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Embattled New York City Housing Authority Faces Exodus

| August 10, 2011 9:54 AM

The Fulton Houses on 17th Street in Manhattan. The New York City Housing Authority, the landlord for public housing like the Fulton Houses, is having trouble keeping its top employees. Flickr/dandeluca

Two years after Mayor Michael Bloomberg tapped Wall Street veteran John Rhea to provide new leadership at the embattled New York City Housing Authority, the agency’s top ranks are emptying out.

NYCHA’s general manager, chief financial officer and human resources director have all left for new jobs or are leaving soon. Three other top officials in capital projects, leased housing and housing development have also left recently.

Their openings now join six other high-ranking vacancies on NYCHA’s organizational chart – all while City Hall’s oversight of the housing agency is shifting from one deputy mayor to another.

“That several officials have been lured away to senior positions at major organizations highlights the caliber of personnel at NYCHA,” spokeswoman Sheila Stainback said. “The vacancies will be filled, and in the interim the deep bench of NYCHA executives are filling these roles at the agency.”

Still, the mass exodus of top managers at the landlord for 400,000 New Yorkers is unsettling to people inside and outside the agency, which has struggled for years to repair apartments, maintain elevators and rein in costs.

“The true state of New York public housing … is not always what NYCHA says it is,” said Lindsay Cattell of the Urban Justice Center, which just released a report highlighting poor conditions at 71 agency developments. “The situation at NYCHA is really at a crisis point.”

Rhea joined NYCHA two years ago after a career as a managing director at Lehman Brothers and JP Morgan, hoping to use his financial experience to help fix an agency that seemed mired in budget deficits and mismanagement.

Less than a year later, he stood with an array of political leaders to announce a complex financing program he masterminded that would pump $350 million into renovations thanks to a one-time provision in the federal stimulus law.

Since then, however, NYCHA’s problems with routine maintenance have continued unabated – and the upper ranks of management are emptying.

The agency’s general manager, Michael Kelly, was on loan to the Philadelphia Housing Authority for the last eight months and became its permanent executive director Monday.

While Rhea searches for a replacement, the post will be filled by Chief Information Technology Officer Atefeh Riazi, who joined NYCHA last year with no previous housing experience.

Felix Lam, NYCHA’s chief financial officer, leaves Friday to take the same post at City College. The post of Budget and Financial Planning Director under him was already vacant.

Also this month, Eve Michel, the assistant deputy general manager for capital projects, will leave for a job at the MTA. The job above hers on the organizational chart, Deputy General Manager for Capital Projects, has been vacant for more than a year.

Other recent departures include Greg Kern, the director of leased housing who oversaw the Section 8 housing program, who sources said was summarily fired and ordered out of the building on a recent Friday. He could not be reached for comment.

Dawn Pinnock, the human resources director, also left for the MTA, while Ilene Popkin, the assistant deputy general manager for development, left to join the Citizens Housing and Planning Council.

NYCHA has never been an easy agency for the Bloomberg administration to manage: It took a 16-month search to find Rhea to fill the top job, and its vice chairman, Earl Andrews, resigned in March after he used agency letterhead to write a federal judge on behalf of a family friend charged with making child pornography.

The chain of command between Rhea and the mayor has changed as well. Former Deputy Mayor Dennis Walcott oversaw NYCHA for years until he became schools chancellor in April. His old job was eliminated, and the agency is now overseen by Deputy Mayor for Economic Development Robert Steel.

Read the full post at City Hall News.

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