The Housing Choice Voucher Program in Minnesota is accepting applications from renters who want to join a waitlist to receive federal assistance. Credit: Ben Hovland | Sahan Journal

Kafiya Abdi’s stay at East Village apartments in the Elliot Park neighborhood of downtown Minneapolis didn’t get off to a good start. 

The 31-year-old Somali American was eight months pregnant when she moved in nearly 10 months ago. Her toilet wasn’t flushing property and many appliances weren’t working. Complaints to building management fell on deaf ears, she said. 

A few weeks later, a woman who appeared to be a former resident broke into her apartment. Kafiya was shocked and alarmed. Building management finally fixed her toilet and provided new appliances after the break-in, she said, but only after she voiced serious complaints. 

“This is not something that should be established as normal,” said Kafiya. 

East Village is not operated by a notorious slumlord. It is owned and managed by Aeon, a housing nonprofit that builds, purchases, and renovates apartments and townhomes to create or preserve affordable housing options across the Twin Cities. Aeon’s portfolio includes 58 apartment buildings and townhome properties that house about 15,000 people in the Twin Cities.

East Village is a 180-unit apartment complex across the street from Elliot Park on the southern edge of downtown Minneapolis. Aeon built East Village in 2000. It is a mixed-use complex, with an attached market, restaurant, and coffee shop. 

Kafiya and other residents at East Village are fed up with the problems, and say Aeon seems content to provide low-quality services and security for the property, which is largely occupied by Somali people. 

Aeon says residents’ complaints are valid, and has committed to investing $3 million to improve the property. The nonprofit asserts that the cultural identity of the residents is not the reason for deficiencies at the building.

Customers wait outside the East Village Market. Credit: Ben Hovland | Sahan Journal

‘A dog gets treated better’ 

Several residents who spoke at a recent press conference said maintenance requests go unanswered for months and that basic appliances included in their leases, such as dishwashers, don’t work. 

Many building residents are older Somali immigrants who don’t speak much English, Kafiya said. She believes building management ignores their requests because those residents have a harder time advocating for themselves. As a person who moved to Minnesota as a child and received her education in the U.S., she feels a duty to stick up for them. 

“A dog gets treated better than these residents,” she said. 

When Anthony Aigbogun’s roof started leaking in June 2019, he said it took management 19 days to fix it after he made a maintenance request. The 62-year-old Nigerian immigrant moved into East Village in late 2017. He said management treated him dismissively and disrespectfully when he reported the problem. 

There are two large buildings in the East Village complex that share a shaded courtyard with a small playground, grills, and benches. Children’s bikes lie scattered on the ground. 

Residents say garbage piles up regularly at trash chutes in the building. Several renters have photos of dog poop in the hallways. 

A sign from management on the trash chute asks residents to limit the amount of garbage they put in the trash disposal because it “is easily clogged.” 

Aeon held a meeting with residents and its security firm, UPA Security, on June 14, the day after residents held a press conference to decry conditions. Aeon said a Somali-speaking staff member was on hand to translate for non-English speakers. 

“The residents are 100 percent right,” Aeon CEO Alan Arthur told Sahan Journal. “We’ve got some work to do there. It’s 20 years old now.” 

Residents of the building may receive a variety of subsidies from federal, state, and local governments. But for the most part the affordability of the building is built into Aeon’s typical business model, which sees the nonprofit invest more money up front in order to offer below-market rents. 

Many residents at the press conference said they feel the building management ignores maintenance requests from Somali residents because of their race and immigration status. 

“I understand why certain populations in our community feel undervalued,” Arthur said. “I certainly don’t think Aeon or any of our staff are underperforming for that reason, but we still could be underperforming.” 

‘They need security’

Apart from maintenance issues, residents say safety has become a pressing issue at East Village. Break-ins are on the rise, residents say; items have been stolen from vehicles in the garage, and people try to enter units at night. People say Aeon’s on-call security firm, UPA, often takes longer to respond than Minneapolis police do.  

Aigbogun said he takes it upon himself to patrol the complex in the evenings. 

“They need security,” he said. 

Aeon has seen a rise in crime and break-ins across its properties in the Twin CIties, Arthur said. He cited a smaller Minneapolis Police Department as a reason criminals might be more active. Aeon has a 15-point plan to improve safety at East Village, including better, more secure doors and increased security patrols, he said. 

Signs in English and Somali encourage residents not to prop open doors to the building and to close any doors they see left ajar. 

A large homeless encampment began forming at the nearby corner of 9th Street and 13th Avenue in 2020. Aeon and some residents say this has led to an increase in break-ins, minor thefts, and the occasional person sleeping or relieving themselves in building hallways. 

But Kafiya said she believes Aeon is “scapegoating” the unhoused population to compensate for its lack of security at the complex. 

A child’s bike is seen in the courtyard at East Village Apartments. Credit: Ben Hovland | Sahan Journal

Pushing for improvements

The pressure from residents to improve conditions may be working. 

Aeon plans to invest $3 million in renovations at East Village in the coming year, Arthur said, and “it probably needs more than that.” 

“It’s our job to maintain the property, so if it’s not being maintained properly we’re doing something that’s not right,” Arthur said. “We have some fantastic long-term residents.”

He added, “I am confident that 99.9 percent of their complaints are legitimate.” 

Eric Hauge, executive director of Twin Cities housing legal services center HOME Line, said getting residents involved and organized can make a big difference in driving improvements. 

Residents in Minneapolis can report issues to 311 and the city’s regulatory services department, he said. Ultimately, Hauge said, it’s the landlord’s responsibility to provide a safe and suitable environment for tenants. 

Hauge gives Aeon credit for doing a lot of positive work in the metro housing market: HOME Line has worked on projects with the goal of seeing Aeon buy the apartment complex to keep it affordable. One such project involved Huntington Place, a massive 834-unit complex in Brooklyn Park that Aeon took over in early 2020. Those initiatives have constituted a big boost to Aeon’s inventory. 

But, Hauge added, “In some cases they’ve taken on more than they have the capacity for.” 

Aeon is planning to perform an inspection of every unit in East Village in late June and early July to catch up on service requests and assess shortcomings, Arthur said. 

But those improvements may come too late for Kafiya and Aigbogun. Both say they’ll be moving out as soon as their leases end.

Madison McVan contributed additional reporting to this story.

Andrew Hazzard is a staff reporter with Sahan Journal who focuses on climate change and environmental justice issues. After starting his career in daily newspapers in Mississippi and North Dakota, Andrew...