Today is International Women’s Day, an annual commemoration to celebrate women’s accomplishments and bring worldwide attention to discrimination against women. NYCHA’s creation is in large part due to the work of larger-than-life women like Eleanor Roosevelt, First Lady of New York and then the United States, and Mary K. Simkhovitch, president of the national Public Housing Conference and NYCHA’s first-ever vice chair. They both played a significant role in lobbying City, State and Federal officials to address the tremendous need for affordable housing in New York and across the country.
Since NYCHA’s launch in 1934, tens of thousands of women have served the Authority and our residents; we currently have more than 4,300 female employees. Today is a day to celebrate their courage, persistence, commitment and professionalism, which embody the essence of our core values and the spirit that infuses the work we do every day. Below you can read about a few women of NYCHA, whose careers first took root in their NYCHA homes, whose efforts continue to make life a little better every day for our residents.
Eleanor Roosevelt said, “The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.” We know that a safe, clean, connected City is what every New Yorker deserves, and we are slowly but surely making that dream a reality for the 1 in 14 New Yorkers who call NYCHA home. As we move forward toward that goal, I am proud to work alongside the women and men of the Authority.
Shola Olatoye, Chair & CEO
Eleanor Roosevelt, wife of Franklin D. Roosevelt, was the longest serving First Lady of the United States (March 1933-April 1934). Not content to serve solely as First Lady of either New York State (1928-1932) or the country, she became a politician, diplomat and activist. Committed to social reform, she championed efforts to improve life for working families and for the underserved: women, children, immigrants and minorities. Both she and the President became interested in housing reform when he served as New York State Governor. Eleanor served on the board of the New York City Housing Corporation for five years prior to the creation of NYCHA.
Mary K. Simkhovitch had a long, productive career in housing, beginning in 1907 as Chair of New York City’s Congestion Committee. An early supporter of slum clearance, she became a national authority on public housing and settlement work when she was elected president of the National Federation of Settlements. From 1931-1943, Mary also served as president of the national Public Housing Conference. In 1934, Mayor La Guardia named her as first vice chair of NYCHA. She was one of the original authors of the United States Housing Act of 1937, which established that subsidies for public housing would be paid by the U.S. government to local governments. A longtime member of the National Urban League, Mary endorsed the creation of community centers and health centers in NYCHA developments.
Ursula M. Burns, who grew up in Baruch Houses as the daughter of Panamanian immigrants, became the first African-American woman to helm a Fortune 500 company when she took over leadership at Xerox in 2009. Forbes rated her the 22nd most powerful woman in the world in 2014. She left Xerox last year to become chair of VEON, and sits on the board of directors for American Express, Exxon Mobil, Nestle and Uber. Ursula has provided leadership service to organizations including the National Academy Foundation, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the U.S. Olympic Committee and is a founding director of Change the Equation, which aims to improve the country’s education system in science, technology, engineering and math.
Aprille Ericsson grew up in Roosevelt Houses dreaming of Mars and determined to see it one day. After graduating with a Bachelor of Science in aeronautical/astronautical engineering from MIT and a Masters of Aerospace Engineering from Howard University, she became the first woman to receive a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering from Howard and the first female African American to receive a Ph.D. in engineering from NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. Employed at NASA for many years, Aprille is currently working on a proposed mission to bring dust back to Earth from Mars.
Denise Torres, a NYCHA employee for 31 years, grew up in Clason Point Gardens. She is NYCHA’s first Technical Resource Advisor in the Maintenance, Repairs and Skilled Trades Department, and the first woman to serve as Supervisor of Exterminators. The NYC Health Department has lauded Denise’s leadership to improve the quality of public housing and protect the health of NYCHA residents.
D’Andra Van Heusen joined NYCHA as a Community Associate in 1997 and has focused her career at the Authority on connecting residents to information, resources and social services to improve their lives. Now Senior Community Development Coordinator, D’Andra also launched and is president of NYCHA’s LGBTQ Employee Association, where she works to create “safe and connected” communities for residents as well as employees. “Respecting all employees’ diversity helps us work together more effectively toward reaching our NextGeneration NYCHA goals by providing an opportunity for everyone to contribute to their potential,” she says. D’Andra also sits on cross-agency workgroups coordinated by the Mayor’s Office which focus on early childhood education and LGBTQ issues.