After assailing President Donald Trump for proposed cuts to public housing, City Councilmember Ritchie Torres has been unofficially anointed Trump’s model dissenter. The young, gay, Hispanic Democrat—who grew up in public housing and chairs the committee tasked with its oversight—has been profiled in The New Yorker, Newsweek and Mother Jones. In August, expecting to be re-elected as Councilmember, Torres announced a bid for Council speaker.
Torres, a Democrat also running on the Working Families line, faces Republican-Conservative Jayson Cancel in next Tuesday’s general election for the Council seat representing the 15th district, which covers the Bronx neighborhoods of Bedford Park, Fordham, Mount Hope, Bathgate, Belmont, East Tremont, West Farms, Van Nest, Allerton and Olinville.
Much of Torres’ legislative record fits easily with his profile as a millennial progressive: a bill to rein in police use of nuisance abatement laws, a measure to improve the quality of mental-healthcare received by LGBT New Yorkers, a bid to end the use of a type of polluting heating fuel.
But on public housing, his bread-and-butter issue, Torres has departed from some progressive allies in supporting controversial elements of Next Generation NYCHA, the troubled agency’s plan for dealing with massive operating deficits and a huge capital backlog. Part of the plan involves partnering with landlords and leasing vacant property to raise revenue and reduce the agency’s $17 billion capital need.
Public housing residents and housing advocacy groups have criticized Next Generation NYCHA for giving away public land (although the land would be leased, not sold, to entities in which NYCHA maintains a role) and not creating enough deeply affordable housing in the process. But others blame the federal government for failing to provide sufficient funding and acknowledge NYCHA’s dire need to raise revenue.
The dispute sheds light on a tension at the heart of Torres’ political ambition: whether the councilmember’s combination of progressive advocacy and pragmatic deal making can deliver for the vulnerable he has vowed to protect.
Two new approaches
Next Generation NYCHA consists of several initiatives to improve management of the sprawling housing authority, which houses over 400,000 people in some 170,000 apartments across more than 300 sites in the five boroughs.
But the most important programs within NextGen involve changes to how NYCHA uses its assets.
Rent assistance demonstration, or RAD, offers federal subsidies for the conversion of traditional public housing into Section 8 apartments, where each tenant’s rental subsidy is paid via federal vouchers. In June, NYCHA announced its first RAD project at the 24-building Ocean Bay apartments, in Far Rockaway. Renovations of the kitchens and bathrooms will happen in every apartment by 2020, a NYCHA press release said. Over the next two years, NYCHA plans to add three more RAD projects totaling 60 buildings and 1,700 apartments across Brooklyn and the Bronx.
Meanwhile, Next Generation NYCHA’s development initiative leases NYCHA land—perhaps parking lot or playground–to developers under the condition they build housing made up either entirely of affordable apartments or a mix of 50 percent affordable and 50 percent market rate. While NYCHA’s stated rationale for the project is to create more affordable housing in line with Mayor de Blasio’s Housing New York plan, a secondary reason for the initiative is to generate revenue for NYCHA through the developers’ lease payments.
RAD: Good or bad?
Of the two thrusts, the less controversial RAD—which puts existing NYCHA buildings under control of public-private consortiums so Section 8 can be used to pay operating costs and private capital can be accessed to fund repairs.
Because NYCHA has yet to complete a RAD project, the agency points to the Bronxchester Houses, a Section 8 development in the South Bronx, as evidence of what the program can achieve. In 2014, NYCHA leased a 50 percent stake in Bronxchester to a group of developers. The even split between public and private ownership mirrors the arrangement in place at Ocean Bay apartments, the first RAD project.
Gilbert Lorenzo, 44, a truck driver who lived at Bronxchester for 25 years and returns daily to visit his mother, says private ownership brought apartment renovations and a shiny playground. But “you can’t put sprinkles on s— and call it ice cream,” he says, citing continued problems with plumbing, electricity and pest control. He compared the constant presence of private security since the partnership to a “police state.”
Tammy Echevarria, 42, a disabled mother who has lived at Bronxchester for eight years, lauded the renovations and heightened security. “It’s very, very comfortable,” she says. “The kids can play safely now.” Echevarria’s only concern is the potential for eviction if her apartment loses Section 8 designation, which fixes rent at 30 percent of a tenant’s income.
Deborah Goddard, the acting vice president for development at NYCHA, says the terms of the lease at Bronxchester, and of those at RAD sites, require apartments to remain affordable. “Technically every form of housing is at risk year to year,” Goddard says. Section 8 is more stable than traditional NYCHA housing, also known as Section 9, because it serves a broader, stronger constituency, she adds.
For Torres, the argument for RAD is about practical politics: Section 8 vouchers, because they are used in many different places, have broader support in Washington.
“Section 8 has private and public sector interests advocating for it,” Torres told City Limits. “Historically, Section 8 has seen much higher increases in funding than Section 9.”
Fears over NextGen development
While RAD has grown with little controversy, the plans to develop new housing on NYCHA territory—some of it rented at market rate, all of it involving elements of private control—have generated more resistance.
“Any land given to private developers should be directly for low-income New Yorkers,” says Justin La Mort, a supervising attorney at the community advocacy group Mobilization for Justice. The affordable units created by the program will be too expensive for low-income New Yorkers, he says.
Goddard, of NYCHA, says the agency serves a range of incomes. “With housing costs in this city, people beyond an extremely low income cannot afford to live,” she says. According to NYCHA’s website, the program will generate $300 to $600 million in revenue over the next 10 years.
The programs’s critics say the revenue hardly makes a dent in NYCHA’s $17 billion capital repair backlog. “The amount of money the city will collect isn’t anywhere near sufficient,” La Mort says.
Torres has not moved in lock-step with NYCHA as it edged toward infill development, objecting to the process the authority used to get there. In January 2016, the councilmember criticized the program’s early failure to incorporate input from NYCHA residents. Three months later, NYCHA said it would form committees at development sites made up in part by NYCHA residents as a means of incorporating their views. “I remain a skeptic,” Torres tells City Limits, referring to the promised outreach efforts. “NYCHA has a dubious track record of resident engagement.”
However, Torres says he supports the concept of Next Generation NYCHA development because it reverses the agency’s trend of financial woe. “The status quo is essentially demolition by neglect,” he says. “So how much longer are we willing to wait while these buildings fall deep into disrepair and eventually become unlivable and then have to face demolition? I’m not willing to wait for federal funding that will never come.”
Bruce Berg, a political science professor at Fordham University, agreed. “I think Torres is between a rock and a hard place,” he says. “He’s got constituents in public housing and there are lots of New York City residents in public housing. But the city simply doesn’t have that kind of money.”
Berg notes the city has lacked sufficient support from Washington for decades. “The amount of federal money has been going down since Jimmy Carter,” he says.
But some take issue with the premise that NYCHA has no choice but to lease off its most precious asset. The problem, according to La Mort of Mobilization for Justice, is “NYCHA didn’t manage money well.” And so, “We need to think long term and make sure any decisions we make today won’t hurt future generations of public housing tenants.”
Still, La Mort credits Torres for having “done a lot of good for housing” and being “very helpful on many issues.” The comment marked a pattern among progressive onlookers, who express lukewarm feelings about the plan but admiration for Torres.
“As a rule, the Working Families Party strongly opposes the privatization of any public goods,” says Bill Lipton, the New York State director of the Working Families Party. “But governing can be complex and both Ritchie and NYCHA Chair Shola Olatoye are people we respect and admire.”
Nuanced views on the ground
Residents at Twin Parks West, a public-housing development in Torres’ district, offered a range of views when they were interviewed in October. Some indicated that Torres’ name, whether as a local official or a national figure, was dwarfed by their concerns about living conditions in NYCHA.
Katrina King, 51, a childcare provider, described trash in the courtyard outside her building. “It looks like a third world country,” she said. King says a Torres representative asked residents about their needs at a recent meeting at the development. Torres is “trying to do a good job but we haven’t seen anything come to fruition,” she said.
Barbaro Mendoza, 55, a resident of Twin Parks West and a sanitation worker, said his apartment often lacks hot water. “Where is Ritchie Torres? I’ve seen his name but I don’t know what he does,” he said. “We would know his name if he gave us hot water.”
Jayson Cancel, Torres’ Republican challenger and a student at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, in Brooklyn, depicts Torres as an outsider. “How can you be for us when you’re not with us?” he asked. “Actually be visible. Actually talk to us.”
“We need to bring revenue into the community,” says Cancel, who voted for Trump. He suggested tourism as a way to stimulate the local economy. “My community is beautiful,” he says. “We have the Bronx Zoo, Bronx Community College and so many shopping areas.” But “everybody I grew up with is struggling,” he says.
There are 168,000 residents in the district. “Not every one of them is going to see me,” Torres says. But community leaders “certainly know who I am,” he adds.
Twin Parks West is among the projects NYCHA has slated for RAD designation, which will bring completed renovations “as early as 2020,” a NYCHA press release said. “Twin Parks West was not originally on NYCHA’s list until I advocated for them,” Torres says.
Anthny Queen, the owner of a deli near Twin Parks West, approved of Torres’ efforts to infuse private investment into public housing. “We got to fix this,” he says.
King, the childcare provider and Twin Parks West resident, hadn’t seen the national coverage of Torres but was optimistic about its impact. “It could be good. Maybe he’ll step out and do more now because all eyes are on him.”
Diana French, 63, a volunteer at the Bronx Park East Community Association, an advocacy group in Torres’ district, says the national coverage bodes well for his constituents. “I don’t know how much a New Yorker article matters in the Bronx necessarily,” she says. But “it means that people are not just interested in him as a person, they’re also interested in what’s going on in the Bronx.”
The race for speaker
Torres says press attention helps him deliver for constituents who live in NYCHA buildings. “My advocacy for public housing on a national and citywide stage is intimately tied to improving the tides of investment in my district’s public housing,” he says.
The councilmember says his focus on policy outcomes drives him to pursue the council speaker role. “You can affect infinitely more change than a rank and file councilman,” he says. “It’s a position from which you can do an enormous amount of good for an enormous number of people.”
In the speaker’s race, he joined a crowded field, which includes Manhattan fundraising heavyweights Corey Johnson and Mark Levine as well as Brooklyn’s Jumaane Williams.
Torres says he brings a distinct perspective informed by his lived experience as a former resident of public housing.
“The progressive label can become self-righteous,” he says. “Some people use it as a cudgel to suggest, ‘I’m holier than thou.'”
“Progressive governance is not about what’s in your heart,” he adds. “It’s about the actual impact your policies have on people.”