Business

Entrepreneurship lives in public housing in New York. Is the city rising?

Many nights after homeschooling two of her children, Tamykah Anthony cooks natural beauty products in her kitchen at Queensbridge Houses, the largest public housing complex in New York City.

Driven by a lifelong interest in science, she officially began selling the products in 2017, hoping to provide financial stability for her family. Now that her Xanthines All Natural Products business has weathered the roller coaster ride of the past two years, Ms Anthony, 36, is considering finding a factory space.

“I know people who sell food that should belong in five-star restaurants,” Ms Anthony said, referring to her neighbors in Queensbridge in Long Island City. “I know people who can lay tiles. I know hairdressers. But going from really great at something to a company, there’s a huge gap.”

As officials in New York City 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 nonprofit organization, highlights what the group sees as an urgent need to support Entrepreneurs like Ms. Anthony have referred to hundreds of people living in council housing.

Buildings managed by the New York City Housing Authority, which operates the nation’s largest public housing system, house more than 266,000 adults, many of whom are increasingly making money from local businesses.

These informal and unregistered businesses are often either a primary source of income for them or a supplement to full-time employment. In the lobby of Mitchel Houses in the South Bronx, flyers from local residents advertise side hustles like eyelash extensions and hair braiding.

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

Almost a quarter of NYCHA residents worked in industries that were the slowest to recover, including hotels, retail stores and restaurants. And proponents put the unemployment rate among residents at around 25 to 35 percent, compared to 7 percent citywide.

But the report revealed that small business assistance programs in New York City have not been able to reach large numbers of residents living in NYCHA apartments, where the average family income is about $25,000.

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

NYCHA’s existing entrepreneurship training program focuses only on catering and childcare businesses, with the exception of all other industries. And the program has limited capacity, the report said, with hundreds more applicants than places available.

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

Last year, about 1,600 NYCHA residents said they owned their own business — less than 1 percent of the total population of NYCHA residents, but still five times more than in 2012, the report said.

The increased interest in entrepreneurship reflects a national start-up boom during the pandemic. In 2020, Americans filed paperwork to start about 4.3 million businesses, census data showed, the highest number in the decade and a half the government has tracked. New business applications were even higher in 2021.

Many were founded out of necessity by people who had lost their jobs, while others simply found that they wanted to be their own boss.

Before Ms. Anthony became an entrepreneur, she hopped from job to job. For two years she worked 3pm to 11pm at a store in Madison Square Garden, then rushed to La Guardia Airport to work a midnight shift at a rental car counter.

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

With money running out, Ms. Anthony turned her hobbies into full-time pursuits. She offered pop-up science classes to kids in Brooklyn and Queens. She researched how to make deodorant and toothpaste at home and sold them to local residents.

During the pandemic, her business benefited from a surge in online orders for her homemade elderberry gummies, from people looking for foods they believed 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 want to offer my children, I want to leave NYCHA accommodation now.”

For Jonathan Alexander, the success of his grocery business, which he started while living in the Todt Hill Houses on Staten Island, allowed him to move out of the complex into a basement apartment in late 2019, around the time he was starting an empanada take-out restaurant .

Mr Alexander, 32, had started his own catering business in 2018 and was serving employees at corporate events. He pursued his cooking dreams after years of working a construction job that left permanent burn scars on his arm.

But working in restaurant kitchens in New York City, he often felt disrespected and belittled, and he was embarrassed to tell his colleagues that he was living on his mother’s couch in public housing.

“Sitting there on my mom’s couch, I would cry to myself,” he said. “I knew I was being held back because of my social status, because I’m coming off the projects, I’m black, I’m poor.”

His takeaway restaurant closed during the pandemic. And flooding caused by the remnants of Hurricane Ida destroyed his Staten Island home last summer and wiped out thousands of dollars worth of cooking equipment.

Social media became a lifeline. Mr. Alexander reached out to celebrity restaurateurs on apps like Instagram and Clubhouse and asked them how to negotiate contracts and raise capital. He joined EatOkra, an app that promotes black-owned restaurants. He booked freelance catering gigs through the Jitjatjo app.

Through word of mouth, Mr. Alexander’s calendar is now filling up with private chef bookings, including a recent $22,000 offer 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 hurdle to starting a business is the fear that if they make more money, their rents will increase. The housing authority calculates monthly rent based in part on the value of residents’ bank accounts. Last year, the average rent for a public housing family in New York was $533.

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

According to the report, 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 having to pay more for rent.

Brandi Covington, 44, who started her food service business in 2017 while living at the Pomonok Houses in Queens, now has 20 employees after building a client base and winning city contracts. But the pandemic has taught her how to put a rainy day fund aside for the first time.

“Having enough money was new to us,” she said. “For a moment we got frivolous because we had more than exactly what we needed.”

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

The company’s success allowed Ms. Covington to move out of NYCHA housing to an apartment in College Point, Queens last year.

For Ojala Threads, an online store that sells baby clothes that celebrate Indigenous Caribbean heritage, 2021 was its best-ever year with nearly $6,000 in sales.

The founder, Ramona Ferreyra, 41, a resident of Mitchel Houses in the South Bronx, turned to entrepreneurship in 2018 after an autoimmune disease physically prevented her from working in an office.

Ms. Ferreyra’s biggest challenge now is finding affordable retail space to display her wares.

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

https://www.nytimes.com/2022/03/29/nyregion/nyc-public-housing-business.html Entrepreneurship lives in public housing in New York. Is the city rising?

Ian Walker

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