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Working to Provide Shelter for New Yorkers in Need: Five Questions with Aileen Reynolds

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When she started college a decade ago, Aileen Reynolds, FCRH ’14, wasn’t sure where her path would lead; she only knew she wanted to “serve the greater good.” She found her calling in affordable housing.

“When you are a factor in providing someone with safe and affordable housing, you’re not just giving them that,” she says. “You are giving them access to a career, to a stable schooling system for their children—it trickles out, and I think that’s an extraordinarily important thing, a human right.”

Reynolds joined New York City’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development as its new executive director of housing opportunity in February. She leads a team that evaluates and implements affordable housing practices, ensuring that the city is providing affordable housing in a fair, open, and transparent way.

It’s the kind of big-picture, policymaking job that is especially critical during the coronavirus crisis, she says. “Sharing rooms is not exactly an ideal situation for a pandemic, so we have been working in overdrive to try to link people currently residing in shelter to housing opportunities.”

The silver lining, she says, is that the current crisis has sped up the usual process. “It’s a service we do in a regular environment, but now we have extra staff from other areas of the agency. And getting people this stability has a ripple effect in the rest of their life.”

Reynolds says her time at Fordham helped her find a place she could pursue her passions professionally.

“It was refreshing to be in an environment where everyone is encouraged to pursue a little bit of everything so they can be the best person they can be,” she says, “for themselves and for the world.”

When she graduated with a double major in general science and sociology, she knew she wanted to serve the Bronx community she had grown to know and love. Her first position at Fordham Bedford Housing Corporation introduced her to the idea of preserving and expanding safe, affordable housing, and that experience has continued to play a large part in the rest of her career, including in her current position. “When I’m thinking about what policies are best to make affordable housing as successful as possible, I have real on-the-ground experience, real names, real faces that I can think about.”

When she talks about her career path with current Fordham students, Reynolds says, “I like to tell them that I never would have guessed, when I was in undergrad, that I would be where I am now, in this specific role, because it just wasn’t on my radar at the time. But my work definitely lines up with the mindset I have always had, to help vulnerable populations; none of that has changed. It’s just the specifics of how it worked out.”

She has also helped mentor students through a 2016 Global Outreach project in Nicaragua, and she’s been on the Young Alumni Committee since she graduated, most of that time spent on either the philanthropy or the social justice subcommittee.

She says her continued involvement with the University has been especially rewarding because, aside from her career, the friends she made at Fordham have had the most significant impact on her life.

“Fordham attracts a special type of person, which is why those relationships have been so valuable,” Reynolds says. “Any way I can maintain that community and give back or encourage continued improvement at Fordham is important to me.”

What are you most passionate about?
I am most passionate about bringing about greater equity in New York City. New York is an amazing city, with a plethora of resources. Yet we have income inequality and wealth disparity that defines us just as much as being “the city that never sleeps.” I was exposed to this firsthand at Fordham. This passion has informed a lot of my decisions in life, including my career. I am also on the board of the Bronx is Blooming, a nonprofit that promotes environmental justice by giving Bronx youth the tools they need to be leaders in their own communities. It’s an organization I was introduced to as a student; I worked there for two summers when it was fairly new, and it really made me feel part of the Bronx community. I’ve stayed involved ever since, and it’s been amazing to see it grow. Serving on their board now helps me maintain my connection to the Bronx, which is still very important to me. I hope to one day live in a city where no one has to worry about the security of their housing, health, or food; I think we have the ability to get there, and I hope to be part of that solution.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
I think the advice to “take a lap”—most commonly used when someone does something dumb or silly and you have to take a lap to walk off the embarrassment—is both funny and earnestly helpful. I’m not sure who first gave me this advice, but whenever I am feeling overwhelmed or anxious about something, whether it’s in my professional life or my personal life, I find taking a lap (or a walk, or a breath) is always worthwhile time spent to collect my thoughts and re-center myself.

What’s your favorite place in New York City? In the world?
New York City is my favorite place in the world! I have so many favorite places in New York, and they each stir a different memory or feeling for me: the Little Red Lighthouse under the George Washington Bridge, Belvedere Castle in Central Park, and the market on Arthur Avenue are just a few. One of my favorite places in the city is the hidden gem that is Fort Tilden. Fort Tilden is part of the National Parks Service and is located just east of Rockaway. I love this spot because it provides a beach oasis where I can see piping plovers nesting in the dunes and go for a swim in the Atlantic, and then take a 45-minute ferry ride at the end of the day back home to Manhattan.

Name a book that has had a lasting influence on you.
I had heard Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City referenced often, especially among my colleagues in the housing industry. I knew it was critically acclaimed, and did not doubt its significance; however, I had quickly filed it away in my mind as a good book for laypeople to read, a book for those who didn’t already know about the struggles of low-income renters. What I did not expect was how intimately Matthew Desmond tells the stories of victims of eviction and their landlords, and how that intimacy lends to a uniquely compelling book about the rental market’s role in institutional poverty. I highly recommend that any social justice-minded folks who are interested in the nexus between having a home and breaking the cycle of poverty pick up this book!

Who is the Fordham grad or professor you admire most?
I am proud to say I have a long list of graduates and professors who I admire from my time at Fordham, many of whom are my personal friends. But the Fordham grad I admire the absolute most is my dad, Patrick Reynolds. My dad graduated from Fordham College at Lincoln Center in 1981 after working his way through school to be the first one in his family to get a college degree. He went on to join the New York City Fire Department—another thing I admire about him—and he always fostered an environment of learning and curiosity in our home growing up, which I am grateful for. Thanks to my dad, I valued eloquentia perfecta before I even set foot on Fordham’s campus.

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