Brian Macchi was living in the back of a station wagon before he heard about the existence of public housing.
"It was a God-given thing to me," he said.
Macchi, 64, had a heart attack a decade ago that left him with a disability that took away his ability to work. He now lives in Elliot Twins, a twin high-rise apartment complex managed by the Minneapolis Public Housing Authority (MPHA).
But now, Macchi and other renters fear the MPHA is on a path to raising rents and pushing people out of their homes as the agency turns to a federal program it says will help pay for necessary renovations to Minneapolis' public housing units.
Greg Russ, MPHA's CEO, is leading the charge to use a federal program called Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD) in which local housing agencies attempt to use tax credits to attract private investors to pay for fixes.
He said money from low-income housing tax credits and other sources will fund long-delayed building repairs. Russ vows residents won't be displaced or see rent hikes. But that message is not getting through to many tenants, even though the housing authority has tried to explain its plans in several languages.
Russ said that a lot of folks are nervous and confused. But he said that's largely because critics of the housing authority's plans have spread much misinformation about how a public housing authority can work with private-sector investors.
"Our job is to invest and keep people in place, or if they have to move because we're doing construction in a unit, make sure they have a guaranteed right of return," Russ said. "Defend Glendale (a tenant group) denies that we're doing that, and they believe we're in a conspiracy to actually take these units out of the public trust, displace all the families in all 6,000 of our units, which is preposterous."
Russ has led the Minneapolis Public Housing Authority for the last two years, and will soon head to New York to run that city's housing authority. Russ said he can understand how people might be confused but he hopes to win their trust, once renovation projects are completed.
Across the county, similar projects have preserved or improved about 100,000 low-income housing units, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
The National Housing Law Project, a tenant advocacy organization, said there is no question that public housing needs lots of money to preserve and upgrade properties and the RAD program helps accomplish that, while providing strong tenant protections. But, in general, the organization is concerned about the recognition of tenant rights and HUD's ability to oversee RAD projects.
Macchi said the communication from MPHA on what's happening with Elliot Twins has been inadequate. He said the housing authority has flip-flopped on many things, from how much financial assistance residents will get to what tenants' options would be while their home is under renovation.
"You hear a different story every single day," Macchi said.
A group of public housing tenants and Twin Cities housing activists gathered outside the MPHA offices Wednesday to protest the housing agency's actions, which they consider to be privatization.
Among them was Ladan Yusuf, an Elliot Twins resident and a leader of the Defend Glendale and Public Housing Coalition.
"Greg Russ' plan is to privatize and end public housing in Minneapolis as we know it," she said.
Yusuf said tenants will be displaced or face higher rents — she's among those who don't believe Russ' assurances.
"It's in the details of these plans," she said. "He can say whatever he wants. But the reports he puts out and the approvals he gets from the city of Minneapolis say the opposite."
If he were to lose his place in Elliot Twins, Macchi said he's not sure where he'd go. He pays about $260 a month for a studio using his Social Security checks.
He said he's looked as far away as Chaska for housing he can afford, without success.
"I just hope everything works out for the best," Macchi said. "There's a lot of elderly people and sick people [living in Elliot Twins,] and we need to help everybody."
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