Q&A: Annika Lescott-Martinez MPA '15
As chief financial officer and executive vice president of finance for the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA), Annika Lescott-Martinez MPA ’15 leads the organization’s financial planning and analysis, accounting, payroll, risk management, and investment activities. Lescott-Martinez joined NYCHA in December 2018 and rose to become CFO in February 2020; before that she worked in Washington at the Office of Management and Budget, conducting nonpartisan housing policy analysis and budgeting as a Presidential Management Fellow.
Early in her career, Lescott-Martinez worked at the Local Initiatives Support Corporation, which facilitates reinvestment in low-income communities throughout NYC. She went on to enroll at SIPA, where she concentrated in Urban and Social Policy.
In this SIPA News Q&A, Lescott-Martinez talks about her goals for NYCHA and her collaborative approach to leadership, and offers advice to SIPA students and graduates.
As CFO of NYCHA, what’s your top goal for the agency?
I want to ensure NYCHA’s financial stability so that the organization can exist for families both now and in the future. That means being a really good steward of taxpayer funds, because most of the funding we receive is from our federal and city partners. It also means being really strategic about how we use our scarce resources to support our growing maintenance and operating needs, and make sure that our families have what they deserve.
What is the biggest challenge facing NYCHA?
Our biggest challenge is dealing with scarce resources. We have a $40 billion capital needs backlog, which makes it more difficult and more expensive every day to maintain and operate our properties. In addition, we have the issue of our tenant rent arrears. Our tenants owe us upwards of $450 million due to pandemic collection losses. Keeping the agency functioning well and doing more with less revenue has been a challenge, but I am confident that we can weather the storm.
As a leader, How do you tackle these problems?
[It’s tempting to] put my head down and just focus on the payroll, accounting, and budget—but I strive instead to think about our challenges creatively and holistically: How is finance serving the organization? How are we helping our colleagues to meet our goals and our mission? What are new financial management strategies that we can implement as an organization? I tend to be a collaborative leader because I strive to figure out how my team can support the goals of my colleagues, and implement innovative strategies across the organization
What is a top personal goal in your role as CFO?
I have tried to empower the local property managers at NYCHA so they understand their role in the financial management of the properties they serve. That means giving them more tools, more access, trainings, and one-on-one support. A property manager at Dyckman or Throggs Neck Houses should know who I am, who my team is, and that it's okay to come to us if they need something. That helps them feel as though they're not in it alone and that we are teams supporting each other.
What is the greatest challenge you’ve faced as the CFO?
As a young woman of color, a first-generation American, and a first-generation college student, it's difficult—when you step into your role as a leader—to trust yourself, trust what you know, listen to your voice, and trust your own expertise. That was something that I had to get more comfortable with. Now it's second nature.
How did you gain that trust in yourself and your own voice?
I came in with the mentality that I needed to show my value-add to this organization. And what I did was set goals, pretty ambitious goals, for what I was going to do as CFO of the organization. And I’m the one who chose them, nobody else—but I held myself accountable, and my confidence comes from the results I have been able to achieve over the last three years.
What advice would you give to first-year SIPA students?
Push yourself to take classes that are outside of your comfort zone. I challenged myself to learn more about other areas so I could figure out how to apply those lessons to the area that I was most passionate about.
What should graduating students keep in mind as they look for a job after SIPA?
Be open minded. Pick the company you want to work for. The company, government, or agency environment is so important to your own professional development. Don't just take what looks like the dream job from an online job description. Pick the place that's going to do the most for your personal and professional goals and where you can add the most value based on your skill set and expertise.
What’s a lesson or skill that you’ve taken with you from your time at SIPA?
That policymaking is dynamic—the landscape, the stakeholders, the politics are [constantly] changing. You have to be nimble and be able to pivot. As a policymaker, you have to be careful not to get stymied by perfection.
I walked into SIPA thinking from an idealistic lens: I want to change the world and here's how I'm going to do it. Then you get in classes with folks like Professor [Ester] Fuchs and you're talking about “policy windows.” It's not always what's the best policy, but what's the best policy that you can get passed right now, in this political climate. You must be careful not to be too idealistic outside of the classroom when you are dealing with real people, real issues, real cities, real governments. You have to shed some of that [idealism] if you're going to get anything done.
This interview, conducted by Elizabeth Horwitz MPA ’23, has been condensed and edited for clarity.