May 11, 2020

Nelima Sitati Munene is shifting the housing narrative

Nelima Sitati Munene was a college student living in Brooklyn Park when she received a knock on her apartment door from a community organizer who wanted to know how she felt about a proposal to demolish an apartment complex in her neighborhood. It was the first time Nelima had heard of the proposal – and when she learned of a narrative that she says blamed renters for instability in their community. 

“A decision was made about my neighbors and where I lived without talking to me,” she says. That’s when she realized local decision-making needed to be centered around people and informed by the community.

Now, as the Executive Director of African Career, Education, and Resource (ACER) in the northwest suburbs, Nelima works in community and civic engagement to advance equity in areas of entrepreneurship, transportation, health, education, and housing. As the COVID-19 pandemic deepens housing insecurity issues in the Twin Cities and throughout the state, she is leading ACER’s advocacy for much-needed rental assistance.

Nelima says housing is her passion because “at the heart of housing is intersectionality. Housing is the starting point for all else. Where you live determines where you work, where your children go to school, everything.”

Through ACER, Nelima is fostering relationships between community members and local government. “We need to bring forward the voice of the most impacted to define the issue first,” she says. “Then we need to ensure community members participate in co-creating solutions to the issues by helping the community build agency and by ensuring they have the right tools to participate.”

ACER has worked with City Councils in Brooklyn Center, Brooklyn Park, Crystal, New Hope, and Robbinsdale to advocate for tenant protections and other policies that advance equity. And, as the government body on the ground, closest to the community, she believes City Councils have a unique role to play in housing solutions. For instance, after hearing from ACER, the City of Brooklyn Park City Council set aside $5 million for the preservation of naturally occurring affordable housing (NOAH).

Nelima is particularly proud of the role ACER recently played in the preservation of Brooklyn Park’s Huntington Place, an apartment complex of 834 units of NOAH. A property with significant habitability issues – and just a half mile down the road from the apartment complex whose demolition originally sparked Nelima’s interest in housing years ago – Huntington Place was put up for sale after its owner was pushed to make quality improvements.

Through deep community engagement, ACER learned that the residents of Huntington Place wanted to stay in their apartments but wanted housing conditions and safety to improve. After organizing and advocacy from a coalition of preservation-minded advocates, Aeon bought the apartments with the help of a $5 million loan from the City of Brooklyn Park – the same funds ACER convinced the City to put aside for NOAH preservation years ago. Now, Aeon, a nonprofit housing manager, is committed to slowly renovating the building without displacing tenants.

For Nelima, this is a huge win for housing solutions that prioritize community voices. “We fail when we talk about housing from only an infrastructure perspective. It needs to be people-centered,” she says. “We need to change the narrative of housing from a commodity to a human right.”

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