Shola Olatoye, standing, appeared at a news conference on Tuesday in Far Rockaway, Queens, and spoke about stepping down as the chairwoman of the New York City Housing Authority.
False filings with the federal government over lead paint inspections. Faulty boilers that left tens of thousands without heat in a frigid New York City winter. A new state monitor. A newly aggressive City Council.
The list of troubles and the ensuing scrutiny only seemed to accelerate in the final months of Shola Olatoye’s tenure as chairwoman of the New York City Housing Authority.
Then the system and its 175,000 apartments became a political cudgel wielded by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo against his downstate nemesis and fellow Democrat, Mayor Bill de Blasio. Moldering public housing apartments became a stand-in for failure, in the governor’s telling, and Ms. Olatoye retreated from view.
When she returned to the public eye on Tuesday, at a news conference in Far Rockaway, Queens, it was to say farewell. She thanked a long list of aides by name as she announced her resignation, as if to stress that her departure was of her own accord.
The mayor said they had been having conversations for “months.” In that time, news media attention to crumbling apartments, particularly from The Daily News and local television stations, reached a crescendo. Publicly, Mr. de Blasio maintained his support as top staff members at the housing authority resigned around her.
“He asked me to stay,” she said. “This was my choice.” She declined to say if she has a new job waiting for her after she leaves at the end of the month.
Before the news conference, Mr. de Blasio toured an apartment that had been refurbished in a public-private partnership. And in praising Ms. Olatoye, he offered a preview of what he said would be the future of public housing across New York City: more partnerships with real estate developers and other private companies, and further commitment to his plan to build affordable and market-rate housing on underused public housing land.
“This is the honest conversation that we’re going to have with the people in this city,” the mayor said. “This is a much bigger problem than is even being acknowledged. Until we find a way to put together over $20 billion, we will continue to have these problems.”
How much Ms. Olatoye’s departure would result in improvements for the residents of the city’s public housing, amid so much scrutiny, infighting and finger-pointing, remained an open and pressing question. Years of disinvestment and neglect by the federal government flared into a political issue that may have cost Ms. Olatoye her job — Mr. de Blasio said she chose to leave — but there is little sign of substantive improvement on the horizon.
One modest, unexpected bright spot could be found in the budget coming out of Washington: a 46 percent increase in funding for capital projects, about $160 million more, and more money for operations as well, according to estimates by the housing authority. Still, the needs at hundreds of sprawling complexes — some $20 billion in repairs — are towering.
Mr. de Blasio named Stanley Brezenoff, a longtime city official and the mayor’s go-to fixer for problematic agencies, as the interim chair, though he will not start until June, several weeks after Ms. Olatoye is to depart. But changes at the top may not result in changes at the ground level, where tenants struggle with mold and broken heating systems, even as high crime rates have eased.
“There’s no magic button to push here,” Mr. Brezenoff said. “I can promise the best possible effort to make the best use of existing resources.”
He joins a top-level staff that has seen sustained turnover.
Of the 32 senior jobs, a figure that includes all positions from vice president up to chair, about two-thirds are vacant, have acting appointees or were filled in the last year, according to an analysis of the agency’s organizational chart.
As Ms. Olatoye was asked about the high-level departures and vacancies, Mr. de Blasio turned and muttered to her. “Some of that turnover is good” she said, appearing to repeat what the mayor said to her off mic a moment before.
Ms. Olatoye said she had stayed on until now in part to help with efforts to negotiate a settlement with federal prosecutors. In 2016, the United States attorney’s office in Manhattan opened a wide-ranging inquiry into conditions in public housing and paperwork that falsely certified lead-paint inspections. One outcome of the negotiations could be a federal monitor for the authority.
There is already a court-appointed special master for mold. Last month, federal housing officials began requiring the housing authority to get approval to spend federal money, because of the false lead-paint filings. Mr. Cuomo last week ordered the city to choose an independent monitor to oversee new state spending on public housing.
A spokeswoman for Mr. Cuomo did not respond to a request for comment on Ms. Olatoye’s departure.
If problems had been building for years, it was the issue of lead paint that caused the dam to burst last year.
In November, a report by the city’s Department of Investigation found that the authority had not been conducting required inspections of apartments with young children, a lapse that began in the Bloomberg administration and continued under Mr. de Blasio.
When it was discovered, Ms. Olatoye moved to fix the problem, officials said. What she did not immediately do was tell tenants about the years in which inspections for lead hazards were not performed.
Soon after, a bone-chilling cold set in, and many boilers failed.
The two stories invited oversight and underscored how a “tale of two cities” — one comfortable, another cold — could still be told four years into Mr. de Blasio’s tenure.
LuzMarie Rodriguez said Nycha staff cleaned the floors daily when she first moved into the Gompers Houses on the Lower East Side about 10 years ago.
Since then, she said, custodial services and maintenance have deteriorated. Last summer, Ms. Rodriguez called 911 to report a pungent smell coming from the stairwell. “I thought someone was dead,” she said. It turned out to be excrement.
Still, Nycha did not clean it up for another week, said Ms. Rodriguez, 30, who works as a babysitter. She said a thoughtful tenant has begun cleaning the common hallway herself.
Inside her apartment, where she lives with her father and her two children, plaster peeled from cracked walls. “I’m covering everything up to make it look as nice as possible,” Ms. Rodriguez said.
Advocates for Nycha and low-income tenants described Ms. Olatoye as a scapegoat.
“What happened at Nycha starts at the top with the mayor and deputy mayor, Alicia Glen,” said Jonathan Westin, executive director of New York Communities for Change, a nonprofit that is an advocate for low-income tenants and that recently endorsed Cynthia Nixon’s bid against Mr. Cuomo for the Democratic nomination.
Ms. Glen, the deputy mayor who oversees housing policy, attended the news conference but sat at the end of the table. She did not speak until asked a question by a reporter. City Hall officials defended Ms. Glen, pointing to her plan to generate revenue through partnerships with private developers to create market-rate and affordable housing on Nycha land.
At the Jacob Riis Houses, a public housing complex on the Lower East Side, some residents expressed resentment and said Ms. Olatoye’s resignation had been a long time coming.
“Finally,” said Carlos Viner, 71, a retired bus driver and Vietnam veteran who has lived in the projects his whole life. He said it had taken Nycha five months to repair his kitchen cabinets. The leaks in his building are so bad, he said, that water has seeped through his apartment walls.
Ms. Rodriguez, of the Gompers Houses, said she had no idea that Ms. Olatoye had resigned and frankly, did not even know her name. “Not a clue,” she said.
But she said she would tell Ms. Olatoye’s successor that she and other tenants should be able to expect basic maintenance, like keeping common spaces clear of excrement.