Countless people with disabilities have Michael J. Bjerkesett to thank for providing affordable, accessible housing options. Bjerkesett stepped down September 30 as the executive director of the National Handicap Housing Institute, Inc. He founded NHHI in 1975 for the express purpose of improving the independent lifestyles of persons with physical disabilities, specifically mobility impairments.
The nonprofit, which is considered one of the nation’s leading accessible housing developers, has created more than 2,000 specialized housing units over the years.
NHHI has also provided design related services, marketing, consultation and property management activities to other developers. NHHI has had a hand in developing barrier-free housing across the nation, including 20 Minnesota buildings. NHHI has conducted research on barrier-free housing design and developed architectural and product specification standards that are functional and affordable, for new and existing buildings.
After many years of leading NHHI, Bjerkesett is settling into retirement. “I really had mixed emotions about it,” he said. “This has been part of my life for so long. On the other hand, I knew it was time. The older I’ve gotten, the stressful parts of the job have become more so.” As a paraplegic, Bjerkesett said it takes more time to manage his health
“My immediate plans for retirement are to take a breath and do nothing for a while.” Adding that he planned to “do nothing until the first snowfall,” the affable Bjerkesett joked “That could happen any day now.”
Bjerkesett is praised by colleagues and coworkers as someone who is passionate about barrier-free housing and equal access. He is described as quiet, humble, hard-working and dedicated to finding housing access solutions. Bjerkesett is all about collaboration and working together.
His replacement at NHHI is Michael Semsch, who was director of property management for the nonprofit. Bjerkesett wishes his former colleagues well, but said it is best that he make a clean break with the organization. Not only did he step down as executive director, he and the old board of directors stepped down to make way for a new board.
“I feel strongly that my replacement should not have me looking over his shoulders,” Bjerkesett said.
Joanne Rademacher, chief financial officer at NHHI, has worked with him for 23 years. “What a wonderful person to work for,” she said. “There’s not anyone in our buildings who didn’t love Mike and all he has done.”
NHHI’s partner organizations will also miss Bjerkesett. “We’re really going to miss the ‘Bjerk’,” said Stephen Vander Schaaf, president and chief executive officer of Accessible Space, Inc. “He’s provided so much leadership, on the local and national level.” Vander Schaaf praised Bjerkesett for his willingness to be innovative and to not back away from development challenges.
“It’s important to me that what we came up with at NHHI was never ‘our’ idea,” said Bjerkesett. “We never have seen ourselves as the be-all and end-all for housing for people with mobility limitations. We saw ourselves as adding an element to the range of options in the community.”
Bjerkesett also said his approach to developing barrier-free housing is to always try to learn something new from every project NHHI was involved in. “We were proud to do a better product every time we started a new project,” he said.
He is pleased to see building features once considered groundbreaking become standard in housing construction, “Since the 1980s we’ve seen major improvements in building accessibility,” he said. “It’s really nice to see, over time, building standards become more and more accessible.”
“It wasn’t unusual, years ago, to see many buildings where you couldn’t even get into the door,” he added.
Born into an Irish-Norwegian family, Bjerkesett spent his early years in Worthington. His family moved to Fridley when he was in grade school. He was a star athlete at Fridley High School. He played baseball and hockey, and was all-Skyline Conference and on the Fridley Tigers football team.
Just after completing his sophomore year at Bemidji State University, Bjerkesett was headed home when the car he was riding in rolled. He went to North Memorial Medical Center for rehabilitation and then attended what was then Southwest Minnesota State College in Marshall. In a 2008 Access Press article, Bjerkesett said, “There were a lot of disabled [at Southwest] who had been in chairs a lot longer than me. They helped me a lot.”
After graduating with a degree in business administration and psychology, Bjerkesett went back to North Memorial as a rehabilitation program counselor. In 1973 Bjerkesett left North Memorial to form the United Handicapped Federation and serve as its first executive director. The federation was a consortium of 19 disability advocacy groups, educating the public on a number of issues. He began NHHI in 1975, to develop accessible affordable housing for low-income adults with physical disabilities.
In 2006 Bjerkesett was nominated for the National Spinal Cord Injury Association Hall of Fame Award.
While noting he has a stack of books waiting to be read in retirement, Bjerkesett won’t disappear from the housing design scene. He plans to set up a website on accessible housing design, to offer expertise for free. “I’ve spent so much time on these issues over the years, it’s important to share and pass on information to others.”