Advocacy into Action: An Interview with NYC Housing Authority Chair Shola Olatoye

Interview by Michelle Denise Jackson

When we discuss the issues that Black women and girls face today, it’s hard to know where to begin. In the past year, there has been national discourse around police brutality and state-sanctioned violence executed against Black men, women, and children. We’re familiar with names like Aiyana Stanley-Jones, Tanesha Anderson, and Rekia Boyd. There have also been ongoing conversations around gender-based and sexual violence, with high profile cases like Janay Rice’s on-camera beating at the hands of her then fiancé, Ray Rice. Or the ongoing investigation of Oklahoma City police officer Daniel Holtzclaw, who raped and sexually assaulted dozens of women while on duty.

However, these are not the only systematic oppressions Black girls and women struggle with. Black women are also disproportionately economically disenfranchised, affecting their access to health care, education, job opportunities, and housing. So often, discussions around black women’s economic mobility and agency are ignored. Indeed, with so many things threatening our ability to succeed and thrive, it can be difficult to have engaged conversations on all of these topics.

And yet still, we must. Housing accessibility is of particular importance. Throughout history, it has been difficult for African-Americans to secure safe and affordable housing. Many Black families were barred from owning land in the South during the Reconstruction era that followed slavery, resulting in the predatory practice of sharecropping. This led many Black families to flee North and to the West, to urban centers like Los Angeles, Chicago, Detroit, and New York. However, even in these new cities, African-Americans were either unable to secure loans to purchase homes during the early 1900’s or faced unfair mortgage and loan interest rates. Many Black families still struggle with discriminatory housing practices today. Writer and cultural critic Ta-Nehisi Coates documented much of this history in his critically acclaimed essay for The Atlantic, “The Case for Reparations.” And even for those of us who have been able to secure affordable housing, gentrification has become a major threat to many urban communities of color across the country.

With such a high number of Black women being the providers and heads of their households, accessibility to safe, secure, and affordable housing is of critical importance.

There are many African-Americans—especially African-American women—working to ensure that all Black families have safe, affordable housing. Shola Olatoye is one of these women. She is the current Chair and Chief Executive Officer of the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA), appointed by New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio in early 2014. Prior to leading NYCHA, she was Vice President of Enterprise Community Partners, a non-profit organization that helped build 44,000 affordable homes for New Yorkers. She also led Enterprise’s Sandy Recovery & Rebuilding Program, which served more than 11,000 New York City residents after 2012’s Hurricane Sandy.

We asked Chair Shola Olatoye questions about her work, her advocacy, and NYCHA’s plans for the future of securing housing for New York City’s families. Read below.

Shola Olatoye with NYCHA residents in the Bronx
For Harriet: What is your background? Are you a New York City native?

Shola Olatoye: I was born and raised in Waterbury, CT, a small post-industrial, blue collar town. My mom is a Brooklyn native, and still lives in CT, and my father was a Nigerian immigrant. They met and married in New York during the early 70’s and moved to Connecticut.

FH: When did you first become interested in public housing work and advocacy?

SO: My grandmother lived in public housing throughout my childhood, so this work is deeply personal and meaningful for me. My interest in how communities change led me to Enterprise Community Partners, where I was part of the team that developed thousands of affordable homes for New Yorkers. Having worked in real estate finance, banking, the non-profit world, and now as the head of a government agency, I understand how all these spheres intersect. I am committed to strengthening New York City’s public housing with more money, improved management, and new partners.

FH: Prior to being appointed NYCHA Chair, was it something you had planned or aspired to do?

SO: I always wanted to work in public service. I feel privileged to serve in this capacity given the sheer scale and impact of what we’re trying to accomplish at NYCHA.

FH: What are some of the current challenges and issues that public housing residents in New York face?

SO: Our buildings are old and have not been properly invested in for more than 40 years. Our residents are living with that reality every day. Addressing repairs while we develop a sustainable financial organization are top priorities. In addition, our residents have called for job assistance and additional pathways to economic stability.

Chair Olatoye meeting with a NYCHA resident
FH: What importance does the New York City Housing Authority serve? What are some of its main roles and functions?

SO: NYCHA is the nation’s largest public housing authority. In 1934, New York City Mayor Fiorello H. LaGuardia established NYCHA as the first public housing authority in the country. New York’s public housing replaced tenements and gave birth to government-managed, affordable, and secure housing for low- and moderate-income New Yorkers—changing the face of housing in urban areas. Today, we are embarking on the next stage of that ambitious vision.

Our foremost role is providing affordable housing to low-income New Yorkers. If NYCHA property were its own city, we’d be larger than Boston! NYCHA has been a pathway to opportunity for generations of working-class New Yorkers. Today, it houses more than half of the city’s very low-income families. With more than 11,000 employees, NYCHA is both an employer and an economic engine that strengthens our city’s financial and ethnic diversity. Additionally, we contribute more than $11 billion to the New York City economy each year.

FH: Beyond housing, what other programs does NYCHA offer to enrich the lives of your residents? And what plans does it currently have in the works?

SO: We recently launched our 10 year strategic plan, NextGeneration NYCHA, to make public housing cleaner, more connected, and safer. Today, NYCHA has significant financial and operational challenges. Due to 30 years of disinvestment, we now face more than $17 billion of capital need. This means that many of our buildings are in terrible condition, and more importantly, our residents are suffering the effects of significant infrastructure issues—such as cracked ceilings, leaks, etc. However, these challenges galvanize us. No other city or mayor has made the kind of commitments to public housing that have been made here in the past 15 months. Through utilizing unique federal subsidy programs, developing new public-private partnerships, and streamlining maintenance and repair, we’re working to make public housing better.

I’m also very passionate about moving our residents towards great economic mobility through career training and financial literacy programming. NYCHA has wonderful resident training programs through our Office of Resident Economic Empowerment & Sustainability (REES), such as the Food Business Pathways Program and Grace Institute.

Finally, this summer, we launched NYCHA Recycles in 10 of our 328 developments with plans to hit every single one by the end of next year. One of our focuses is creating cleaner developments and safer workplaces through implementing a more sustainable waste management approach. I am really excited to launch a new non-profit organization that will help us raise philanthropic dollars to support the service needs of our residents. We want to raise $200 million within our first three years! I always say, “Go big or go home.”

(You can find out more about NYCHA’s resources and programs for residents here.)

FH: How do NYCHA’s plans and programs affect Black girls and women?

SO: More than half of NYCHA households are led by women. Within that, 48% are led by African-American women. NYCHA employs many of its own residents, and almost a quarter of our employees are African-American women. Today, 26.5% of Black women live in poverty. One of the primary reasons for this is poor housing options. Providing families with a safe, clean, and affordable home is the foundation for stability and upward mobility. We’re also steadily expanding job training. Resident programs like Grace Institute were developed for women to help them build on business skills; strengthen their skills in computer literacy, business writing, and communication; and connect them with employment partners.

NYCHA Chair Shola Olatoye meeting with residents in Sheepshead Bay
FH: What would a "perfect" New York City look like for you, in relationship to the work you do as a housing advocate?

SO: I want the residents of public housing to have what we all want for our families and our neighbors: freedom to travel throughout their buildings without the threat of violence; affordable housing that is clean and free from mold; and access to the vast resources of New York City that should not be only be accessible to those of means. Preservation and affordability are at the heart of the administration’s goal to create 200,000 affordable units and at the forefront of our vision.

Find out more about New York City Housing Authority’s plan here. And find out more about Chair Shola Olatoye and her work here.

Photo: Jake Naughton / New York Times

Michelle Denise Jackson is a writer, storyteller, and performer living in Southern California. She is also Senior Editor at For Harriet. You can find more of her work on her website: You can also tweet her @MichelleJigga and reach her via email:

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