The Struggle Against Privatization in Minneapolis: Interview with Defend Glendale & Public Housing Coalition

In Minneapolis residents of Glendale Townhomes, a HUD development, have been struggling for years to prevent the privatization of their homes. They have successfully held off privatization under RAD at Glendale for over five years, and have also expanded the struggle to other public housing sites in Minneapolis. Their struggle has been long and difficult but hard-fought, so we’re very excited to present this interview with a leader from the Defend Glendale and Public Housing Coalition, a grassroots campaign of residents organizing to prevent the privatization of Glendale & the rest of public housing in Minneapolis.

A protest in Minneapolis against privatization under the RAD scheme, which was created by HUD during the Obama administration and allows public housing authorities to hand over developments to private companies. “Ma Rabno” means “we don’t want” in Somali.

Q: How has the struggle against RAD developed at Glendale Townhomes?

I live in Glendale Townhomes. In 2014, the plan for Minneapolis Public Housing Authority (MPHA) was not to tell us about RAD. We were not supposed to know about RAD. We were just supposed to be given eviction notices and Section 8 vouchers to find other housing.

MPHA wants us to approve the RAD conversion, they want to demolish Glendale Townhomes. I emailed my council member Cam Gordon and I asked “is this true, are we being gentrified?” And he said “I’m sorry that you found out this way.” I called the housing non-profits, and they all knew about it. We were the last to know. The city knew about it, the non-profits, everybody knew.

At the time, Minneapolis Public Housing Authority dismantled the resident council which was there in 2013, in a plan to prepare for this, because they didn’t want tenants talking to each other. That’s why they got rid of the resident’s council–although they shouldn’t be involved with residents’ councils, they have a lot of control over them.

MPHA kept giving conflicting messages about what they were doing, they were trying to pacify us. We were asking, are we gonna be able to come back? One meeting after another they were leading us on, until a point where they said “we don’t have any information now, we’ll update you.”

We went to a meeting that we were not supposed to be at that was all developers, all the city council members and MPHA were there. We were not invited, someone just told me, we just went there, we were the only people of color. MPHA had a whole PowerPoint presentation on how they were going to demolish Glendale Townhomes. They were going to build 350 units here, they were gonna demolish the homes and residents were not gonna come back. That’s when we figured out we were being lied to. Then we found out that this thing called RAD was what they were planning, and the non-profits knew about it. It was kind of like what Hope VI was in the 90’s.

After that we started organizing, and protesting, and rallying, and saying “where are we gonna go?”

They want us out, they’re trying to kick us out of here. This is what’s clear, every time we go to a meeting they’re not giving us a straight answer. We started doing research and we found out that only 1 out of 5 people might be able to come back when they move them out. We started organizing, the city was mad. But not all of them were involved. At the time, only a few council members were involved in creating this with the MPHA, such as Lisa Goodman, Lisa Bender, and Jacob Frey.

At one meeting we had in 2015 at Glendale Townhomes, people asked the former executive director Cora McCorvey, “we don’t want Section 8. People cannot find rentals with the Section 8 vouchers.” The landlords move people out anytime they want, they can say “I’m selling the home” or “I’m no longer taking Section 8 Voucher.” It’s unstable. Residents that take Section 8 are always moving out and sometimes are even homeless. When residents asked “where are we gonna go?” the director said “we don’t know where you’re gonna go”. That’s when protests really started. MPHA were trying to skip steps, and there were conflicts with certain council members. The left hand didn’t know what the right hand was doing and all they wanted to is displace us, they did not care where we were going.

Jacob Frey, the current mayor of Minneapolis, is responsible for much of the gentrification in the city, in addition to leading the brutal crackdown on protesters after George Floyd’s murder.

Q: At Glendale Townhomes the RAD conversion has been halted, how did that happen?

It’s interesting how it all comes about. We were ready to go to city hall, and the media came, and it was too much media. For them. The organizing kept picking up. They knew it looked bad. In 2015, even though our own council member, Cam Gordon, did not support us, they realized that they had to stop this because it was gonna look bad – because not everybody did their homework. MPHA did not have their i’s dotted or their t’s crossed in terms of putting the RAD application together and keeping us in check, keeping us in “our place” – we were not supposed to find out. So that messed up their plans.

All of a sudden they said, “we’re gonna pause this till a later time.” They paused this to come back to this. They never said they’re not gonna do this. The city of Minneapolis said, because residents organizing and the media was making them look bad, that they were gonna pause the RAD conversion. They were sure that once they went back to re-group a year later, they were gonna start all over again – and they’re still mentioning us in their plans to redevelop Glendale. They haven’t stopped. But public housing residents did not stop either.

It’s on pause because it became so political when we started organizing, but they still wanna do it. They never say we’re not gonna do it, in the annual reports to HUD they say “we’ll re-engage with residents.”

Q: What’s happened at Glendale Townhomes since they paused the RAD conversion?

So, in 2015 we stopped it, but their plan was to go back to it. For all of 2016, we pushed the city to pass an ordinance to say they were not gonna demolish Glendale Townhomes or other public housing through RAD or anything, but they kept ignoring. Residents were organized, every week we were out there. All these people that were running for office kept saying “yeah we support Defend Glendale Campaign….”

The long-time bureaucrats in the MPHA could not handle us because we were too much for them, they were not used to organizing, we were using social media, and door-knocking. They got rid of some of bureaucrats including the executive director Cora McCorvey and got this guy named Greg Russ. They hired him right around the time Trump took office, in January of 2017.

At the time we were called the Defend Glendale campaign.

In 2017 Greg Russ took over MPHA, and he said “oh it’s not only gonna be Glendale that’s gonna be demolished, we’re gonna privatize all of the public housing in Minneapolis.” We were shocked. We were like we gotta tell other people. So, we started organizing with Elliott Twins residents who were MPHA’s next target. This is when our named our name to Defend Glendale & Public Housing Coalition.

Greg Russ just kept pushing the privatization plan. He got the support of all of City Hall, the housing nonprofits, and the media such as Star Tribune. He worked hard to make sure he demonized us and try to bully and intimidate majority of the leaders who were Black women from the Somali communities. In 2018, he want after the privatization of over 736 single family homes that have majority Black families known as scattered sites. Greg Russ lied to the residents there, told them that the homes are in bad shape and we need to bring in Section 18 Disposition & Demolition to repair the homes.

About Glendale, they didn’t have a place for us to go. The plan was to give us 30 day eviction notices and that’s it, that was the plan. They’re still saying that what we’re saying is fake news. The whole non-profit industrial complex is in on it. It’s a big scam.

Elliot Twins residents showing their opposition to the RAD conversion.

Q: Can you talk more about the struggle at Elliot Twins?

MPHA and Greg Russ used a couple residents who were supposed to be in the resident council to sign letters saying they approved the RAD conversion without telling the more than [300] residents that live in Elliot Twins. Residents from Elliot Twins said “nobody told us this.” With MPHA, their thing is, if we don’t notify the public, we won’t get pushback, so we have to do this behind closed doors.

Carson supported Greg Russ. HUD approved the RAD application at Elliott Twins and MPHA leased Elliot Twins to the Royal Bank of Canada for 99 years without the approval of residents. The residents had been protesting every week, we filed complaints, we cried, and after two years of us struggling to stop this, they did everything in their power to push the RAD conversion through. When the residents filed complaints about MPHA to HUD and to the local elected officials no one wanted to hear what the residents where saying and they were being ignored.

MPHA did the RAD conversion through intimidation, silencing and lying to the residents. DG&PHC then continued to expose all of the mistreatment and lies MPHA was pushing at Elliot Twins. Mayor Frey and then Council Member Abdi Warsame lied to the residents to try to turn the residents against us. Some residents got tired because they were elders with serious health conditions. They even put out an eviction plan saying people could stay with their relatives. Even though our goal was to stop RAD, we were able to stop people being evicted massively, since the pandemic happened and that messed up their eviction plans.

Currently, we continue to organize to stop the privatization of public housing because MPHA now wants to privatize more buildings through RAD as the unhoused situation in Minneapolis is out of control. People are living in tents in the cold weather when it’s 0 degrees or below and the city and state continue to ignore their needs and try to evict them without providing them sustainable housing. Meanwhile luxury buildings are being built all over the Minneapolis and St. Paul, the Twin Cities.

Q: How did you learn about RAD conversions and get the word out to residents?

We found out about RAD from MPHA’s board minutes and a packet that was on their website. We then did research to learn more about RAD. This started back in 2015 because people didn’t know anything about RAD, Section 8 or even public housing. The majority of white people did not know much about public housing. We had to go around and say this is what public housing is, we had to get volunteer researchers to dig things up and that’s how we started the whole research effort, using research as a tool to organize, because people didn’t know the difference between public housing and Section 8 Vouchers. We had to do it in small portions. We had to explain these thick documents from MPHA and put it in layman’s terms.

Their plan is not to show the nuts and bolts, and the devil is in the details. So we would just get the data through data request and explain “this is what they’re doing y’all, we need to wake up!” and MPHA is like “we’re not doing that, that’s a lie, that’s fake news!” Until it came time and they told people “yeah, you might move out.” They really wanted everyone to get out of Glendale, Elliot Twins and other buildings they planned to privatize.

One of the Elliot Twins buildings, rehabbed in 2008, which MPHA claimed was in “bad shape.”

Q: How did they justify the RAD conversion at Elliot Twins?

They said Elliot Twins, the building, is in bad shape, which is false. The building was rehabbed fully in 2008, they even have WiFi. It’s one of the cleanest buildings you’d ever want to be in. It’s clean, there’s new pipes, everything. So that was their excuse to do the RAD conversion. We even talked to this HUD guy, and he was like “well they did rehab in 2008, why do they need RAD?” I’m like, “to sell the buildings, that’s why!” Because it’s right next to the Viking’s stadium, it’s downtown. So we weren’t successful in stopping the RAD at Elliot twins even though we did more organizing there because they were ready for us. The whole city came after us.

We weren’t fighting small groups y’all. We were fighting the state, the city, everybody and their mother came for us. And Greg Russ was like “I’m gonna crush them.” He came here to crush us, because they realized that they needed some big guns, and that’s one of the reasons they hired Greg Russ. Cause Greg Russ is known for that, he goes from city to city and does that. And he knows how to psychologically manipulate people, he knows PR, and all of a sudden when Greg Russ came here the non-profits, all of the “Democratic progressive elected officials from Congress to City Council” began supporting him because he was the white man who is an “expert” displacing Black and Brown communities nationwide. City Hall started fighting us, the Star Tribune started writing fake articles about us. I mean, we were under attack. They all felt comfortable with listening to this white man who is out of state over their own voters because they had the same agenda to gentrify Minneapolis.

And all we did was just focus on resident organizing no matter what. So, at one point we wouldn’t even get coverage, even Star Tribune, everyone, lying about us. All we had was Facebook, and the research, and we kept digging, digging. I mean it was like a hurricane. It was a lot harder than what happened in Glendale, because Glendale, they didn’t expect it. They thought “Oh”, but now they realized we were gaining support and they were like “OK, we need to kill this now.” That’s why they brought Greg Russ here, that’s why they got rid of the old administration that was more bureaucratic. They are so racist but this guy was a white supremacist to the teeth. And that’s why he’s in New York now.

Greg Russ, housing privatization specialist, who has privatized public housing all across the country. He recently took a new job as head of New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) where he plans to privatize as many of the city’s 173,000 public housing units as he can.

Q: What can you share about Greg Russ now that he’s moved to New York City?

We named Greg Russ the Czar of Privatization & Gentrification because before coming to Minneapolis, he privatized and ended public housing in Cambridge, Massachusetts; Chicago; Detroit; Philadelphia; and now he’s been hand picked by Carson and Mayor DeBlasio to privatize New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA).

Greg Russ got slicker in NYC. He wants to privatize 110k units of public housing by trying to convince residents it will be public while his plans clearly show he plans to convert the units using RAD. He hopes his lies will work but it is not working. NYC is on to him. Greg Russ used to work for Abt Associates1, which is a 500 million Wall Street company that put out PR to demonize public housing in the 90s and 2000s nationwide. Greg Russ’s biggest fears are two things, bad press and residents organizing. When he came here, he turned all the media against us. The media was already racist anyway, so they were going to believe the big white man over us. But still.

DaD: News outlets in NYC have been running pro-RAD propaganda recently.

Greg Russ has to have the media. He goes around and gets the media on his side, he’s good at that. The media is his biggest ally.

They got him from Minneapolis to NYC. He’s a typical neoliberal. He’s with the Democrats, and he’s also with the Republicans, he’s with Carson and he’s also with DeBlasio. I really think the people in NYC, are on to him – they see through him.

Q: Ilhan Omar is promoted nationally as a progressive elected official. How has she responded to the struggles of public housing residents in Minneapolis?

Ilhan Omar! We’ve emailed, called, met with her staff, for two years. We did multiple calls to actions, letter campaign, phone zaps to demand that she stops the privatization of public housing in Minneapolis which is her constituency and she ignored it. She behaves as if this crisis does not exist. She knows how to manipulate white young progressives but she can’t do that to the Black immigrant community she comes from.

She does not support public housing residents in her constituency, and that is my quote about her. She is not a competent congressperson, but she got national attention because of Trump. She doesn’t do anything. The Somali community doesn’t care for her, the larger Black community doesn’t care for her. She only gets support from white young progressives that think that she’s breaking some sort of a mold. She hasn’t done anything. She hasn’t helped us at all.

But she goes around with AOC saying “I’m helping!” I heard from tenants in NYC that AOC isn’t helping stop RAD either. They can stop RAD, they’re Congress. HUD listens to Congress, funding goes through there. They could call and say “you need to stop this’’, but they won’t. If you go on our website and see how many calls sent to the office of Ilhan Omar.

We met with her staff in 2019 and they said “yeah, we will support, we’ll stop this.” Guess what happened? They went behind our back and they said “oh, she’s signing on to a national bill called ‘Homes for All.’” Well how does that help us? God knows when that bill is going to be passed. It’s like the Green New Deal, that’s not stopping RAD, it’s not stopping these local authorities like Greg Russ in NYC or Mayor Jacob Frey in Minneapolis.

1Abt Associates worked with the CIA in the 70s to set up PR campaigns in Central and South America to prop up U.S. backed dictators. Notably, they were part of the CIA effort to overthrow Allende in Chile.

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