NYC Public Housing Residents Ready to Open Doors to New Businesses

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NYC Public Housing Residents Ready to Open Doors to New Businesses

Making entrepreneurship accessible to all.

Arneisa Williams, left, and Toya Frederick-Leak (Credit: NYCHA)

The way policymakers and the media get hyped up about entrepreneurship, it’s easy to forget or overlook the reality that it’s a scary process to start a business. It often involves a lot of risk and sacrifice. Even more so if your background is one of a person whose skin color has historically made those who look like you a target of policies and predatory practices that perpetuated or preyed upon “second-class” status.

Think of it this way: If all you saw or heard about growing up were parents, family and neighbors denied bank loans or sold predatory lending products, how would you feel about going to a bank for a loan to start or grow your business? How would you feel about putting in the work to even get to that point? Intimidated? Scared? Discouraged?

Last Thursday evening, just a stone’s throw from Wall Street, 18 women of color graduated from a program, NYC Housing Authority’s Childcare Business Pathways, that put them all on a road to starting their own businesses. Each had completed 42 hours of business education, coupled with 13 hours of specialized childcare training. Classes were three hours each, two evenings a week. That meant missing episodes of their favorite TV shows, school or sporting events with their own children, and other typical moments for mothers, daughters, sisters, relatives and neighbors. There were sleepless nights preparing presentations of their business plans to their classmates and facilitators. All of that sacrifice to start their home-based childcare businesses.

“I have always wanted to be my own boss. I have always had love for children. I knew this was an opportunity that I had to take,” says Arneisa Williams, a single mother of five, now living in Brooklyn after surviving five years of on-and-off homelessness that included losing a home to Hurricane Sandy.

Williams, with her children and grandchild in the audience, was one of two classmates who spoke at Thursday’s graduation ceremony. Putting together her business plan, Williams said, was the scariest part, for her. “At first I didn’t want to do it,” she says. Nevertheless, she’ll be the first of the group to open her day care doors and welcome 14 children and their families on July 4. If everything goes well, she says, her plan is to move the business into a commercial location within three years.

Toya Frederick-Leak plans to open a day care to eight children and their families in September, at Leak’s of Love Family Daycare. She hadn’t thought about a career in childcare until she came across the program. Frederick-Leak also addressed her classmates at the Thursday ceremony. Referring to missed episodes of the hit show “Empire,” “Sometimes you gotta sacrifice,” she said, eliciting a warm laugh from the crowd. She, too, had long nights preparing her business plan, with her husband as a sounding board. Frederick-Leak also reminisced about first encountering the 100-plus-page New York state childcare license application. But the scariest part for Frederick-Leak?

“Living in [public housing], sometimes the building doesn’t look up to par, you’re thinking why would people want to come and pay you to look after their children,” says Frederick-Leak, a resident of Redfern Houses, a Queens public housing complex.

All 18 women are residents of NYCHA public housing, with one exception — a NYCHA Section 8 voucher holder. It was a requirement of the Childcare Business Pathways program, for which last Thursday’s graduation ceremony was the first of what will hopefully be many. Alumnae, as young as 21 and as old as 55, are scattered across 15 NYCHA developments in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx. All 18 will start out in home-based childcare settings, but like Williams, some have plans to move into commercial spaces eventually.

Childcare Business Pathways alumnae and program partners (Credit: NYCHA)

“They’re held to the same standard as any New Yorker in their apartments,” says Sideya Sherman, executive vice president for community engagement and partnerships at NYCHA. “They have the same inspections from the state, and they know exactly what those expectations are before they enroll.”

Frederick-Leak says that being in the program helped convince NYCHA maintenance staff to finally come out to her apartment and address some longstanding maintenance issues in order for her apartment to pass inspection. “This is their program, why sabotage it?” she says.

NYCHA infamously has a backlog of $17 billion in repairs across its 328 developments, which house around 403,000 residents (officially). Budget cuts to HUD, as proposed by President Donald Trump’s administration, would only exacerbate that backlog.

“If our public housing population were its own city, it would be larger than Milwaukee,” says Gregg Bishop, commissioner of the NYC Department of Small Business Services (SBS), via email. SBS handled the training and execution of the program in partnership with NYCHA. “That’s a lot of people. People who have talents and ambitions that we should be supporting.”

When it comes to the Childcare Business Pathways program, the news regarding Trump’s budget cuts is that there is no news. The program is funded entirely through a charitable contribution from Citi Community Development. Same goes for NYCHA’s Food Business Pathways program, soon to start its sixth cohort (and previously covered by Next City). Three Food Business Pathways alumnae catered Thursday’s ceremony, and Sherman says NYCHA has often utilized its Food Business Pathways grads for events.

NYCHA launched both programs based on a 2013 survey that asked residents about businesses they’d want to start (or were already operating informally) out of their own apartments and what kind of support they’d want from NYCHA to get those businesses formalized and on the path to growth.

“Obviously federal funding cuts have an impact on NYCHA overall,” says Sherman. “But we’ve already put a strategy in place around services for residents where we’re leveraging philanthropic resources, partners’ resources, and to that degree we’re in a somewhat better position to better prepare for these kinds of cuts to operating capital.”

Oscar is Next City's senior economics correspondent. He previously served as Next City’s editor from 2018-2019, and was a Next City Equitable Cities Fellow from 2015-2016. Since 2011, Oscar has covered community development finance, community banking, impact investing, economic development, housing and more for media outlets such as Shelterforce, B Magazine, Impact Alpha, and Fast Company.

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Tags: small businessincome inequalitypovertypublic housing

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