Public housing

Entrepreneurship is alive in New York’s public housing. Will the city grow?

Many nights after a long day of homeschooling two of her children, Tamykah Anthony stands over the stove, preparing natural beauty products in her kitchen at Queensbridge Houses, the world’s largest social housing complex from New York.

Fueled by a lifelong interest in science, she began officially selling the products in 2017, hoping to provide financial stability for her family. Now, after her business, Xanthines All Natural Products, survived the rollercoaster ride of the past two years, Ms Anthony, 36, is considering looking for factory space.

“I know people selling food that should be in five-star restaurants,” Ms. Anthony said, referring to her neighbors in Queensbridge, Long Island City. “I know people who can lay tiles. I know hairdressers. But that transition from being really good at something to having a business, there’s a huge gap there.

As New York City officials grapple with how to ensure an equitable economic recovery from the pandemic, a new report this week from the Center for an Urban Future, a non-profit organization, points to what the group described as an urgent need to support the hundreds of entrepreneurs like Ms Anthony who live in social housing.

Buildings run by the New York City Housing Authority, which operates the nation’s largest public housing system, are home to more than 266,000 adults, many of whom increasingly earn money through local businesses.

These informal and unregistered businesses are often either a main source of income for them or a supplement to full-time employment. In the lobby of Mitchel homes in the South Bronx, flyers posted by residents advertise side activities such as eyelash extensions and hair braiding.

In New York, the economic fallout from the pandemic has prompted a turn to entrepreneurship as an alternative to jobs that may not return for years, according to the new report.

Nearly a quarter of NYCHA residents worked in industries that have been among the slowest to recover, including hotels, retail stores and restaurants. And advocates estimate the unemployment rate among residents to be around 25-35%, compared to 7% citywide.

But the report found that New York City’s small business relief programs have failed to reach a wide range of residents living in NYCHA housing, where the the average family income is around $25,000.

“This may be the biggest untapped entrepreneurial opportunity in the city,” said Jonathan Bowles, executive director of the Center for an Urban Future.

NYCHA’s existing training program for entrepreneurship focuses only on catering and childcare companies, excluding all other industries. And the program has limited capacity, according to the report, with hundreds more applicants than places available.

A spokesperson for the city’s Department of Small Business Services said these sectors were chosen for their growth and comparatively lower barriers to entry.

Last year, about 1,600 NYCHA residents reported owning their own business — less than 1% of the total NYCHA resident population, but still five times as many as in 2012, according to the report.

The heightened interest in entrepreneurship reflects a nationwide start-up boom during the pandemic. In 2020, Americans filed paperwork to start about 4.3 million businesses, according to census data, the highest figure in the decade and a half the government has tracked. New business applications were even more numerous in 2021.

Many were started out of necessity by people who had been made redundant, while others simply realized they wanted to be their own boss.

Before Ms. Anthony became an entrepreneur, she bounced from job to job. For two years, she worked from 3 p.m. to 11 p.m. in a store in Madison Square Garden, then rushed to La Guardia airport to work a night shift at a rental car office.

She wanted to become a scientist and eventually enrolled in John Jay College of Criminal Justice, where she earned a degree in forensic toxicology. But she faced a major setback in 2015 when she was diagnosed with a rare eye condition that blurred her vision, crushing her motivation to pursue lab internships.

With money tight, Mrs. Anthony turned her hobbies into full-time occupations. She offered pop-up science lessons to kids in Brooklyn and Queens. She researched how to make deodorant and toothpaste at home, selling them to local residents.

During the pandemic, his company has benefited from a surge in online orders for his homemade elderberry gummies, from people looking for foods they claim boost immunity. Last year, she also became a yoga teacher and doula.

“I’m not in survival mode anymore,” Ms Anthony said. “For my vision of what I seek to provide for my children, I am now looking to leave NYCHA housing.”

For Jonathan Alexander, the success of his food business, which he started while living at the Todt Hill Houses on Staten Island, saw him leave the resort and move into a basement apartment in late 2019 , around the time he started a take-out empanada. restaurant.

Mr Alexander, 32, started his own catering business in 2018, serving employees at corporate events. He pursued his cooking dreams after spending years working at a construction site that left him with permanent burn scars on his arm.

But when he worked in restaurant kitchens around New York, he often felt slighted and belittled, embarrassed to tell co-workers he was living on his mother’s couch in public housing.

“When I used to sit on my mom’s couch, I would cry to myself,” he said. “I knew I was held back because of my social status, being projects, being black, being poor.”

His take-out restaurant folded during the pandemic. And flooding from the remnants of Hurricane Ida destroyed her Staten Island apartment last summer, wiping out thousands of dollars worth of kitchen equipment.

Social networks have become a lifeline. Mr. Alexander researched top restaurateurs on apps like Instagram and Clubhouse, asking them how to negotiate deals and raise capital. He joined EatOkra, an app that promotes black-owned restaurants. He booked independent catering gigs through the Jitjatjo app.

Thanks to word of mouth, Mr. Alexander’s calendar is now filling up with bookings from private chefs, including a recent offer of $22,000 to cook for a family in the Hamptons for a month. He and his son recently moved into a new house.

For NYCHA residents, one of the barriers to growing a business is the fear that making more money will raise their rents. The housing authority calculates the monthly rent based in part on the value of residents’ bank accounts. Last year, the average rent for a New York public housing family was $533.

This system, according to the new report, discourages tenants from saving money to start a business or reporting self-employment income. NYCHA residents may also lose other government benefits, such as food stamps, if their income exceeds a certain threshold.

The report says New York City has done too little to enroll NYCHA residents in the federal Family Self-Sufficiency Program, which allows public housing residents to accumulate savings in an escrow account without paying more for rent.

Brandi Covington, 44, who started her catering services business in 2017 while living in the Pomonok Houses in Queens, now has 20 employees after building up a clientele and winning contracts with the city. But the pandemic has taught him to set aside a rainy day fund for the first time.

“Having enough money was new to us,” she said. “For a while we became frivolous because we had more than we needed.”

She runs the business, Cooking With Corey, with her fiance, Corey Whittenburg, 40, a professional chef. Their biggest contract is delivering meals to students at the American Musical and Dramatic Academy, a college on the Upper West Side.

The success of the business saw Ms Covington leave NYCHA housing last year and move into an apartment in College Point, Queens.

At Ojala Threads, an online store that sells baby clothes celebrating indigenous Caribbean heritage, 2021 was its best year ever, with nearly $6,000 in sales.

Its founder, Ramona Ferreyra, 41, a resident of the Mitchel Houses in the South Bronx, turned to entrepreneurship in 2018 after she could no longer physically work in offices due to an autoimmune disease.

Ms. Ferreyra’s biggest challenge now is finding an affordable retail space where she can display her products.

“I don’t intend to be poor for the rest of my life,” Ms Ferreyra said. “Entrepreneurship is for me a path to economic independence.”