of full preservation with dedicated benches, flagpoles, sculpture and memorials. And our thanks to its residents, its community as family and its organizers.

    • There are a lot of important concerns in this comment. I think it’s important to point out however, that none of the current proposals suggest relocating people offsite during construction.

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