Building a New Narrative

BY MARGARET DUNN

NY Public Housing Innovator Addresses Philly's Own Leading Women

Rasmia Kirmani-Frye, Director of the Office of Public/Private Partnerships at the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) likens the start of the Fund for Public Housing to someone passing along a to-do item on a scrap of paper. “It’s as if someone handed me a post-it note that said, ‘start a non-profit and raise money to help fill a $17 billion budget gap.’ ” While NYCHA recognized the need for innovation, Kirmani-Frye had to piece together the beginning of the independent non-profit that would fundraise for the biggest public housing authority in the country.

In a thought-provoking and energetic presentation to some thirty women gathered for the Philly Girls Do Good 2017 Welcome Party on December 1st, Kirmani-Frye detailed her process for building the Fund for Public Housing from the ground up. Straddling two worlds—as both NYCHA’s Director of Public/Private Partnerships and President of the Fund—puts Kirmani-Frye in a unique position to re-write New York’s public housing story.

NYCHA (pronounced as one word, “Nycha”) is the largest landlord in New York, with more than 600,000 residents – greater than the population of Miami or Atlanta. While NYCHA receives some funding from the City, and occasional state dollars (NY State just contributed to its budget for the first time in 16 years), the organization is 99% federally funded so Congress must ratify its budget each year. Currently, the organization has a $17 billion capital budget gap and annual operating deficits of tens of millions.

This is the dominant narrative—a laundry list of federal funding problems and deferred capital needs enmeshed in a bureaucratic tangle of constraints.

Kirmani-Frye is building a new narrative

It starts like this: New Yorkers value publicly funded services—take public parks, public libraries, public art, public schools, even public transportation. But public housing? It doesn’t have the same positive ring.

And yet, says Kirmani-Frye, consider this:

Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor grew up in NYCHA housing. So did Howard Schultz, soon-to-retire Executive Director of Starbucks; Lloyd C. Blankfein, the chairman of Goldman Sachs; and rap artist Jay Z. And this recognizable list doesn’t include all of the past and present NYCHA residents that keep New York running every day. Nine of the top ten NYCHA employers are public agencies. Every New Yorker has a connection to public housing Kirmani-Frye says – even if they don’t think of it. Public housing residents provide tickets at the MTA, work as cops for the NYPD, or help children learn as teaching assistants in public schools. This is the value proposition of NYCHA.

The Fund for Public Housing, which aims to raise $200 million by 2019, hopes to address problems NYCHA doesn’t have the flexibility or skill capacity to solve. Kirmani-Frye asked Luis Ponce, the Senior Vice President for Operations and Support, to list NYCHA’s needs. Then she asked him to cross out all those that NYCHA knows how to solve but need more funding, like a broken elevator. Those stubborn challenges remaining on the list are the ones that the Fund for Public Housing will tackle—Kirmani Frye considers it the “innovation escape hatch” for NYCHA.

Creating a culture of innovation at the Fund started with building a board. After telling her husband she needed two nights a week to “date other people", Kirmani-Frye met potential candidates one-on-one to piece together the right group. Her requirements were straightforward:

1.     Check your ego at the door.

2.     Pick up the phone when she calls.

3.     Be okay with hugging (she likes hugs).

4.     Devote 5-10 hours each month of your time to the board.

5.     Unabashedly promote public housing.

Enough dates ended successfully for Kirmani-Frye to build a well-rounded board, including two current NYCHA residents. Now the group is focused on finding NYCHA alumni, connecting them back to public housing, and asking them to provide financial support. So far the Fund has raised over $900,000 and Michael Slaby, who masterminded the tech solution behind the crowdfunding for the Obama and Clinton presidential campaigns, has recently offered his company, Timshel, to help identify NYCHA alums.

Non-profit foundations for other city services like parks and libraries are more common, but the Fund for Public Housing has raised some eyebrows. Does raising private money for public housing take away the onus on government to provide housing authorities across the country with consistent and adequate funding? Kirmani-Frye agrees NYCHA should be properly funded by the government but doesn’t see any silver bullets coming soon. With a $17 billion budget gap—even under a favorable federal administration—it’s time to do business differently. (NYC Council member, Richie Torres recently spoke with NPR about the $17B gap in light of last week’s HUD cabinet appointment. Here’s a link to the report.)  

Kirmani-Frye’s 20-plus years of experience in community development in Brownsville, Brooklyn have given her a deep knowledge of affordable housing challenges in New York and an appreciation for innovation. She knows a lot, but not too much. As Natalie Nixon, PGDG ’17 tweeted after the event, “Naïveté is her superpower.” The key, Kirmani-Frye says, is to be naive enough to stay optimistic without being fantastical—to tell a truthful narrative about the challenges but not be paralyzed by fear. 

The early strategy of the Fund for Public Housing will focus on three areas: People, Place, and Work. Already the Fund has started a resident leadership academy with CUNY and kicked off the creation of youth councils within NYCHA. These councils will prove a voice for the 33% of NYCHA residents under the age of 21. Leaning on the tech side of her board to bring new approaches to old challenges, the Fund will invest in “place” by solving difficult operational issues. Lastly, Kirmani-Frye will borrow from her own experience at the Brownsville Partnership, to help start programs that develop the entrepreneurial skills of NYCHA residents to help people find work.

Ultimately, Kirmani-Frye evaluates her success with a simple question, “Am I being kind?” It’s the question she discusses with her five year old son and it is a question that informs her work every day. As President of the Fund for Public Housing, that kindness can go a long way towards improving the lives of over 600,000 New Yorkers.