New Yorkers, the Community Service Society included, had high expectations for departing New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) Chair Shola Olatoye when she joined the administration four years ago. We looked to her to lead the authority out of a management morass that had been decades in the making, and to be sensitive to residents’ needs in the process.
As Chair she showed guts and initiative when she fought the unions for a demonstration project to provide on-site management shifts beyond 8am to 4pm weekdays. And she mounted another effort to decentralize operations, so on-site managers could make necessary purchases without going through the borough bureaucracy. Perhaps her most significant achievement was the 10-year NYCHA NextGeneration Plan, which steered a strategic course for the authority to begin to generate the capital it sorely needs.
But NYHCA is a hard ship to turn around. This was particularly true for someone whose expertise was in development rather than in large-scale housing management. Chair Olatoye’s future with the authority was put in serious jeopardy last year after disclosures that NYCHA had not complied with federal requirements for lead-paint inspections and a large wave of boiler outages during the harsh winter. These and other problems – and virulent criticism – mounted. In the end it proved too much: Chair Olatoye announced yesterday that she would leave NYCHA at the end of the month.
When Chair Olatoye departs, and the largest public housing system in the nation is turned over to new leadership, we can expect more uncertainty at a time when NYCHA is at a very vulnerable, critical point in its history. New leadership will face crucial challenges, both from the inside and outside. NYCHA’s internal problems go beyond its capital backlog of over $20 billion. Reform is badly needed in its bread-and-butter housing management operations—there is no excuse for not keeping boilers running in the winter or conducting required lead-paint inspections to protect children.
On the outside, NYCHA is being attacked from many directions. In Trump’s last two budget proposals, the administration virtually abandoned public housing, slashing its operating subsidies and terminating critically-needed capital support. NYCHA facilities constitute a sixth of the nation’s 1.1 million public housing units. What happens to NYCHA affects the nation: as it goes, so goes the 80-year-old federal housing program, the first to serve low-income Americans. Continued attacks from Governor Cuomo, from HUD Secretary Carson, and from other quarters, declaring NYCHA incompetent or venal, will only further stigmatize the program, be used to justify starving it of funds, and delay vital improvements to an aging housing stock. They also play into the hands of those who would like to see our public housing assets transferred to private interests or demolished and redeveloped as they were in Chicago and Atlanta.
How to reform NYCHA and preserve this city’s public housing without destroying the institution and putting its half-million struggling residents in further harm’s way are the key questions. These issues are too important for internal gamesmanship, and must instead be addressed by city and state actors in a demonstration of political will and collaboration. They must not be dumped on the new chair with unreasonable expectations that this person can sort out the mess alone.