The Shola must go on

New York City Housing Authority Chairwoman Shola Olatoye
New York City Housing Authority Chairwoman Shola Olatoye
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New York City Housing Authority Chairwoman Shola Olatoye

The Shola must go on

Why de Blasio is standing by embattled NYCHA chief Shola Olatoye.
February 5, 2018

In one of the odder mysteries to emanate from New York City Hall since archeologists found an early 19th century feminine hygiene product during a renovation, Mayor Bill de Blasio continues to defend his embattled New York City Housing Authority Chairwoman Shola Olatoye amid calls for her resignation.

“I’m very comfortable – when I believe someone is the right person for a job I’m comfortable standing by them. When I think someone needs to move on, I’m comfortable being the person who makes that decision and tells them that,” he told an incredulous Errol Louis last week on “Inside City Hall.”

At first glance, de Blasio’s commitment to his NYCHA chief is slightly baffling. The agency has become a headache for his administration. Wouldn’t cleaning house show he is serious about fixing it?

But, upon closer inspection, firing Olatoye might have some unintended political consequences for de Blasio and keeping her could be the safer course.

Olatoye, who has run NYCHA for four years, has been under pressure since the city Department of Investigation found in November that employees failed to conduct lead safety inspections in public housing units since 2013 but told the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development they had done them anyway.

At a City Council hearing in December, Olatoye told council members that her inspectors had the federal certification to examine units for lead paint.

Those remarks were inaccurate. In a blistering letter sent to City Council Oversight Committee Chairman Ritchie Torres, city Department of Investigation Commissioner Mark Peters revealed that 85 percent of NYCHA employees did not have the requisite training and none who had the proper certification actually conducted the inspections.

The agency’s General Manager Michael Kelly resigned in response. New York City Public Advocate Letitia James joined several council members demanding Olatoye’s ouster and criticized de Blasio for saying he continues to “have great faith” in Olatoye’s leadership.

Olatoye has also been in hot water for not providing heat to tenants during a January blizzard and after a ceiling cave-in that injured two Brooklyn residents. New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer promised to audit NYCHA’s heating system and blamed the crisis on a “management breakdown and a financial failure.” The mayor announced he will throw $200 million at replacing NYCHA’s boilers and Olatoye would stay in charge. De Blasio is now on the defensive over how long it will take for the new boilers to be installed. The only good news for the administration is that Olatoye may miss a grilling by the council on Tuesday because of jury duty.

To some extent, de Blasio simply argues that NYCHA’s problems are systemic and would have been even worse without Olatoye in place. “Shola has for four years improved life for people in public housing,” de Blasio insisted on NY1. “I am convinced she has made real change and will continue to.”

Still, Olatoye’s detractors are puzzled the mayor has not made a change atop the authority. “It is inexplicable to most reasonable observers,” Torres told City & State. “She submitted false testimony to the City Council on two occasions. I have no confidence in her leadership. It does not sound complicated to me.”

In an emailed statement to City & State, City Hall spokeswoman Olivia Lapeyrolerie called Olatoye the “right person” to run the agency. “After decades of mismanagement, the chair has stabilized NYCHA’s finances, driven down crime and increased critical repairs across all developments,” she added.

De Blasio’s treatment of Olatoye is also arguably an outlier in his administration, as he has cut off other commissioners for mismanagement. He dismissed former Department of Homeless Services Commissioner Gilbert Taylor as homelessness swelled, ran out former Deputy Mayor Lilliam Barrios-Paoli over the same crisis and demoted former Department of Citywide Administrative Services Commissioner Stacey Cumberbatch for assisting the sale of nursing home that would become a condo.

But in this instance, de Blasio is keeping Olatoye because they don’t think the lead paint scandal is her fault, she has been successful in other areas of her job and it would hurt him politically if he fired her, several sources said. The city’s first couple also sees Olatoye as a trusted ally: She has been a loyal friend of both the mayor and first lady Chirlane McCray for the past four years.

In fact, the mayor so prizes loyalty that the New York Post reported, he wanted to fire Peters, his former campaign treasurer, for exposing the NYCHA’s managerial failures.

“They weren’t going ballistic at Shola they were going ballistic at Peters. The mayor didn’t get a heads-up on the NYCHA report and they think Peters wanted to score political points,” said one source who speaks with City Hall aides and who requested anonymity because he does business with the city. “They expected some amount of loyalty from DOI and they have zero.”

City Hall leaders believe NYCHA has made a lot of progress under her watch in the face of decades of neglect and they do not believe the recent snafus involving lead paint inspections are her fault. And she remains well-liked internally at NYCHA, which would be “devastated” if Olatoye departed now, according to a New York government insider. If some of the 13,000 NYCHA employees really disliked Olatoye, there would be far more leaks of negative stories other than perpetually faulty boilers and ceiling cave-ins.

She has also been able to withstand the heat – and take some attention away from the mayor, which he surely appreciates. Once de Blasio fires Olatoye and replaces her, NYCHA’s future failures become not hers but his administration’s more broadly. And de Blasio has plenty of other political difficulties, including homelessness, the Rivington House sale and a federal bribery investigation into his campaign fundraising practices that he still has trouble shaking off.

Removing Olatoye may carry other political risks too: She is one of the few African-American women to head NYCHA and one of the highest-ranking black leaders in City Hall.

“Shola represents a core of his political base and you don’t want to strike at the heart of his political base with something that is offensive to them,” said National Action Network Northeast Regional Director Kirsten Foy. “It is not just a personnel decision, it is a historical and legacy decision. That’s another safeguard against an irrational emotional decision.”

Olatoye’s subordinates who provided false reports deserved their punishment while she deserves a second chance, Foy said.

But if more crises bubble up, both Olatoye and the mayor could be in real trouble.

“A lot of advocates really do like her. She’s trying to do the right thing over there. But even though we like her, we’re not coming out to defend her,” said Jonathan Westin, executive director of New York Communities for Change, an economic justice advocacy organization. “It looks and feels like things aren’t under control.”

New York City Councilman Donovan Richards, a member of the Public Housing Committee, said it is time to consider how to fix the structural problems with NYCHA – and maybe even consider a merger with the city Department of Housing Preservation and Development. But, at the end of the day, “the buck still stops with her,” Richards said. “I do honestly think Shola cares. She’s always been straightforward. I can call her every time and she picks up. But at the end of our day, our residents deserve better.”

Correction: This article erroneously stated that Olatoye is the first African-American chairwoman of NYCHA. In fact, Laura Blackburne served in that role under David Dinkins.

Aaron Short
is a New York-based political reporter.
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