‘Fulfilling in Every Way’: Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey on His First Year in Office
Mayor Jacob Frey: "The homeless encampment has been challenging and arguably one of the most challenging things that I’ve dealt with as mayor." ( Photo by Jessica Lee/MinnPost)

‘Fulfilling in Every Way’: Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey on His First Year in Office

On a recent afternoon, Frey looked back at the highlights and challenges of his first year in the new gig, what he is prioritizing in 2019 — and what his life is now like outside City Hall.

It’s been 351 days since Jacob Frey moved into the mayor’s suite in Minneapolis City Hall, where he previously served on the City Council representing Ward 3.

On a recent afternoon, Frey sat down to look back at the highlights and challenges of his first year in the new gig; what he is prioritizing in 2019 — and what his life is now like outside City Hall. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

MinnPost: What do you think went well this year?

Jacob Frey: In terms of investments, we made affordable housing a priority and laid a strong claim that housing is a right, and that City Hall has a role to play in ensuring that that right is afforded to everyone. And that goes from an investment of $40 million [in the 2019 budget] — three times the previous record in our budget, which I’m thrilled it got passed — to the 4D program [which offers tax incentives to property owners who keep some of their rental units affordable] to more representation in Minneapolis.

I think about things like Stable Homes, Stable Schools [a new program to help homeless families in Minneapolis Public Schools]. The only way you get things done at City Hall is by building out broad-based partnerships.

MP: Housing policy was huge this year, and so much of the interest from the community was over the city’s long-range plan for development, Minneapolis 2040. What do you think that conversation said about the city?

JF: It said that regardless of what’s happening at the state and federal level that Minneapolis can be a beacon of hope and inclusivity and opportunity — an example for the rest of the country to follow.

It said that we’re going to push back on intentional segregation and red lining of the past and embrace a holistic vision for our entire city, where [everyone] holds a right to live in a great city.

MP: You’ve also faced a new look at homelessness — the Hiawatha encampment. What’s your take on the city’s efforts to get those people housed and build a temporary center for them?

JF: We wanted to approach this situation and those living at the encampment with compassion and with a recognition of the dignity of every single human being. And that’s not traditionally done in several large cities throughout the United States. Rather than simply bulldozing the encampment, we found … a mechanism to provide structure and organization that can ultimately lead to stable housing. We created a three-phased approach: the first being harm reduction [the city has provided hygiene and health services at the camp]; the second was, is presently, the transition to the navigation center [which aims to temporarily house residents in heated tents]; and then the third is, of course, stable housing. Those three phases are both run and led by our Native community.

Obviously, the homeless encampment has been challenging and arguably one of the most challenging things that I’ve dealt with as mayor. But I’m proud of the way that our community has come together.

MP: Many cities have opened similar centers for people living on streets with the goal of eventually closing the sites and turning the properties into affordable housing. But those navigation centers remain open because people keep back-filling the beds. What steps are in place to make sure the navigation center is temporary?

JF: We’ve already placed, I think, somewhere in the range of 90 individuals in stable housing from the encampment. The navigation center provides the organization and structure to place even more. And the additional benefit is that there are wraparound services, as well as cultural sensitivity incorporated into the center itself. The fact that other cities have had difficulty in, ultimately, providing that stable housing speaks to the need for the investments we’re making.

The mayor later added in a phone call: “The land on which the navigation center sits is owned by Red Lake Nation, and they have a preexisting deadline [May 2019], after which they plan to build culturally-sensitive affordable housing. There is a timeline.”

MP: Do you think next summer, when conditions are OK for people to live outside again, a homeless encampment will grow again?

JF: I can’t speak to what the future holds. I can only speak to the efforts that we are presently undergoing to improve the situation for those experiencing homelessness.

It’s not like the people living at the encampment are homeless for the first time — they’ve been homeless — it’s just that we’re forced to see it for the first time. And I think that seeing it is a good thing in that our city is forced to come to a reckoning with the reality of homelessness in our city, and we can collectively ask the question, are we going to sit on our hands or do something about it?

MP: What surprised you this year about the job?

JF: I anticipated much of the professional shift in my life. I did not anticipate some of the personal changes, and there is no doubt that life is different for my wife and I. And finding ways to navigate, not just life in City Hall, but life on the sidewalk or in our home, is a new experience.

MP: Are you still running for exercise?

JF: I am. I certainly would like to be running more.

There is a substantial shift between legislative and executive positions. As a council member, I was able to have extensive involvement in almost every facet of the ward. But having that personal involvement in every micro detail of the city is impossible. But I’ve learned to rely heavily on an extraordinary city staff.

MP: Working with multiple departments is a lot of the job. Are there any ways you’ve tried to make sure that happens smoothly?

One of the very first things that we did when I took office was ensuring that council members and department heads had key-card access to the mayoral area. That was both a symbolic gesture as well as a practical matter that enable collaborations. I want to be working incessantly with my colleagues. That’s the way you get things done at City Hall.

MP: Shifting to public safety, 911 response times have increased across the city; that’s something you brought up in your 2019 budget address. What’s being done to address that issue?

JF: There’s direct correlation between response times on 911 and the officers that we have available to answer the calls. I did put forward eight positions that were to be civilianized in the budget [which the City Council removed from the final spending plan]. I’m hopeful that there is a route to still improve efficiencies to make sure that we get there, notwithstanding the shift of some of those dollars.

MP: Activists packed City Council chambers and gave testimonies over that part of the budget, and the council eventually agreed to eliminate the idea to change police staffing. How do you look at that going forward, knowing the police department says its resources are stretched thin?

JF: It’s a $1.5 billion budget, and I’m thrilled to have gotten 99.5 percent of the budget I was looking for passed. The way the process works is the mayor recommends a budget; the council amends and adopts it. So, this is the process working. Unity doesn’t mean agreeing 100 percent of the time.

MP: There’s a lot of momentum right now for police reform. What are some of your ideas?

JF: We’ve done extensive work on it in the area of public safety, and it needs to continue.First, we have the right person leading the department. Chief Arradondo is an exceptional partner. There is arguably no more important relationship at City Hall than that between a mayor and a chief … and I’m so proud to partner with him towards reforming the culture of the department and increasing accountability.

There’s been a number of initiatives that we’ve moved forward. The first was our body-camera policy. …We’ve expanded on the Mental Health Co-Responder Program, which is functional and it works. Group Violence Intervention, or GVI, has also been an incredibly successful program.

MP: Just recently, police officers created what you called a “racist display” inside the police department’s precinct on the northside. It’s incidents like that that have given police a bad reputation. How do you make sure trust between the community and police improves?

JF: First, acknowledging the trauma and distrust that has amounted in communities over time is of utmost importance. But we’re at the point where we need to move beyond acknowledging it and have some clear action. And the work that chief Arradondo is doing towards that end is, indeed, transformational. People have a great deal of trust and belief in our chief, and I have a great deal of trust and belief in him.

MP: You were very active in releasing body-camera footage after an officer shot and killed Thurman Blevins in July. Are there any things you would do differently — or how would you reform the process — if or when another police shooting happens in 2019?

JF: Transparency is key to good governance. And when we pushed for a release of the body-camera footage as soon as it would not be detrimental to the investigation, I hope that it set the tone for how we handle these difficult situations. And that tone is, that we’re not hiding from the truth, whatever that truth may be.

MP: What are your priorities for next year?

JF: [Affordable housing] will remain a top priority in 2019, but there will be an additional focus on economic inclusion. That ranges from our work with [north Minneapolis’ Village Trust Financial Cooperative], which is a black-owned financial institution.

There’s the Upper Harbor Terminal [in north Minneapolis], which is our No. 1 capital priority over at the Legislature for bonding purposes. … North Minneapolis has been separated from some of their most vital assets — in this case, the riverfront — by a whole lot of heavy industrial (land) followed by the massive (Interstate 94) highway. And that separation has contributed, in part, to numerous systemic issues that we have a duty to push back on now.

Cultural corridors [areas the city has targeted with programs to curb displacement] are another big piece. Whether it’s West Broadway or East Lake Street, our entrepreneurs of color are primed to scale these really amazing ideas, and we have a role in facilitating, or at least working with, them towards success.

MP: What else do you have to add?

JF: I’ve been working exceedingly hard, but there’s no doubt in my mind that I love this job. I’m excited and invigorated to come into work every day. … I haven’t taken more than a few days off, including weekends. But it’s work that I love, and it’s fulfilling in every way to be able to work with the community, hand-in-hand. To see these tangible outcomes is an amazing feeling.

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MP: What does a typical day look like for you?

JF: Every day is different. Typically, the day generally starts between 7:30 and 8 a.m. and ends usually around 8:30 or 9 p.m. I like to divide the day into 30-minute increments with a 20- to 25-minute meeting followed by five minutes of staff direction, checking emails or using the restroom.

It’s fast-paced; it’s exciting, and it’s certainly a new sensation to go careening between events or meetings that have dramatically different emotional states. You could leave a funeral, wipe the tears away while you’re in the car and arrive at an event where you’re promoting the city and the upcoming Final Four with a big hoorah. Embracing that juxtaposition is difficult. … It definitely took some getting used to. Something that you’ll never get used to, though, is getting a call at 2 a.m. noting that somebody’s brother or sister, daughter or friend has just been shot and killed. That, I don’t think you’ll ever get calloused to that.