Quetuwrah (pronounced "Katara") Perkins, 28, is a rental manager for RY Management, which owns properties including the 568-unit affordable housing complex she works at in East New York – the very neighborhood where she grew up in the New York City Housing Authority's Louis Pink Houses. The core of her job is managing people's rental process including pulling together the documentation that the New York City Housing Development Corp. requires for such affordable rentals. But she also often manages small repairs including pilot lights going out and broken door knobs. She likes her diverse portfolio. "I want to be this company's regional manager by the time I'm 32," she said.
But she's not just ambitious – she also wants to help her tenants live their best, healthiest lives. That's why when she heard, through her local community board, about a New York state property management certification fellowship with a focus on community health that was being offered by the nonprofit Brooklyn Communities Collaborative she jumped at the chance. Now, she is an official East New York and property management and stewardship of the built environment fellow.
That means she now knows even more about things she was already learning in her job. This includes mold and debris removal to help prevent asthma and other respiratory diseases, maintaining certifications and building inspections, working with vendors to fix plumbing and electric issues, and making improvements in sanitation, waste management and security.
"It was an easy choice" to do the fellowship, she said. "I respected that the program focused on both physical and mental health and how much we can improve people's quality of life." Perkins took the program up on two of four certifications it offered – one in property management and one in green construction management. (The other two are in landlord/tenant law and healthy housing.) The certifications together would have cost her $525 if she'd done them on her own; BCC also gave her and the other fellows a $1,000 stipend to reflect their time spent in the program.
She said that even though she was already working in the day-to-day setting of property management, the certifications opened her eyes. "I learned how little decisions we have to make every day play a big part in the overall health of our residents – for example, daylighting," she said. She means the fact that many common spaces within a complex, such as the laundry room at the complex where she works, are sufficiently lit by daylight and can save the complex money by not using lightbulbs until dusk or dark.
"Or getting maintenance to buy cleansers with less ammonia or chemicals with strong smells that will make people sick," she said. "I don't want to use a floor cleaner where we have to put up signs telling residents not to touch the floor for 24 hours." Another big thing she learned, she said, was how to maximize and program social space within a complex to help alleviate loneliness, which is heavily linked to depression and anxiety.
"Now," she said, "any decision I make, I want it to be something that benefits the tenants."
According to Gretchen Susi, deputy director of BCC, the idea for the fellowship came from the findings of a recent participatory action research study led by BCC in Bed-Stuy, East New York, and Brownsville. Over 2,000 residents were reached through the balloting initiative, she said, and the results indicated that safe, secure, healthy housing was a high priority area for community members. "Through the PAR report and discussions with developers," she said, "the need for health- and community-focused property managers and housing employees was identified – and BCC developed the fellowship to train and certify community members."
Recruitment for the fellowships began in September 2022 and was done in partnership with East New York Restoration LDC. The pilot fellowship officially launched last November, funded with $37,500 from the Mother Cabrini Health Foundation. Fifteen fellows were certified last December; BCC is currently fundraising to support a second cohort.
"The real purpose of this program is to empower residents of Bed-Stuy, Brownsville, and East New York to be agents in improving their neighborhoods and addressing the direct link between health and housing," said Susi. "By training members of the community in property management and stewardship and enabling them to build careers around them, they are building civic and physical infrastructure in their neighborhoods."
That's exactly what Perkins is doing, from the position of her pre-existing job. Since she got the certifications via the BCC program, she's gotten the vice president at her job to approve discontinuation of lightbulb use in the laundry and mail rooms when they are filled with daylight. "You just turn off the lights during the day and people don't even realize they're off," she said., changing the times of day that cleaning occurs to minimize tenant exposure to wet floors and cleanser fumes, and replacing the paint used on fixtures of the property's park so that it doesn't easily chip and flake. "With the old paint," she said, "you could blow on it, and it would chip, which is dangerous, but the paint we're using now is fantastic."
Her crowning glory so far is the reopening of the senior center, which had been closed since the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, as a place for the complex's older folks to gather and exercise together. "My next big thing is reopening the youth center, which should happen in a few weeks," she said. "Parents are less stressed when they know where their kids are and that they're getting exercise and having a good time."
Yes, she admits, even the smallest changes require money. "I have to be wary of costs and there's always red tape, but even if something can't be done right away, my boss says, 'Let's figure out the numbers and how and when we can put this in motion,'" she said.
And that, she said, is a good feeling. "Property management is the best of both worlds for me, because I've always enjoyed office work, but I also like to interact with people and make a difference. I've worked for nonprofits before,” she said. She used to work at East New York Restoration. "and my thing is benefiting others in a way that actually matters. People who live in affordable housing in East New York haven't always gotten the best treatment or care from their property managers, and I want to help restore that faith and trust."