The following is a conversation between Rasmia Kirmani-Frye, President of the Fund for Public Housing in NYC, and Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving on AM 970 The Answer in New York City.
Denver: Who is the largest landlord in all of North America… with about the same number of residents as Atlanta or Miami? Well, it’s the New York City Housing Authority, a system of 175,000 apartments….And a nonprofit organization that has been established to help New Yorkers better appreciate public housing, find some money to bridge gaps, and to innovate is the Fund for Public Housing. It’s a pleasure to have with us their President, Rasmia Kirmani-Frye.
Good evening Rasmia, and welcome to The Business of Giving.
Rasmia: Good evening. I’m thrilled to be here. Thanks for having me.
Denver: Tell us about the Fund for Public Housing and how it came into being just a little over two years ago.
Rasmia: Sure. The concept of the Fund is not unique. There’s a fund for public schools, a fund for public health. In fact many systems have funds. Whether or not you’ve heard of them, they exist. The Fund for Public Housing came about as part of Next Generation NYCHA which is NYCHA’s 10-year strategic plan. There are 15 objectives of Next Generation NYCHA. The Fund for Public Housing is number 14 on page 172 of Next Generation NYCHA. What it is is an independent not-for-profit organization that really invests in the well-being of NYCHA residents in their surrounding communities by partnering with external folks to re-imagine and improve the way public housing works. I think it’s no secret that probably over the last 20 years, I think, public housing and NYCHA has been like the ugly seventh-grader at a school dance, hoping nobody would look at him or her. This city has generally complied. What we really want to do is get public housing and the value of it in front of New Yorkers and change that dynamic.
Denver: And when you say NYCHA, you’re referring to New York City Housing Authority. I touched on that a little bit about in the opening. But give us an idea of the breadth and scope of it.
Rasmia: It’s hard to tell New Yorkers that something is big because everything is big in New York, so if you say the New York City Housing Authority is big, people say, “My pizza’s big, too.” It’s not that compelling. But think about it this way. One in 14 New Yorkers lives in public housing in New York City. So, the next time you’re on the bus, the next time you’re trying to cross the street on the corner, just think about that.
As you said, it’s the largest landlord in North America; larger than Atlanta, Oakland, Miami, Boston when the kids go home in the summer from school, and it’s half a million people. Another way to show its breadth… public housing is in every corner of the city except for one council district, and the portfolio is more dynamic than people think. It certainly is the tower in the park but there are small-scale ones. There are brownstones. So, you probably walked past a public housing building or community today. People walk past it all the time and don’t realize it.
Denver: To say the least, the New York City Housing Authority has been under siege in the recent months. In fact, the governor has declared a state of emergency at NYCHA. For those listening who may not be up to speed on these developments, tell us what has been happening?
Rasmia: I think that the result of decades of disinvestments, this is not a crisis that just emerged. So, decades of disinvestments over the last 20 years, more than a billion dollars of disinvestment in public housing, has really led to poor conditions, aging buildings, and that has brought finally, I would say, the attention of all levels of government because there is much in our infrastructure system in New York City, certainly in public housing, that needs to be fixed. And it can’t be fixed without the investment. So, that’s what’s been going on.
Denver: There had been also some false filings with the federal government having to do with lead inspections, and I guess the Supreme Court Judge just ordered the other day that they want these inspections done in apartments with small children within the next 90 days, right?
Rasmia: I think no one would dispute that the safety of public housing residents is the most important thing. It’s the most important thing to NYCHA. It’s certainly the most important thing to me as a New Yorker, and whatever needs to happen to make sure that people are safe… that’s what needs to happen.
I think the question is not: how are we going to deflect the attention, but how are we going to leverage it? What are we going to do with it?
Denver: How has this had an impact? I know there’ve been some issues with no heat, no hot water, and we got Legal Aid involved. There are such a lot of things in the news lately, which I guess is a double-edged sword in some respects. How will that impact your fundraising? And do you think your messaging will change any, Rasmia, as a result?
Rasmia: I love that question. First of all, as I just said, this is a first time in at least my career in New York for the last 25 years where the federal, state and local government are all paying attention to public housing in this way. And this is the first mayor who has invested this kind of money in public housing, and we also have the media–good, bad, or otherwise. I say, and it may sound crazy, bring it on! Here we are with all of this attention.
So, I think the question is not: how are we going to deflect the attention, but how are we going to leverage it? What are we going to do with it? In fact, what might sound ironic is that it has not affected going out and fundraising. In fact, it contributes to the narrative that, Come on man! This is New York! This is 1 in 14 New Yorkers! These things are real! We have the attention. What are we going to do to change them? And it requires investment and doing business differently. Does it change the narrative? This narrative has been pretty consistent since the Fund started, and it just ramps it up. If you didn’t think that things were a crisis before, we know that they are now. So, don’t waste the crisis.
Denver: Don’t let a good crisis go to waste. That’s what they say.
Rasmia, New Yorkers have a fondness and appreciation for their public institutions. But perhaps not so much public housing. Even in light of some of these recent developments, what is the case you make for it?
Rasmia: The case I often make is exactly that. Listen, New Yorkers really love and feel connected to other public systems. Love may be a strong word to use for some of them right now. But people certainly recognize the value and feel connected to public transportation. We’ve got a lot to say about it right now because we rely on it so heavily. Public education, whether or not you have kids, whether or not you have kids in public school. People get that good public education is a good thing. Public art, public parks, public libraries. People do not value or feel connected to public housing in the same way. It’s an invisible-visible asset; it’s those people. But the top three employers of public housing residents are the NYPD, the Department of Education, and NYCHA itself. The top 9 out of 10 employers of public housing residents are all of the systems that I just mentioned. It’s your kid’s favorite teaching assistant, it’s the school safety officers, the person you see in the MTA station every day. I do not think it’s an exaggeration to say that those systems would begin to shut down if workers could not afford to live in New York City.
Denver: Yeah, they are the people who keep the city running. I think we’re seeing some of that problem in San Francisco right now, where the price of housing has gotten so expensive, the people who support the city just can’t afford to live there anymore.
Rasmia: I think that public housing has always been worker housing, and it still is. There are these myths, and public housing residents have been so mythologized, that the assumption is nobody’s paying rent, and everybody’s on welfare. In fact, it’s 13% of public housing residents that collect some kind of cash benefit. Just 13%, not 50%, not 80%. People are working.
Denver: Quite a few people who’ve gone on to achieve fame and prominence have come from public housing. Why don’t you name a couple for us?
Rasmia: Somebody who’ll make you laugh regularly is Whoopi Goldberg who grew up in Chelsea-Eliot Houses. Howard Schultz of Starbucks grew up in public housing. Lloyd Blankfein grew up in public housing. Goldman Sachs grew up in public housing. Of course, these are famous people– Jay Z, Nas. They are absolutely famous people. I think it’s also important to know one more: Ursula Burns, who is the first black Fortune 500 female CEO of XEROX.
Denver: Let me name a couple. Carmelo Anthony and Kareem Abdul Jabbar. I go right to the sports.
Rasmia: Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor. These are people who are brilliant in their fields. There are also people brilliant in fields that we haven’t heard of. There are regular people who have been successful who grew up in public housing– lawyers, teachers, doctors.
Making the connection is actually not that hard, especially when people come to find out it is not just about money and giving. It is about stories and those connections.
Denver: How do you go about finding these people… your alumni, if you will.
Rasmia: One of the things that the Fund for Public Housing is looking forward to launching in this next year, one of our priorities, is NYCHA Alumni Network. Some of it is, as you can imagine, Google your heart out; find people who lived in public housing because it’s not going to be like going through the rent records. Those are all paper… how do you do that? So a lot of it is getting out there and talking to people about the Fund for Public Housing.
One of the first alums that we connected with who is known in the New York development world, but isn’t known in the world world, is a wonderful man named Jeff Levin of Douglaston Development. Something unintentional happened, which is that he really wanted to go back and visit the development where he grew up. And so we did that. It’s special. That’s a real connection. Home is evocative for people– good, bad or otherwise. Finding alum is actually not that hard. Making the connection is actually not that hard, especially when people come to find out it is not just about money and giving. It is about stories and those connections. We have started doing video interviews with alum, all different kinds of alum, to tell those stories– their New York stories.
Denver: Also inspires some of the people; young people who are living there. Look what I’ve made of myself.
Let’s look at some of the things you’ve been able to achieve in the first year or two of existence. One of them is called the Ideas Marketplace. What is the concept here?
Rasmia: This is really exciting. It’s a partnership between the Fund for Public Housing, NYCHA’s Sustainability Department, and an organization called IOB which stands for In Our Backyard as opposed to NIMBY, and that organization’s executive director has just been named one of the Obama Foundation’s first Fellows. What that is is an online platform where community-based organizations, NYCHA residents, can go online and apply their idea for some physical transformation of their development that promotes sustainability. Think garden. Think water collection infrastructure, something.
And then the partnership with IOB, and IOB is a nonprofit crowdfunding platform, and it really is trying to bring equity to the crowdfunding world by thinking: listen, any community can raise money. It’s not just rich, wealthy communities… that there’s parity there. So, the application is put through. The crowdfunding begins. Once the organization or the group says we want to raise $2,000, once they reach that, the project begins. What helps threading the needle with NYCHA and getting through some of the bureaucracy to get this kind of creative, innovative work done on a development campus, that’s where the insider / outsider role of the Fund for Public Housing and the Office of Public-Private Partnerships at NYCHA can be really helpful. Because it was the Department of Sustainability who really came with the Fund for Public Housing, it’s bought in by NYCHA.
Denver: There are an awful lot of young people who live in public housing. In order to give them some voice, you have created youth councils across the city. What have they been up to?
Rasmia: The youth councils… again, this is a partnership with NYCHA, a program of the New York City Housing Authority. What the Fund for Public Housing has been able to do is get an investment from Capital One Bank. They’ve been wonderful, so that each youth council has its own pot of money that they can decide how that money is going to be spent. A youth council in the South Bronx that has been unbelievable has had an Earth Day greening event, but has also partnered with a documentary film company to interview people on their experience in public housing. They are getting ready to do an art gallery presentation of photographs they’ve taken.
Each council is different in their priorities, but it really is driven by what is important to the young people. This same group in the South Bronx has also engaged with the local police department to have really difficult conversations on the relationship between young people and the police. There are two big summits that happen in the year. One, at the end of the school year will be all the youth councils coming together to learn about what each other is doing. Last year, there was a woman named Lea Solo, who is a banker at Mizuho who grew up in public housing, a young woman, and she addressed the young people and gave this phenomenal talk, and you could have heard a pin drop. It’s also a way for young people to connect as we were talking about before with alum who have done things, who have gone from a young person in public housing, to banker, to whatever. So, I think it’s a way to really engage young people. And it’s awesome.
Denver: As you said, it’s their priority.
You also started the NYCHA Tech Pilots Competition where you announced the inaugural winners last October. What are some of the technologies that are going to help NYCHA?
Rasmia: I should say that a lot of this is language I had never heard before, and now I’m very comfortable saying things like the PropTech community – it’s property, real estate, technology. What I found is that industries are really really open to working with the housing authority. They want to. Technology community in New York is growing. Silicon Alley is a phrase we hear referred to as New York’s tech community that is growing by leaps and bounds. I was wonderfully introduced to two organizations. One is Grand Central Tech, which is a tech hub and the urban tech hub within Grand Central Tech. There are groups in tech companies that solve civic problems.
Another company called Metaprop NYC. They are real estate tech accelerators. They take tech companies and help them grow. The way that this came about is I talked with my fellow NYCHA executives and said, “Listen, what are some problems you’re trying to solve?” There was a long list, and then I said, “Let’s take off the things that are just about money.” Because I get it. But what are the ones that are really interesting? We don’t have the talent. We don’t know what products are available. We don’t know how we would fix these things. It took about a year to get to a place of alignment. But I could bring those to the tech industry… What do we do with this?
What Metaprop and Grand Central Tech said, Zach and Robinson at both: We know what to do. Let’s have a contest. And I said, “But I don’t have any prize money, and I don’t want it to be like a hackathon, like a… God love the 13-year-old kid in their basement with headgear solving tech problems… but it can’t be that.” They said, “We don’t need prize money.” The opportunity to help the largest residential landlord in North America innovate and then have NYCHA say, Thank you. That’s good business.” So, we held a pitch event. I thought maybe three companies would apply to be part of this tech pilot; 17 applied. We selected 10 to pitch to a room full of NYCHA folks, including my favorite moment was a plumber from NYCHA who when one company was pitching, yelled out, “What about the pipes?” And I think that’s it exactly; it’s not just, “Oh, look at this new shiny tech stuff, but: what about the pipes?
The resulting group, and we have three pilots that are now happening and three more in the wings that will come down the pipes. One is a company that has a device that looks like bunny ears, and it really detects moisture before it becomes mold. That’s something that’s incredibly valuable to NYCHA. Another company is about capturing energy and: can that become a business? Another company is a, and I’m happy to give you the names of them; the two I’ve talked about are BlocPower and Enertiv. Pansophic is another one. The one I’m just going to talk about now is hOM. That’s an app that can be activated for activities that residents want to do. If residents in a development want a yoga class and want to activate a laundry room or a space that has not been used, or they feel unsafe, they can use the app. A teacher will come and do the class. hOM has been used in other living situations that are not public housing, and we want to see if residents will use it and how then it can be adapted to public housing.
Denver: That’s great. As a matter of fact, Donnel Baird of BlocPower has been on the show.
Your organization was named last year by Fast Company Magazine as one of the 10 most innovative nonprofits, and I think you’ve been touching on as to the reasons why. How do you foster a culture of innovation at the Fund for Public Housing, Rasmia?
Rasmia: I think that you foster a culture; first of all, I have to give big credit and shout out to our board chair who is the chair of NYCHA, Shola Olatoye for creating the wherewithal within NYCHA to say, ”Let’s do some different things.” Our board is made up of people who believe in innovation, and in fact one of the first people, Scott Anderson, who’s in civic tech. He’s part of the team that created that link NYC. And I wanted a tech person, not because NYCHA’s so woefully behind in tech, but because tech people solve problems differently than bureaucrats. I think it’s an interesting combination of how you foster innovation in public housing or any big system. One, and this may sound weird, is a healthy dose of naiveté. I don’t know what can’t be done, and so let’s just do it.
Denver: Don’t know what you don’t know.
Rasmia: Be really respectful of people who are working hard in public housing; understand what they value, and then figure out how to make things easier. Another, how you foster innovation is: there are half a million residents who can say : Here are the things that are important to me. Listen. There’s a lot of listening in innovation.
Denver: Almost like crowdsourcing in some way. They know the answers. They know the problems.
Rasmia: Then we’ve been really, and it’s all also about relationships. This is a big bet and a risk. I think what government has a hard time doing is saying… You could imagine. It would be a disaster. Press conference where a government agency said, “Hey, we tried these 20 things; they all failed. But we’re thrilled that they failed because we learned stuff.” I think it would sometimes benefit the world if that could happen. But I can do that. The Fund for Public Housing can say, “Let’s try these things.”
Denver: You can do it more easily, I think, but sometimes nonprofits have the same problems that businesses don’t have. With businesses, it’s research and development. With us unfortunately, it’s about failure, and I agree with you it’s even more acute with government. If you take tax dollars and it doesn’t work, they don’t know what to do.
Rasmia: You’re absolutely right. I think it is growing the audience of New Yorkers, funders who believe in public housing, believe in its value, and believe that we’ve got to do business differently if we’re going to sustain this larger-than-Miami system in New York. There’ve been some incredible early adopters.
Denver: Speaking of other cities, you mentioned one before. You grew up outside of Boston. But by the age of 11, you decided you wanted to live in New York City someday. What about the city captured that young imagination?
Rasmia: What about New York was, even at that young age, I really felt like you could be as anonymous as you wanted to be in New York, but you could also be part of a community, and to hold both simultaneously. Even at 11, I felt like, “Oh my God, this is the place I want to be. Of course, the energy. Listen, I love Boston. Boston is very segregated. My dad’s side of the family is from India and Pakistan. My mom is white, from Michigan. They met in Michigan. I either always felt… not quite or not really… New York? It felt like you could be anything. There was something about that energy that felt like home.
Denver: The anonymous part is one of the reasons you like to run alone, I guess.
Rasmia: That is true.
Denver: Let me close with this, and it really has to do with: how does the Fund position itself? You are there to support NYCHA, but you are a privately funded 501(c)(3) organization, and you’ve been building this relationship with the tenants. With all that’s been going on, how do you believe the Fund for Public Housing can play the most constructive role?
Rasmia: I think the role of this kind of insider/outsider translator role is the most effective, where the Fund for Public Housing is building its credibility and has built credibility both with residents and with NYCHA and with the funding community. So, stepping up those levels of authenticity, and ramping it up at a time when all the attention that we’ve ever wanted or not wanted is on public housing; that’s the most effective role. So, how can we scale the things that are working? How can we now in Year three really get public housing residents to know more about the Fund for Public Housing and continue building our relationship? The most effective role is that insider/outsider role. It’s holding the credibility in multiple places with multiple relationships, all driving towards the same goal, which is to invest in public housing.
Denver: Well, Rasmia Kirmani-Frye, the President for the Fund for Public Housing, I want to thank you so much for being here, especially in the midst of these very challenging times. Tell us about your website and what visitors will find on it.
Rasmia: Sure. First of all, thank you so much for having me. The website is www.fundforpublichousing.org. What you will find on there is a link to the Ideas Marketplace that we just talked about; certainly a Donate button. But you will find information on press, our recent projects that we’re working on… like the youth councils, Resident Leadership Academy, the mission, values; all your typical stuff that you would want to know about an organization.
Denver: And then some. Thanks, Rasmia. It was a real pleasure to have you on the show.
Rasmia: My pleasure. Thank you.
Denver: I’ll be back with more of The Business of Giving right after this.
The Business of Giving can be heard every Sunday evening between 6:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. Eastern on AM 970 The Answer in New York and on iHeartRadio. You can follow us @bizofgive on Twitter, @bizofgive on Instagram and at http://www.facebook.com/BusinessOfGiving