affordable housing

5 questions about Shola Olatoye leaving NYCHA, answered

The public housing authority's chairwoman unexpectedly stepped down. Here's why.

After months of public pressure, New York City Housing Authority Chair Shola Olatoye resigned Tuesday. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio saw her off at a Tuesday morning press conference in Queens. “It was a thankless mission,” the mayor said of her four-year tenure, “but it was a crucial mission, and 400,000 people benefited because of the work you did.”

What did she do?

The city’s public housing has been in disrepair since long before Olatoye was appointed chairwoman in February 2014, at the beginning of New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s first term. Things didn’t change quickly. Two years into her tenure, federal prosecutors began probing health and safety conditions in the nearly 200,000 NYCHA apartments.

But the path to Olatoye leaving NYCHA really begins with a November 2017 report from the New York City Department of Investigation. It alleged that NYCHA officials told federal authorities that it was conducting lead paint inspections when none were happening, and that Olatoye was aware of the noncompliance. There were immediate calls for Olatoye’s resignation, but de Blasio stuck by his public housing chief for months, endlessly defending her even as she faced tough questioning from the City Council and the state Assembly. Legislators kept the heat on Olatoye, as thousands of tenants went without heat or hot water for days at a time this past winter. Still, Olatoye seemed like she’d be sticking around, with de Blasio’s support, until the surprise news breaking Monday night that she would be stepping down.

So why is she leaving now?

De Blasio didn’t give a straight answer to repeated questions at a Tuesday press conference. Olatoye told Politico New York on Monday that she never intended to stay for de Blasio’s second term, and it’s not uncommon for agency heads to leave while their boss is still in office. The public pressure against Olatoye herself had calmed somewhat since February, when NYCHA tenants filed a class-action lawsuit against the authority hoping to address a number of grievances. But the deteriorating conditions at NYCHA have been even more in the spotlight recently with Gov. Andrew Cuomo and his Democratic primary challenger Cynthia Nixon making a number of visits to housing complexes. And Cuomo last week declared a state of emergency for NYCHA and appointed an independent monitor to oversee building repairs.

Was she fired?

Officially, Olatoye is resigning. And if de Blasio was tired of the chairwoman, he had a funny way of showing it. The mayor has consistently defended Olatoye throughout the winter’s controversies, placing blame for NYCHA’s conditions on years of divestment from federal state and city budgets. “She was a change agent from Day One. Crime is down. Repairs are faster. Finances are stabilized,” de Blasio said in a Tuesday press release.

The pair sang the same tune at Tuesday’s press conference, where the mayor downplayed the controversy that got Olatoye in hot water in the first place, saying it was just an issue of “whether a form was filled out a certain way.” And Olatoye admitted that said she asked the mayor “daily” if he wanted her to leave, “and he wanted me to stay.”

Is everyone happy?

New York City Public Advocate Letitia James, who called for Olatoye’s firing immediately after the DOI report came out in November, welcomed the news she would be stepping down, releasing a statement calling Olatoye’s resignation “a step in the right direction,” adding, “we are long overdue for a fresh start at NYCHA.”

Assemblywoman Nicole Malliotakis, the Republican 2017 mayoral nominee, went farther, applauding the resignation and saying “Olatoye's actions were negligent, unethical and I believe criminal.”

Others weren’t as relieved. Some complained that the authority’s problems won’t be fixed by changing leaders. The Rev. David K. Brawley of Metro IAF New York, an advocacy group for low-income New Yorkers, released a statement reading in part that “Chairwoman Olatoye might be gone, but the systemic rot at NYCHA won’t end with her. She may have failed, but she’s not the failure.”

Others, who were impressed by the progress she had made during her tenure, lamented her loss. State Sen. Gustavo Rivera of the Bronx called her departure a “disappointment,” and said he was “saddened that she will no longer be on the front lines of our fight.”

Who’s replacing her?

Longtime public servant Stanley Brezenoff will be stepping in as interim chairman. Brezenoff has become a key utility player for de Blasio, serving as interim CEO of the city’s beleaguered public hospital system until late last year. Brezenoff had previously run the city’s hospitals in the 1980s under Mayor Ed Koch, before serving as a deputy mayor and, later, executive director of the Port Authority. De Blasio said the search for a new chairman would begin immediately, but NYCHA General Manager Vito Mustaciuolo would seem to have an inside track. The former New York City Housing Preservation and Development official is well-liked and has received sometimes effusive praise from elected officials since his appointment in January.

City Councilman Ritchie Torres, who chaired the public housing committee for four years, complimented the pair in a statement.

“By appointing Stanley Brezenoff as Chairman and Vito Mustaciuolo as General Manager, two first-class managers, the Mayor has chosen serious and seasoned leadership for NYCHA,” he said. “Finally!  Even though it took him five years, better late than never.”

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