Abdi Warsame made history in 2013 when he became the first Somali in Minnesota elected to the Minneapolis City Council.
Soon, he will step into another big role. On Wednesday, the Minneapolis Public Housing Authority’s board unanimously voted to appoint him as the new CEO and executive director of the city’s sprawling public housing system, making him the first Somali to lead a government agency in Minnesota.
With his appointment to the housing authority, Warsame’s council seat in play.
The City Council is expected to formally approve his appointment in the next couple of weeks. Warsame, 41, who is halfway through his second council term, will resign his seat, and the council will call for a special election.
Warsame’s salary hasn’t been set yet. Greg Russ, the former CEO, earned $171,336 before he left. Council members earn $101,162 annually.
The Minneapolis Public Housing Authority serves about 26,000 people. About one-third of the city’s public housing tenants are Somali. In his application for the Minneapolis housing job, Warsame cited his own life as a child refugee growing up in public housing in London.
“Affordable housing played a fundamental role in my family’s ability to forge a path out of poverty,” he wrote. “It provided us with financial freedom, independence, stability and security that far too many families simply cannot achieve without assistance. Simply stated, our public housing was our refuge.”
He told reporters on Wednesday that the massive fire in November that killed five people from smoke inhalation at Cedar High Apartments, a 50-year-old building in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood of Minneapolis, inspired him to seek the housing authority job.
“That was one of the key moments that made me more determined to go for the role,” he said, adding that sprinklers should be in public housing. “That tragedy should never happen again.”
Warsame was picked following a five-month search for a new CEO to replace Greg Russ, who took a similar job last year at New York City’s larger public housing agency.
Russ pushed for private investment into public housing and spearheaded the agency’s move to convert most of its buildings from public housing to the Section 8 voucher program.
Those efforts drew strong opposition from some housing activists worried the new model would privatize public housing and ultimately lead to low-income people being evicted.
Following his appointment Wednesday, however, Warsame confirmed that he’s against privatization of public housing.
“I’m absolutely for public housing to stay in public,” he told Sahan Journal. “We will find every tool at our disposal, we will knock on every door to make sure that we keep these precious assets as government assets — and assets within the agency.”
Before the vote, Warsame told housing commissioners their agency was important to the city’s low-income residents and that it was crucial to listen to their concerns in order to build trust.
In his application for the CEO job, Warsame cited his experience in finance, management of nonprofit organizations and governmental experience. He noted that he worked to alleviate the fears and anxiety around the conversion of public housing properties into Section 8 housing.
He also hinted at the public housing agency’s need to overhaul its aging housing stock.
After earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees in international business, Warsame moved to Minneapolis in 2006 and worked for the financial industry before getting involved in local politics.
In 2010, he became the executive director of the Riverside Plaza Tenants Association, an advocacy organization for over 5,000 tenants, mostly low-income who lived in public housing.
In 2012, he founded the Citizens Committee for Fair Redistricting where he helped redraw City Council ward boundaries including Ward 6, which has a sizable number of East African residents.
A year later, Warsame ran for the Ward 6 City Council seat and won, becoming the first Somali in the nation to win a municipal election.
Warsame will become the first Somali to lead a public housing agency in the nation, said Sharmarke Issa, the Minneapolis housing authority’s chair.
“Given that he comes from a background of an individual who grew up in public housing, he’s more relatable to most of our residents,” Sharmarke said. “He understands their needs and concerns better. This is a great opportunity for the agency.”
Before the vote, Andrea Brennen, a housing authority commissioner, highlighted Warsame’s “lived experience” growing up in public housing and his professional experience advocating for tenants.
“Mr. Warsame showed incredibly strong commitment to MPHA’s vision and improving the lives of MPHA residents,” Brennen said.
Editor’s note (Jan. 29): An earlier version of this story used an outdated figure for the salary of Minneapolis City Council members.