An 8-year-old points to bullet holes over her bed at the Five15 on the Park apartment complex Wednesday in Minneapolis. Credit: Carlos Gonzalez | Star Tribune

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This story comes to you from the Star Tribune through a partnership with Sahan Journal.

In the Five15 on the Park apartments in Minneapolis, the stairwells reek of urine and are littered with scraps of aluminum foil bearing the burn marks of opiate use.

More than a dozen Somali American women coursed through the halls of their Cedar-Riverside apartment building on Sunday, December 18, on an impromptu tour of sanitation and safety problems they say they can no longer tolerate. They pointed out vomit in the carpet, holes in the walls, scattered food wrappers and the empty space in the lobby and fitness room where three TVs were ripped from the walls last week.

Yet this isn’t the familiar story of an aging property with an absent landlord and bad tenants. The apartment building, at 515 S. 15th Avenue, opened seven years ago to provide much-needed workforce housing. The trouble comes mostly from outside, in a neighborhood beset by addiction and homelessness.

Mulki Abdille, a first-floor resident who lives near a stairwell, described how people frequently break into Five15 to smoke and charge their phones in the hallway outside her door. Voices keep her family up. Smoke aggravates her children’s asthma. She said she feels nervous stepping outside her apartment some nights.

“We have kids here and we have people smoking inside the elevators,” said Fathia Feerayarre, a Minneapolis school board member-elect who has become the de facto organizer of Five15 tenants. “It started in the pandemic. That’s when things got out of hand. The winter is even worse because they try to find a warm place that they can sleep, but they’re not just coming in and sleeping.”

Bianca Fine of Fine Associates developed the 259-unit Five15 on the Park in 2015 with Section 42 housing tax credits. Most of its tenants are working-class immigrants with children. Half of the units are income-restricted affordable housing.

The residents have called and emailed management about Five15’s intrusion problems, which they say have gotten worse over the past few months as homeless shelters filled up and a growing encampment became entrenched on the next block south. They’ve started a petition with 77 signatures to date requesting more frequent cleaning and 24/7 security.

“We no longer will tolerate fentanyl foils and alcohol containers sitting on the ground for days that can be picked up by children,” the petition states. “We no longer want to come home to the smells of drugs in our hallways.”

The property manager, Brook Martin, acknowledges the problems. “Our stairwells have turned into public restrooms,” he said. “We have a ton of trash. We have a ton of human waste. Some of that has been a problem over the years, but it’s definitely been a strong uptick in the past few months.”

Martin said he is spending $1,900 twice a month on extra cleaning. He met with a security contractor last week to install more cameras.

“I have a daytime security guy who’s working. We’re taking steps in the right direction. I’m just not sure we’re making up any ground,” Martin said. “Every night there’s something new.”

Landlord Fine, whose other buildings are luxury apartments in more affluent neighborhoods, said she intended to provide Cedar-Riverside with affordable housing with the same standards as market-rate properties.

“I tried hard to provide … a very nice place to live, a safe place. What I did not figure into my equation was this fentanyl explosion,” she said. “We’re in the middle of this terrible, terrible epidemic and young people are the victims of it.”

She urged the building’s residents to help keep people out who don’t live there.

Tenants said they recognize that Five15’s challenges stem from forces beyond the building’s control, but that management could do more. They said cars parked in the building garage shouldn’t be broken into as often as they are, and that maintenance requests need to be dealt with faster.

Saida Othman, a mother of four, has nine bullet holes in the walls of her apartment from a shooting that took place in a next-door apartment in April. They still haven’t been patched. Neither have the holes in the walls and ceiling of common areas.

Fine said she would look into those issues and promised to respond to the residents’ petition soon. But she said she was uncomfortable meeting with them as they requested until spring because of COVID-19.

Feerayarre said the residents would have met with Fine virtually if she preferred, and was disappointed in the landlord’s lack of response to their emails.

Five15’s problems aren’t unique, said Sixth Ward City Council Member Jamal Osman. Nearby Riverside Plaza had an encampment of approximately 30 tents inside its parking ramp at one point. Other local property managers are anxiously hoping that the city, county, and state will find a way to help encampment occupants move off the snowy streets.

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Susan Du

Susan Du covers the city of Minneapolis for the Star Tribune.