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Minneapolis’ newest council member on homelessness, renters’ rights and why he wants to reform — not dismantle — the police

A Q&A with Jamal Osman, who won the Aug. 11 special election for the Minneapolis City Council seat representing Ward 6. 

Jamal Osman
Jamal Osman: "The problem is not the [homeless] camps. The problem is a lack of services. People here have a housing crisis. On top of that there’s the mental health issue, the opioid issue."
Jamal Osman for Ward Six

Outlasting a field of 11 candidates, Jamal Osman won the August 11 special election for the Ward 6 seat on the Minneapolis City Council. He replaces Abdi Warsame, who resigned in March to become executive director of the Minneapolis Public Housing Authority. 

That move left residents of Ward 6 — which includes the Seward, Cedar-Riverside, Philips West, Elliot Park, Stevens Square, and Ventura Village neighborhoods — without council representation for months, at a time when the city was dealing with several issues directly affecting ward residents: a lack of affordable housing and growing homelessness; the unrest and damage to Ward 6 businesses following the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers; the future of the policing in the city. 

Osman, who will be sworn in to council on Aug. 28, came to Minnesota as a refugee from Somalia when he was 15. He graduated top of his class from the now-closed Arlington High School in St. Paul, and then got a sociology degree from Metropolitan State University. He now works as an advocate for renters facing eviction for a nonprofit housing group, CommonBond Communities, and does work training organizations like the Boys and Girls Clubs on how to recognize the first signs of mental health distress. Osman, 36, is married and has five children. 

Osman says his priorities as a council member will be adding more affordable and public housing, investing in services that help Ward 6 residents struggling with opioid addiction and mental health issues, and reforming — but not dismantling — the Minneapolis Police Department.

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The council member-elect recently reflects on his election win and elaborates on what he wants to do on council. This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

MinnPost: A big topic during the race was homelessness. During the campaign, you said you would expand public housing. How would you do that?

Jamal Osman: There’s not an easy answer. If you are making minimum wage, you can’t afford a one bedroom apartment. It’s very difficult to rent here in Ward 6. I believe 90 percent of residents are renters. Everybody is competing to get to affordable housing or something close to it. I would definitely advocate for more affordable and public housing. We have plenty of space for investors to come and build new housing, or even the city. We need housing as soon as possible. You can see the trends. The homeless and other residents are unable to find any affordable housing, or public housing, for that matter.

MP: You also mentioned during your campaign that you’d improve the relationship between the ward’s landlords and tenants, especially immigrant tenants. How would you improve that relationship?

JO: We need to protect renters against properties that have poor managers. Companies need to start respecting renters. A lot of youth here, you can see, are homeless. When I dig around and ask them why they are homeless, they say that their landlord kicked them out for minor things. With my work as a resident advocate, I try to create an environment where the landlords and tenants have a good relationship. 

Let’s say a landlord says there is nothing they can do to help a tenant, and that the renter needs to leave. I believe in mutual termination of the lease over eviction. Both parties agree to termination so that the resident can move on and rent another place, and doesn’t have to have bad credit or a bad rental history. Landlords here evict people over minor things, like yelling. Over very small, minor things, they kick people out. I keep telling people they don’t have to leave. You can go to the courts. The only way a lease can be broken is through the courts. A lease is a contract. When I see a family of four, immigrants who are dealing with eviction, I say “take the landlord to court.” And I give them information on resources to help in court. 

MP: What would you do if another homeless camp, like the one at Powderhorn Park, comes back?

JO: The camps could come back. They could be here in Ward 6 or in Powderhorn Park. But the problem is not the camps. The problem is a lack of services. People here have a housing crisis. On top of that there’s the mental health issue, the opioid issue. We should not be focusing on the camps. We should be focused on the service part of it. 

People don’t just become homeless. They become homeless because of a lack of opportunity, and mental health issues. There are different barriers that make people homeless. On top of that there is not enough affordable housing, not enough public housing here. The city should address this as an overall crisis. And the state has some responsibility to provide resources. 

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MP: On to the other major topic of the Ward 6 race; policing. What do you make of the city cutting money from the police budget and hiring civilian violence interpreters for mediating conflict?

JO: For too long the Minneapolis Police Department has been an organization that lacks community oversight and direction. They have been too powerful. The resource and funding they get — we should definitely look at it. And maybe we should take those resources and spend it in community, however that looks. 

MP: What does community-driven policing mean to you?

JO: I am not too familiar with the language of the charter amendment proposal about the Minneapolis Police Department. I need time to take a look at it. To be clear; I do not support dismantling the police. I want the police to be part of our community. I think, right now, we need community safety to be the main thing. There are a lot of crimes here in the community right now, and we need police more than ever. We need to make sure they are community driven police working for the community. 

MP: How do you get a police force that works for the community?

JO: The police should be from Minneapolis. A lot of police don’t live here. I think we need to provide the resources and opportunity for people in Minneapolis, for young men and women of color to get those resources for them to be police, for them to represent their community. The police should reflect the culture and diversity in Minneapolis.

I never want to see an incident like what happened to George Floyd happen again. Police culture, everything has to change. We need to reimagine police. As a future council member, I want to make sure that the people in my ward all feel safe and united with the greater Minneapolis community.  

MP: If Minneapolis police, or other public safety personnel, kill or injure someone else, how would you address the community? 

JO: I believe police work should be public to everyone. Police serve residents. They don’t need to be hiding things with control over it. Police information should be public. I will continue fighting for that. That’s why creating a community driven committee that can oversee what police do and their conduct will have a great importance. That kind of committee would see day-to-day police work. If something happens, I will make video immediately available. 

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If we see an individual from police, and see that occur on video, see them kill someone, they should be arrested right away like every other individual. Police shouldn’t have higher power than everyone else. 

MP: Ward 6 was hit really hard by COVID-19, both in the number of those who contracted the virus and the number of businesses that have suffered from shutdowns. If that trend continues as you take office, what should the city do to help?

JO: A lot of people have lost their jobs. A lot of hard working people live here in Ward 6. Many lost their jobs. People are struggling. A lot of businesses closed due to COVID-19. And, during the unrest in Minneapolis, a lot of businesses burned. As soon as I get to office, I want to address the damage of COVID and the unrest. I want to make sure we are going to help those individuals get back to normal, and have their jobs back and businesses reopen. We need to assign a committee to look at the effects of COVID-19. We need to make sure small businesses are coming back. They are the part of the community that holds our community together. I will do anything I can to support them to get back to normal. 

MP: How will you remain engaged with your constituency?

JO: I will have office hours where residents can talk to me. I will go to every neighborhood association, every community meeting, and make sure that I am part of that. We have huge diversity in our community. It’s not just Somali, not just East African. Ward 6 has all kinds of residents. What the community needs is unity. 

MP: I know you played soccer growing up. What position did you play?

JO: I played right-wing midfield, assisting goals and scoring goals. I played a lot of good soccer players who made it professionally. Right now, at 36, I can’t play like I used to. I sometimes play on Sundays, pickup games. I also play with my kids.