Rasmia Kirmani

With NYCHA residents who are members of the Green City Force Corps (a community partner that provides training for green jobs).

Rasmia Kirmani-Frye
President, The Fund for Public Housing
and, Director, Public-Private Partnerships
New York City Housing Authority

Challenge

Over the last 16 years as HUD has shifted its priorities, federal assistance for public housing has declined sharply, and some cities’ support agencies have shuttered. That was hardly an option for the NYC Housing Authority (NYCHA): It provides for more than 400,000 residents (out of 8 million) currently living in 176,000 public apartments in 2,462 buildings (built in the 1930s through 70s), and 230,000 families on the waitlist.

NYCHA is the largest residential landlord in the country, with nearly as many residents as the city of Miami. Rents are typically 30% of income; average income is $24,000 a year. Among tenants’ biggest employers: the NYPD, Department of Education, and NYCHA itself. Notable alumni include Starbucks founder Howard Schultz, actress Whoopi Goldberg, NBA Hall of Famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein.

NYCHA felt it crucial not only to stay open, but to ensure its public support and financial capability for future generations.

Solution

Rasmia decided to think outside the box of traditional funding sources. She knew NYCHA had bureaucratic restrictions, eg, every project above $5k must be competitively bid, though the agency’s operating budget is $3 billion a year, so it’s a “crippling environment to be innovative.”

She was charged by NYCHA’s CEO to set up a non-profit 501c(3), entitled The Fund for Public Housing, for which Rasmia became president. It launched in January ‘16, trying to get New Yorkers to see the value of public housing in the way they appreciate public education, transportation, utilities, and roads, and to find money to bridge gaps in public financing. The Fund is on course to raise a relatively modest $2 million this coming year, but has far loftier aspirations.

Rasmia says she purposely reimagined the “unsexy legal” underpinnings of the new organization, creating bylaws and a “shared services agreement” that allows her to hold positions both at NYCHA and The Fund, among other business arrangements, and to follow procurement policies that, while providing checks and balances, maximize flexibility to be “NYCHA’s innovation escape hatch.”

Between March and November 2015, Rasmia recruited her inaugural board of seven (“I told my husband I needed two nights a week to date other people to build it”), looking for committed idealists who will not just “give or get” money, the usual formula for board participation, but spend quality time around a table each month exchanging dynamic ideas. The Fund now has a board of nine, including someone from the tech industry because “tech folks solve problems differently,” and the by-laws mandate two board members who are public housing residents, one of whom is to be between 18 and 25 years of age.

The Fund also works with the world of real estate tech to get advice on the latest building design. In a recent competition for the NYCHA “Tech Pilots,” she hoped two or three tech companies might apply with ideas to improve the quality of building services, but instead was flooded with 17 and selected 10 to pitch ideas.

Another innovation: partnering with the City University of New York on a “Resident Leadership Academy,” offering courses to tenants, starting next year, with titles like community organizing, managing non-profits, and “public housing 101.”

Background

Grew up outside of Boston (Belmont and Arlington), dad is from India and Pakistan (“you’ll find a lot of Kermanis there”), mom from rural Michigan, met at Michigan State in late 50’s. Rasmia’s childhood centered around family, with 15 cousins within a 15 minute drive. Went to College of Wooster in rural Ohio, where she started out wanting to be an opera singer (her favorite: Aida), but despite a background in music (playing clarinet and taking 18 years of piano lessons) she decided she didn’t have diva blood in her. Also loved field hockey. But above all loved cities, so she switched to majoring in urban studies.

How She Met New York

At age 11, decided she wanted to live in the Big Apple someday. Her mother was so well organized, she kept money for bills in envelopes with one labeled “Rasmia’s clothing allowance.” Rasmia asked if it could be used instead for a trip to NYC, and at age 13 can remember getting off the subway with an aunt at the west 4th Street station, seeing every kind of person, and loving the energy of a city where you could choose to be as visible or anonymous as you want.

After college, when her mother informed her she would start charging market rate rent if she continued living at home, Raz informed her she was moving to Brooklyn.

Rasmia’s first job was as a receptionist (at $17k a year–”everyone should have that experience) at the Times Square Business Improvement District. Her boss, Gretchen Dykstra, who later became Mayor Bloomberg’s Commissioner of Consumer Affairs, had a philosophy that good ideas can come from anyone, so Rasmia didn’t hesitate to offer them.

For the next 20 years, she worked on Times Square as the neighborhood rapidly changed; pursued a PhD program in urban and public policy at the New School, for many years just two chapters away from getting her degree (“my dad asks me practically every time we talk how that’s going”); and, for over eight years, directed a BID-like partnership in Brownsville in Brooklyn.

Yet at age 42, she was still saying, “I wonder what my career’s going to be?” Her friends would respond, “It’s clear, you love cities!” As if to crystallize the thought, into her life one day walked the NYCHA’s Shola Olatoye for a meeting in Brownsville. Rasmia was struck: she says Shola seemed neither fantastical about solutions, as though NYCHA could fix everything overnight; nor fatalistic, like everything was hopeless. Rasmia texted her, found it amazing that she responded, and after hitting it off, joined her at NYCHA in March 2015. Rasmia had never worked in government before, but now sits on a 25-person executive team that runs the Authority.

Startling Fact

In the last year, Rasmia has become a serious long distance runner, having completed three half-marathons, with three more coming up.

Connect with Rasmia!

Rasmia.Kirmani-Frye@nycha.nyc.gov

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