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Q&A with Shola Olatoye, Eden Housing Chief Operating Officer
October 28, 2022
Shola Olatoye is Eden Housing’s new Chief Operating Officer. She joined the team in October of 2022 and is overseeing Property Operations, Human Resources and Talent Development, and Business Technology.
Shola brings extensive experience in the housing and community development sector. Prior to joining our organization, she served as Director of Housing and Community Development for the City of Oakland. As an appointed member of the city’s executive team, she led a team of 74 people and oversaw more than $100M of housing production and preservation capital. Under her leadership, the Oakland’s City Council approved HCD’s two-year Strategic Action Plan, which focused the department’s resources on protecting, preserving, and producing affordable housing. During her tenure, the City of Oakland won six state Homekey awards resulting in more than 400 new permanent deeply affordable units serving the formerly homeless.
Shola has held executive and senior-level posts at Suffolk Construction, Enterprise Community Partners, HSBC Bank, and HR&A Advisors. In 2014, Mayor Bill de Blasio appointed Shola as Chair and CEO of the New York City Housing Authority, where she developed and launched a $10 billion, 10-year development plan, NextGeneration NYCHA.
We sat down with Shola to learn a little more about her background, career path, and why she decided to dedicate her talents to Eden Housing.
Q. How did you get into affordable housing?
I was raised by my mother. I am Carol’s daughter, and that means something in my blue-collar Connecticut town. My mother is from Brooklyn and my father was a Nigerian immigrant. When they met and married in New York City in the early 70s, they moved to Waterbury Connecticut because there were three other Nigerian engineers living there. After my parents separated, my mom raised me there. She is the person that people turn to for community galvanizing events. When there’s someone in crisis, she organizes the meals, or helps people find a place to stay. Growing up there was always a family member or a friend that was staying in our spare bedroom. It wasn’t until I got older that I was able to articulate the concept that you are responsible for leaving the corner of your world better than the way you found it.
We lived in one of the first integrated rental housing developments in our town, so housing has always played a seminal role in my life. My mother purchased her first home through the city’s down payment assistance program. My grandmother, who lived in New York City, lived in public housing. I ultimately ended up running that agency many years later and renovating the very building that I visited as a child. Talk about full circle.
I thought I was going to be a professor, but I sort of stumbled into housing. Following my father’s footsteps, I thought I’d like to work in secondary education because I loved children. After spending three or four years in the early days of school and education reform in New York City in the mid-90s, I realized that healthy schools were one indicia of a healthy community. There were other forces that impacted children’s lives—where they lived, where their families lived, if they were in a stable home. I went to grad school and discovered the field of affordable housing and community development. As they say, the rest is history, my history at least.
Q. Tell us about the early days of your career.
I have been very blessed to work for and with amazing people. And I think that’s guided my career. I am proud to be involved with mission focused work. I’m in an organization where the mission of improving your corner of the world is at the core of the work, and I get to do that with a group of people that I want to spend time with, that help make me a better. In my early days I worked as a project analyst in the private sector at a real estate consulting firm, where I really cut my teeth and learned about real estate market analyses, financial impacts, modeling and all of the technical things that our development team does here at Eden. It was a seminal period in my career because I learned how to use data to tell a story, how to work with the numbers, and how to bring many different voices together on oftentimes very complicated, and at times historically painful issues in a community. I learned to weave the data and the stories together to describe what the community needed at that time.
During my six years at HR&A, I met some of my dearest work friends. That training really served me well to move into the banking field. While I did not love being a banker, it allowed me to understand the components of a real estate transaction and discover how owners like Eden Housing contemplate affordable housing deals. To be on the lending side was a really important role.
Q. Your next stop was Enterprise Community Partners. What are some of the accomplishments you’re most proud of from that time?
My time at Enterprise Community Partners, which is one of the leading national affordable housing organizations, was another formative time. It was right after the financial crisis. People were losing their homes overnight and affordable housing projects were losing their financing. We were a 30-year-old intermediary trying to figure out how to continue to use private dollars for the public good when the very markets they used had fallen apart. I love big problems and putting things together, so figuring out how to reinvent Enterprises’ work and lending products after the crash was a fascinating time. In New York City, the foreclosure crisis presented in slightly different ways. Yes, there were individual homeowners who lost their homes, but there were also large, multi-family buildings falling into foreclosure. There were buildings that were home to thousands of people, and someone had bought their building, took all the money out of the building, and then left it to essentially wither on the vine. It was a different kind of problem solving that involved working with the residents, who were obviously very nervous and didn’t want to lose their homes. Leading my team to come up with new sources of capital and new programs was really exciting and gratifying. I’m proud of the work we did there.
Soon after that, Hurricane Sandy blew into town, and I found myself leading this very large organization through a hurricane recovery, which I had never done before. We were successful in bringing more than $50 million of FEMA money to Enterprise’s portfolio. We worked with a coalition of groups to get the federal government to recognize that FEMA needed to look a little different in New York City, as opposed to other places. It was public policy at its worst and its best. There were really good intentions there, but when it comes down to the basements of these 20-story buildings that have been flooded and the FEMA rules only apply to a single-family house, how do we make the two talk to each other? It was super interesting. I loved my time at Enterprise. I also had the pleasure of working with a number of colleagues out here in the bay.
Q. Following Bill de Blasio’s mayoral win, you were asked to lead the New York City Housing Authority. Tell us how you were approached for this role and why you said yes.
He (de Blasio) called me and I will never forget, I was shoveling my car because there was a huge snowstorm, and my cell phone rang. I had my earpiece in and he says ‘Do you have a few minutes?’ I was like, ‘I’m actually shoveling my car. Can I call you back in 20 minutes?’ If you know anything about parallel parking in New York City, once you shovel out your car, you don’t want to lose your spot. When I called him back, he asked me to join his team. He didn’t mention that he wanted me to lead the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA), but that is ultimately what he asked me to do. I joined his administration as the CEO of NYCHA, the country’s largest housing authority with 176,000 units. I said yes because the ability to have an impact on more than 600,000 New Yorkers was so meaningful and humbling, and scary. But I like a challenge.
When you say the word public housing, there’s certain things that immediately come to mind, like the big tall buildings and crime and danger, and (in some places) those things are true. I knew it personally because I had visited public housing as a kid. My grandmother lived there. I remember broken elevators and not very clean hallways, but I also remember my grandmother’s home being warm and inviting. It was a place where my cousins and I grew up together and shared holiday meals. Those memories, and the role of the home, were what really fueled me to ensure that those opportunities were available for the one in 14 workers who relied on NYCHA at that point as a housing provider.
Q. What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in this position?
It (NYCHA) was in a very difficult state when I took over. There had not been a balanced budget in more than 15 years. We turned that around and were able to balance the budget every single year I was there. We launched the largest affordable housing program of its time in the country. We managed the largest rental assistance demonstration (RAD) project, 4,200 units of housing, and we partnered with the federal government to bring in private capital to rehab those units and ensure that they could remain affordable to the families who lived there. We brought technology to our frontline workers. We brought handhelds to 5,600 maintenance and janitorial staff, and we offered it in multiple different languages because we had an incredibly diverse workforce.
It really was a huge management challenge. It was a people challenge, and it was a policy challenge. Trying to figure out which levers to pull to create a plan and put the organization on a path to success was one of the best thrills of my life. It was also one of the biggest heartbreaks as well. You don’t take that kind of job without a pretty heavy dose of public criticism and attention. There’s not much that I haven’t heard and or experienced in that realm, but I like to think that those experiences have made me the person and leader that I am today. In the first couple of months, my team and I were really trying to think about how do we get people to care about this housing asset that is right in front of them? Everyone in New York walks past public housing buildings every day, but the people and the buildings were almost sort of hidden and not part of the conversation about what it meant to have a healthy community. A big part of what we did in those four years was bring NYCHA into the conversation about what kind of city we wanted to be. And when I look back on that work, I think we made huge strides in the right direction. The privilege to be able to make that kind of impact was really quite special.
Q. What brought you to the West Coast?
I was recruited to run the housing department at the city of Oakland. While so much smaller, both in size and resource, I encountered some of the same challenges. I was really excited to have the opportunity to come to a new place and have a slightly different role. I was no longer a property manager, but working with the city’s primary lender in affordable housing transactions, the primary regulator of the city’s tenant protection laws, and the chief program developer for affordable home ownership and many other issues. To have the chance to do that with Mayor Shaf was a real opportunity that I was excited to take on.
Q. What attracted you to Eden Housing and what do you hope to accomplish here?
Eden has an impeccable reputation. Linda Mandolini and I served on a board together, we still do. You meet those people who you automatically click with, and we just hit it off. Eden certainly stood out in my mind as providing quality housing. They have a reputation for being led by principled and fierce leader, and that was very attractive to me. At this point in my career, it’s about working with the people who do mission driven work. Having the opportunity to work with Linda and the rest of the team to deliver high quality housing to Californians is exactly what I want to do.
Coaching and supporting the staff who are doing the deals and building the buildings is important for me too. I’m excited to meet people as much as possible, understand the contours of a deal, or sit and talk to a property manager or a maintenance supervisor to understand the issues on a day-to-day basis at a property. I’m super excited to meet the rest of the Eden team and to continue to support the direction of growing the organization and taking on the board’s challenge.
Q. Are there any trends that you’re seeing in affordable housing in California, or in the nation?
I don’t think you can talk about affordable housing in this country without talking about the homelessness crisis. And I say crisis, even though we’ve had homelessness for over a hundred years in this country. It’s something that we have come to accept, but I think the last several years have pushed this issue even more so into the public consciousness, and I think that’s a good thing.
I was struck by an early 20th century newspaper article I read talking about street homelessness. If you read it, you would think that it was written in 2022, about the encampments and the quality of life for people living on the street, the concern of public health and so on. It makes me think we have accepted that it’s OK that a certain group of people in our society aren’t housed. I’m hopeful that the fact that it is now affecting people who you don’t expect it to affect—like working people, white people, women, children, seniors—and the fact that it is now impacting places where it historically had not, that it will fuel both the voters, elected officials, and policy makers to make the kinds of investments we know we need.
What’s so amazing about California is that we know how to do this. We just created 27,000 new units of housing with Homekey during the pandemic. The reason why we were able to do it is because there was a political will, funds, and a regulatory path, in addition to a group of very skilled housing operators who were able to find and deliver quality housing. When we talk about trends, I’d like to see that kind of urgency remain as the ethos of how we continue to develop housing.
There are lots of interesting things that are both regional to California, but also happening across the country. There’s so much conversation about accessory dwelling units and ADUs. I think the dissolution of single-family housing is on the horizon. It’s a really interesting time, maybe we’re reinventing what the American dream looks like. Has most of the world lived in urban settings and more dense settings than in this country, including myself? Yes. Maybe this is an opportunity for us to revise that dream and ultimately house more people.
I think the work around sustainability and climate, and how it interfaces with housing is really critical given where we are with climate change and how we need to be thinking about reducing our impact. There are lots of really interesting people doing great work around affordable housing production, sustainability and job creation, and connecting those three. I had the pleasure of helping launch and support a group of young people in New York who were residents of public housing. They were connected to the sustainability industry and would go into these companies and do the work, and then bring back those skills to residents of public housing. It’s called Green City Force. They created 10 one-acre farms in public housing in New York City. You can actually go and visit a farm in the middle of some of the densest housing in our country and get organic fruits and vegetables, and it’s free to the residents. I think that’s really connecting industries and breaking down silos. Maybe we can tackle sustainability, housing, and job creation at the same time. It doesn’t just have to be just one thing. I think that’s fascinating.
Q. What do you like to do during your spare time?
I am a runner. Half marathons are my jam but I hope to do the NYC marathon for an upcoming milestone birthday in a few years. Our three kids keep Matthew and I quite busy and our 80lb German Shephard/Rottweiler ensures that our house is never quiet. On any given day I am reading three books, listening to podcasts, and maintaining bicontinental WhatsApp conversations with friends and family.