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Your City’s Cheapest Housing Is Also Most At Risk

Motherboard chats with NYC public housing official Rasmia Kirmani-Frye about why public housing is so important to cities, and how smart tech can help it.
Image: Rasmia Kirmani-Fyre

It's impossible to talk about smart city technology and revamping the efficiency and livability of our urban centers without talking about public housing. Yet, too often it's left out of the discussion. So at the Smart Cities NYC 2017 Conference earlier this month, Motherboard spoke with Rasmia Kirmani-Frye, the director of the New York City Housing Authority's (NYCHA) public/private partnerships and President of the non-profit Fund for Public Housing, which works to invest in NYCHA residents, about how this can be changed.


Motherboard: What's the main goal of the Fund for Public Housing and what is the nature of its relationship to NYCHA?
Rasmia Kirmani-Frye: So [the fund for public housing] is the first of its kind in the country. The concept of a fund isn't new—there's a fund for public health, fund for public schools, the mayor's fund—but public housing hasn't had this before. We're NYCHA's innovation escape hatch. We need people who can solve problems differently than bureaucrats and are willing to try things and fail, and to get up and try again. That kind of faster paced iteration is really hard to do in an enormous Kafkaesque bureaucracy. So we wanted to be both connected to NYCHA, but separate as well. We look at the innovative intersections in the city that have not invested in public housing. It's not just about fundraising.

Why did you find it important for the fund for public housing to be represented here at this conference? Or why is it so critical that public housing be a part of a discussion about smart cities?
You cannot talk about smart cities without talking about public housing. We're thrilled to be part of the Smart Cities conference and to put public housing topics in front of new audiences, because often I think that the audiences—including conference organizers—have not thought about this before. And the fact that the infrastructure of public housing could so benefit from new ideas.


Why is public housing so critical to the health of a functioning city?
Public housing in a city like New York is incredibly important, both in terms of culture and diversity, but also economics. The median income of NYCHA residents is $23,000 a year. Where are the people who are working the jobs that make this city work going to live? The city would actually implode.

Data is fundamental in smart city tech, but we always need to be asking about what happens to it.

Marginalized communities are often left out of discussions about smart city tech, green tech, or urban renewal, and when they are involved, they're often the victims of "helicoptering" type solutions that do not help. How would you fix this?
Communities, particularly communities of color and poor communities, have been surveyed and over surveyed by external folks. And they get survey fatigue. Data is fundamental in smart city tech, but we always need to be asking about what happens to it. Where does it go? Shouldn't communities own some of that data? Who owns it? Who's using it to tell what story? And is it supporting a dominant narrative that's actually not representative of the community?

When communities are collecting their own data, keeping those data in the community and using them to create plans or programs, they can then advocate for what they need. It's about communities saying "we know how to have a conversation about community planning, community development, etc. and we have a plan"

What kinds of ways can smart technology benefit public housing developments and residents?
One example of this that we're working on right now is a really cool partnership between an organization called Metaprop NYC, which is a real estate tech accelerator; Urban Tech Hub, a place where innovation and civic tech live together that is supported and spearheaded by Deputy Mayor Alicia Glen; and the Fund for Public Housing. We're engaging the tech world to pitch to NYCHA products and systems that will solve operational issues.

What kind of products are you looking to find?
NYCHA buildings are old, and we know that there are products out there that modernize real estate. So it could be anything from something to put in a sewer line to detect when it is backed up, to a widget that makes entrances and doorways more secure. There are companies with products like this that already exist and we want to hear from them. So it's the beginning.

In the coming years cities are going to be getting a lot bigger. What are some of the biggest challenges to solving the things that we described when there is a mass influx of people?
So for sure one of the challenges is affordable housing. And we know that public housing is in fact the most affordable housing in New York City. But with the loss of federal investment in public housing, and that is most certainly going to continue. There is no funding fairy that is going to come and invest in it. It would take $17 billion to get every apartment in NYC up to code and running. And with an ever growing chasm between those that are luxury dwellers and those that are not—so middle and lower income households—where are people going to live? So we have to look at new models of revenue generation.

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