By Shani Rodan
Edna Wells Handy is the chief compliance officer at The New York City Housing Authority. She oversees NYCHA’s regulatory compliance with federal, state, and local obligations; establishes processes designed to ensure the accuracy of external reporting and statements by NYCHA; and ensures that NYCHA staff receive appropriate compliance training. Prior to that, she was Counsel to the NYPD Commissioner.
We spoke with Wells Handy about the pivotal milestones in her career journey and how design has shaped her career trajectory.
Shani Rodan: When did you realize that you were interested in design or design related topics?
Edna Wells Handy: When I was the commissioner of the Department of Citywide Administrative Services, we managed all city properties. I had this general view of the use of space prior to DCAS, but it became more formal because that was part of my role, the management and design of buildings. We were looking at a space, efficiency efforts to move employees from lease space into city space so there was a key design component. We were looking at trends in design, how it impacts the workspace, how we can use best practices to foster a great working experience and location. It pre-existed my DCAS commissionership, but it was honed while I was DCAS commissioner.
We were looking at trends in design, how it impacts the workspace, how we can use best practices to foster a great working experience and location.
SR: How do you draw the line between design and being a lawyer?
EWH: It’s not a straight career path but you don’t separate them, they merge. What I’ve learned in practice, is knowing what the law requires, then looking at best practices around design and the built environment to look at what can be done within the budget constraints of the government that complies with the law, but also respects best practices. It’s a combination and it works well. One of the things I liked doing was what we call turnaround services. These were city-wide initiatives from how we were leasing buildings to how we were hiring people to workforce finality. This turnaround work is how you get the workforce that’s in place to embrace change, and change quickly and get it embedded. That’s what I’ve been doing for a while now, including help at Hale House, a shelter/community center in Harlem. Coming in, diagnosing new organizations, analysing their needs, coming up with a subscription plan of action and then administering and seeing how it works. Everything I have been doing basically prepared me for the next thing I do.
SR: Do you have any role models that influenced you while you were working?
EWH: The NYCHA chair, Shola Olatoye, is a great woman and she’s a visionary. Seeing how you go from vision to implementation: that tends to be my role in moving a vision to make it a reality. Going way, way back, my mother taught about attention to details. At first, if you don’t get it right, do it over and you keep doing it over until you get it right. If you have to stay up all night to get it right and meet your deadline, you do that.
SR: When did you realize you could make a difference through design?
EWH: When I was with DCAS under mayor Bloomberg, he was a fan of the open floor plan. I loved it because I thought, “This is great. Everybody sees each other. Everybody talks to each other. Hey, I’m working over here, you are working over there.” So you have a kind of instant collaboration. Following the mayor’s vision, we created an open floor plan at DCAS and it was fabulous. We went from a space where 14 people had offices to a place where 47 people worked together. It was modern. It was airy. It was light. It was collegial. We developed, we built a walking track so that we could go from one end to the other end, and we knew that along the way, we walked many miles. We even had walking meetings! That was made possible by the open floor plan.