Fighting for the Poor Under Trump

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Ritchie Torres represents one of the poorest City Council districts in New York.Ritchie Torres represents one of the poorest City Council districts in New York. Credit Photograph by Cait Oppermann for The New Yorker

Ritchie Torres, the youngest elected official in New York City, grew up in a small apartment in Throggs Neck Houses, a public-housing project in the East Bronx, with his mother, his sister, and his twin brother. The complex is isolated—the closest subway station is a forty-minute walk away—so Torres and his friends found ways to entertain themselves. They staged W.W.E.-style wrestling shows on the playground, with fake blood, and Torres in the role of the Rock. His grandparents, who lived in a building nearby, had been among the project’s original residents, moving in soon after it opened, in 1953. In the summer, his grandfather sat on a bench in front of his building, spraying kids with a hose, while his grandmother gave out icies from her third-floor window, putting them in a bag and lowering them by rope to the children below.

Across the street was a vacant two-hundred-and-twenty-acre expanse of land, the site of a former city garbage dump, which reached to the East River. In 1998, when Torres was ten, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani announced a plan to transform the site into an eighteen-hole golf course. There were repeated delays, and the course was still unfinished twelve years later, when the city chose someone to operate it: Donald J. Trump. Not long afterward, a rumor spread that Trump was going to buy Throggs Neck Houses, too, and evict everyone who lived there.

The development had about four thousand residents, who lived in thirty-six buildings, many of them in extreme disrepair. Water leaked through the ceilings and mold grew on the bathroom walls in Torres’s apartment, and the elevators broke down so often that he had nightmares about being stuck in them. But rents were capped at thirty per cent of a household’s income, and some families feared that if they were evicted they would be unable to find housing elsewhere, and might end up in one of the city’s homeless shelters. In the end, Trump did not buy Throggs Neck Houses—the New York City Housing Authority still operates all three hundred and twenty-eight public-housing developments—but he did take over the land across the street, which is now Trump Golf Links at Ferry Point. The city built the golf course, at a cost of a hundred and twenty-seven million dollars. Trump agreed to build a clubhouse and create and maintain the grounds, and he does not have to share any revenues with the city until 2019. The Daily News called the course a “sand trap for taxpayers.”

Torres, now twenty-eight, is a member of the New York City Council, where he represents the Fifteenth District, in the central Bronx, one of the poorest in the city. He lives in the Allerton neighborhood, but one afternoon in August he was back at Throggs Neck Houses to visit his mother, who still occupies the apartment where he grew up. Torres, who calls himself Afro-Latino—his family is originally from Puerto Rico—is tall and slim and dresses stylishly. Despite the eighty-six-degree heat, he wore a gray suit, a lavender dress shirt, a purple tie, and a City Council lapel pin. He stopped to look, through a tall black fence, at the golf course, which opened last year. The weekend rate to play a round there is about two hundred dollars, which is almost half the average monthly rent for an apartment in public housing. To Torres, the course is an “egregious misallocation of resources.” Even in casual conversation, he often sounds as if he’s giving a speech. “New York is a tale of two cities,” he said. “You have the gilded city and the other city, and the core of the other city is the New York City Housing Authority.”

Torres was sworn into office in early 2014, at what seemed a propitious moment. Bill de Blasio had just been elected mayor on a left-wing platform, and the City Council had twenty-one new members (out of a total of fifty-one), many of whom, like Torres, identify as progressive. He was the only new member chosen to join the leadership, and was also appointed to chair the Committee on Public Housing. In the nearly three years since he took office, he has challenged the police commissioner, the mayor, and the governor on issues ranging from police reform to school segregation to public housing. Earlier this year, his photograph appeared in the New York Observer beneath the headline “Could This 27-Year-Old Councilman Be the Mayor of New York One Day?”

He is still wary of housing-project elevators, so he climbed the stairs to his mother’s apartment and knocked on the door. He could hear her unbolting the locks—there are seven—and then she appeared. “Hi, Ritchie!” she said as he kissed her on the cheek. A gregarious woman of fifty-six, Debra Bosolet wore an oversized T-shirt and fuzzy pink slippers. “I made some little turkey-and-cheese sandwiches,” she said, taking a plate out of the refrigerator. While Torres sat in a corner, checking his BlackBerry, she explained to me that she had named her son for Ritchie Valens, having seen the movie “La Bamba” when she was pregnant.

“She named me after a promising young man who died at seventeen,” Torres said.

“But he is remembered to this day,” Bosolet told him. “Lucky I didn’t name you Reuben, after the sandwich.” She gave that name to his brother, after discovering the sandwich at Roy Rogers during her pregnancy. Reuben still lives in the apartment, and works for a city agency; their sister, Melissa, lives in Manhattan, where she is a property manager.

Torres’s father never lived with the family. Torres remembers spending a whole day with him only once, when he was fifteen and his father took him to a federal prison, in New Jersey, to visit his two half brothers, who were serving time for gang-related crimes. Torres’s mother supported her three children by working low-wage jobs, including serving food in a cafeteria and delivering Domino’s pizzas. She often told her children, “I don’t want you to be like me. I want you to go farther.”

Torres and his mother talked for a while, and then he told her that he had to leave. “I’m being honored tonight,” he said.

“Again?” she asked.

The event, called “Young Gets It Done,” was at Up & Down, a night club on West Fourteenth Street. The Manhattan Young Democrats were recognizing Torres for his efforts to expand jobs programs for public-housing residents, provide more mental-health services for L.G.B.T. people, and improve relations between the police and the community. He sat on a stage with Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul and Representative Sean Patrick Maloney. Several hundred people were in attendance, and the mood was ebullient. Hillary Clinton seemed comfortably ahead in the polls, and when Robby Mook, her campaign manager, walked onstage they cheered. Torres took gulps of red wine to calm his nerves as he waited for his turn to speak, but once he took the microphone he seemed at ease. “I’m a Bronx boy to the core,” he said. “But it’s an honor to accept an award from the Manhattan Young Dems.”

He had just returned from the Democratic National Convention, in Philadelphia, where, he told the audience, a stranger had asked for his autograph: “I was flattered but confused. I said, This woman is from the opposite end of the country. Why would she want my autograph? And she kept pressing me and pressing me and pressing me. Then suddenly she realized, Wait a minute. You’re not the real Trevor Noah!” The crowd laughed. Torres spoke about the challenges he had confronted growing up, and closed with a message for his fellow-millennials: “Even in our moment of greatest darkness, there is light. And there is hope. And there is hope not only for our own lives, but we should be hopeful about our ability to change the world.”

Torres attended Lehman High School, in the Bronx, which was then one of the largest public high schools in the city, with more than four thousand students. Even so, the principal, Robert Leder, knew Torres. “He was very bright and very involved,” Leder told me. One day, during his sophomore year, Torres announced, during a school forum on the definition of marriage, “I’m proud to be a gay American.” (As he put it, “I had a Jim McGreevey moment.”) He had realized that he was gay when he was in the seventh grade, but he hadn’t told anyone, for fear of being targeted. The news shocked his family. He says that he and his mother “never spoke about the subject again until I ran for public office.”

Torres was not always a disciplined student—he regularly skipped class—but in the tenth grade he joined the law team. Each week, he and the other students made an hour-long trip to the offices of Clifford Chance, a corporate law firm in midtown Manhattan, where attorneys coached them, and he got his first glimpse of life beyond the Bronx. His mother bought him thrift-store dress shirts for these meetings; he ironed them at night in the kitchen. In his junior year, he became the team captain, and twice he led Lehman to the city moot-court championship, beating élite schools like Stuyvesant and Bronx Science.

Every year, James Vacca, the district manager of the local community board, invited a Lehman student to be his “district manager for a day.” When Torres was sixteen, Leder recommended him. On the day he spent with Vacca, Torres spoke at a senior center, helped mediate a dispute between Lehman and a local gym over students’ access to its facilities, and attended a community-board meeting that included a discussion of plans for the golf course near Throggs Neck Houses. By the end of the day, Torres knew that he wanted to work in politics. In 2005, Vacca ran, successfully, for the City Council, and Torres campaigned door to door for him.

Torres enrolled in New York University in the fall of 2006, but he fell into a severe depression and dropped out at the start of his sophomore year. He moved home and took a part-time job in Vacca’s office, but he was often late for work. He struggled to find mental-health care, which can be extremely difficult for low-income families in the Bronx to attain. Eventually, he was able to obtain an antidepressant, and began to recover. He started working seven days a week, and focussed on housing: he visited constituents’ homes, took pictures of building violations, and pressed landlords to make repairs. In early 2013, when a council seat in a neighboring district opened up, Torres, then twenty-four, decided to run for it, with Vacca’s support.

The Fifteenth District includes Fordham University and the Bronx Zoo. A hundred and sixty-eight thousand people live there, more than the population of New Haven. Nearly forty per cent of the residents are immigrants, and the median household income is twenty-three thousand dollars a year. The central Bronx had been badly underserved; since 2003, four state legislators had gone to prison, for crimes including bribery, embezzlement, and fraud. Ronn Jordan, a longtime activist, had been planning to work on behalf of another candidate, but a friend asked him to talk to Torres. Jordan recalls that, after they met, “I said, This is the guy who’s going to be exactly what this community needs.” He added, “Ritchie’s time in Vacca’s office served him well, because he was doing housing organizing. I think that is where politics needs to go now: to organize and be out in the communities that you represent, to give people the opportunity to get to know you. Because, other than that, most people don’t know what a council member does.”

Jordan, who is now fifty-two and uses a wheelchair, taped Torres campaign posters to his chair and sat outside a subway station each morning, asking strangers to sign a petition to get Torres on the ballot. “Who’s going to say no to a guy in a wheelchair?” he said. “I collected a lot of signatures.” When they campaigned together, Torres was occasionally mistaken for another famous person. “Sometimes kids would yell, ‘There’s Obama! There’s Obama!’ ” Jordan said. “We’d have to tell them that he wasn’t the President.”

Although the Bronx is solidly Democratic, its residents tend to be more socially conservative than those in Manhattan or Brooklyn. Torres calls it the “Bible Belt of New York City.” When his mother made campaign calls, one person told her, “Your son is going to Hell!” But Torres did not hide his sexuality; instead, he pledged to secure services for the borough’s L.G.B.T. population. Almost every candidate who wins elected office in the borough has the endorsement of the Bronx Democratic Party, but in this race the Party stayed neutral. The City Council’s Progressive Caucus supported Torres, as did the city’s largest unions. He also had a knack for retail politics. He called on more than six thousand voters in the district, and was often told, “I’ve never had a candidate knock on my door before.”

The Fifteenth District has an especially low voter-turnout rate, and Torres received fewer than twenty-eight hundred votes in the primary, but it was enough to beat five other candidates. He won the general election with ninety-one per cent of the vote, and became the first openly gay person to hold elected office in the Bronx.

Cartoon“Try to ignore the hot-dog smell.”

Before Torres took office, City Council members were already maneuvering for committee assignments. While his new colleagues sought more prestigious posts, such as the chair of the Committee on Finance or of the Committee on Land Use, Torres made it known that he wanted to head the Committee on Public Housing. The job had traditionally been a low-profile position, with little power. Other committees have legislative authority over city agencies, but the public-housing committee cannot pass bills dictating how the New York City Housing Authority operates, because NYCHA was created by the state. The council’s speaker appoints the committee chairs, and when Melissa Mark-Viverito, one of the leaders of the Progressive Caucus, assumed the role, Torres was given the job he wanted. “It seemed so obvious that I don’t think we gave it that much thought,” Brad Lander, who represents Park Slope and is a co-founder of the caucus, said. “It was already clear that he would not only bring his passion about the issue but his smarts to figuring out how to make that committee as relevant as it possibly could be.”

NYCHA oversees the largest public-housing program in the country, and the chair of the City Council’s Committee on Public Housing oversees NYCHA. “At some level, it’s absurd,” Torres told me. “At age twenty-six, I was chairing the committee that oversees the largest landlord in New York City.” More than four hundred thousand people live in the city’s public housing; ninety per cent of them are African-American and Latino, and the average household income is twenty-three thousand dollars a year. The income from rents doesn’t cover the cost of operating the buildings, and so NYCHA depends on funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to make up the difference; this year NYCHA will receive $1.2 billion to operate and repair its complexes. In the nineteen-eighties, President Ronald Reagan slashed HUD’s budget, and its contribution to NYCHA shrank significantly. The state and the city, which helped to fund the housing authority, cut their contributions, too. By now, the buildings have been neglected for so long that, by NYCHA’s own estimates, it would cost seventeen billion dollars to make all the necessary repairs.

Council committees typically hold public hearings once a month. Torres found his first hearing subject shortly after he took office, when he toured Red Hook Houses, which were built in 1938 and are the largest public-housing complex in Brooklyn. When Hurricane Sandy hit the city, in the fall of 2012, seawater destroyed most of the boilers. NYCHA installed temporary boilers, which resembled tractor-trailers and were connected to the buildings by pipes. They emitted black smoke, and often broke down. Carlos Menchaca, the newly elected council member for the area, showed them to Torres. As it turned out, more than a year after the hurricane, temporary boilers were still being used in sixteen projects, in three boroughs. In February, 2014, he and Mark Treyger, who chairs the Committee on Recovery and Resiliency, held a joint hearing.

Council hearings tend to be routine events, and Torres decided to do some things differently. The Committee on Public Housing always held its hearings at either City Hall or across the street, at 250 Broadway, where the council members have their legislative offices. Torres and Treyger arranged for their hearing to take place at Carey Gardens, a project in Coney Island that had also been damaged in the storm. More than a hundred people filled a community room, and Torres made sure that reporters were there, too. “This hearing is coming to order,” he said, banging a gavel. “Before I begin, I would just like to note that everyone here today will be able to look back and say they were part of history. Today’s hearing will be the very first hearing of the Committee on Public Housing to be held in public housing.” The audience members applauded. “We in government so often ask you to come to us. Now it’s time for us to come to you.” Torres then addressed NYCHA’s explanation for the delay with the boilers: it couldn’t get new ones until it came up with a resiliency plan for future disasters, but it couldn’t make a resiliency plan without knowing how much money they would get from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and other sources.

“Think about that for a second,” Torres said. “NYCHA is saying that they can’t make plans without funding, and they can’t get funding without plans. If that’s really the case, then what we have here is an unresolvable situation. A Catch-22. I, for one, refuse to accept that.” He insisted that the housing authority needed to provide a clearer explanation “here and now.” Then he and Treyger changed the customary format. Rather than letting the NYCHA executives speak first, they gave the floor to three female tenant leaders, who spoke about the constant lack of heat and hot water, and about how elderly residents had to turn on their ovens to keep warm. “We shouldn’t have to live like this,” one of them said.

Shortly afterward, a staff member in Senator Charles Schumer’s office called NYCHA to discuss how the Senator could expedite negotiations with FEMA. Last year, Schumer and Mayor de Blasio announced that FEMA had agreed to give the housing authority three billion dollars to replace the boilers and to repair buildings damaged by the hurricane—one of the largest grants that FEMA has ever made. Repairs are under way at four projects, and the first temporary boilers are scheduled to be removed before the end of the year.

In addition to his legislative office, downtown, Torres has a district office in a small storefront just off Fordham Road, across the street from a White Castle. Ronn Jordan manages the office, and there are eight other employees, all of them in their twenties. When I visited the Bronx office last summer, Torres and his staff were in a back room, holding a meeting. They discussed an upcoming book-bag giveaway for school kids; a crime surge in one neighborhood; a constituent’s suggestion that Andrew Jackson Houses, near Yankee Stadium, be renamed Harriet Tubman Houses (“I like it,” Torres said); and a recent spike in calls from Mexican and Dominican immigrants asking for help in becoming citizens—a phenomenon that the staff members called the “Trump effect.”

Housing, however, remains Torres’s primary focus. On a wall of his downtown office, there is a photograph of the demolition of the Pruitt-Igoe project, in St. Louis. When it was completed, in 1956, it was one of the largest public-housing developments in the country; within two decades, it had become so dilapidated and unsafe that the city tore it down. Chicago, Newark, and Philadelphia, among other cities, have since demolished some of their housing projects. Torres considers it his job to help insure that this never happens in New York City.

He studies housing policy in his spare time, and on a shelf in his Bronx office he keeps “The Power Broker,” Robert Caro’s book about how Robert Moses built modern-day New York, and “Public Housing That Worked: New York in the Twentieth Century,” by Nicholas Dagen Bloom. “Even though public housing failed catastrophically elsewhere in the country, it has largely been successful here,” Torres says. “NYCHA has endured for more than eighty years, and for most of those decades it was a success.” He likes to name famous alumni of the projects: Lloyd Blankfein, Whoopi Goldberg, Sonia Sotomayor. “If you’re a progressive, you believe every American deserves safe, decent, and affordable housing, and there’s no institution in American life more dedicated to that proposition than the New York City Housing Authority,” he says. If the city were to lose its housing projects, “we would have hundreds of thousands of people overflowing our homeless shelters.” He adds, “My mother would be homeless without it.” That’s true, she told me, “but I wish he wouldn’t say it so often. I don’t need the whole world to know that.”

In recent decades, NYCHA gained a reputation for chronic mismanagement, and Torres has continued to try to hold the agency accountable. In 2014, he called a hearing after Akai Gurley was killed by a stray bullet fired by a police officer at night in a stairwell with a broken light in the Pink Houses, in Brooklyn. He held another hearing, in 2015, after a malfunctioning elevator in Boston Road Plaza, in the Bronx, jolted upward when Olegario Pabon, an eighty-four-year-old tenant, tried to step in. He fell and hit his head and died a few days later. At times, Torres’s hearings have the feel of a trial. “Believe me, we spend a lot of our time prepping for his hearings, because we know that he takes it seriously,” Brian Honan, a NYCHA executive, told me. “It definitely shines a light on an issue and makes us focus on it, and oftentimes we’ve changed as a result.”

James Vacca, Torres’s former boss, is now his colleague on the City Council. “Every committee is only as good as the chair. I think Ritchie has used the oversight function we have in a very consequential way,” Vacca says. “We have formal powers and we have informal powers”—like drawing media attention to problems that are often overlooked—“and how you use both is an indication of your effectiveness.”

The fight over funding for public housing occasionally calls for compromise. Mayor de Blasio had made improving housing for the poor a central part of his campaign, and after he took office he pledged to steer a hundred million dollars a year for three years to NYCHA to address what it had determined was its most pressing need: replacing the roofs in the worst condition. Last year, de Blasio and NYCHA’s chair, Shola Olatoye, announced a ten-year strategic plan for the agency. The most controversial part of the plan involved leasing NYCHA land to private developers to build apartment buildings right next to the projects. Not only would the buildings occupy open spaces, such as playgrounds and parking lots, but the rents would be higher than many NYCHA residents could afford. Torres has been critical of some of de Blasio’s policies; after the Mayor proposed that seven hundred and fifty NYCHA apartments be set aside for homeless families, Torres said that the number was “too timid.” But he did not fight the private-development proposal, calling it a “tragic necessity,” because “we need to generate revenue.”

In 2015, New York State decided to make its first significant contribution to NYCHA in years, giving it a total of a hundred million dollars. But a battle broke out between the city and the state about how to spend the money, and Torres found himself opposing the governor, Andrew Cuomo. NYCHA had planned to use the funds to replace roofs, but Cuomo asked State Assembly members to submit smaller funding proposals, for things such as playgrounds and landscaping, in housing developments in their own districts. The Governor’s spokesperson defended the decision to the Daily News, blaming NYCHA for its own “previous failures to identify and make needed repairs.” Torres held a hearing, in which he accused Cuomo of using the money as a “political slush fund.” He said, “Of all the physical needs plaguing public housing, none is more urgent and none has a greater return on investment than replacing dilapidated roofs that strike at the root cause of chronic living conditions like mold growth and water leaks.” A year and a half later, forty-two million dollars has been spent on security, including cameras; the rest will be spent on upgrades, such as repairing trash compactors and improving community centers. None has been spent on roofs.

Forty-eight of Torres’s fifty colleagues in the City Council are Democrats, and before New York’s Presidential primary, last April, nearly all of them had endorsed the state’s former U.S. senator, Hillary Clinton. But Torres was interested in Senator Bernie Sanders’s progressive agenda. On March 31st, Sanders held a rally in St. Mary’s Park, in the South Bronx, and Torres arrived early. The moment he met Sanders, he started telling him about the conditions in the housing projects, and the seventeen billion dollars required to repair them. Torres says that Sanders looked shocked and asked, “Is that billions, with a ‘b’ ?”

On April 17th, Torres, with the council member Jumaane Williams and the Brooklyn borough president, Eric Adams, took Sanders to visit Howard Houses, in Brownsville. Afterward, Torres decided to endorse Sanders. One former elected official told him, “You had a promising career, but now it’s over.” Torres told me, laughing, “My stock fell in some corners of the Democratic Party, which hardly keeps me up at night.”

Torres supported Clinton once she became the nominee. He was invited to her Election Night party at the Javits Center, in Manhattan, but decided to watch the returns on television at home. He stayed up until 3 A.M., to see Trump give his acceptance speech. Now he thinks that his constituents may be among those who will suffer the most under a Trump Administration. Some of them “live in a state of fear” at the prospect of being deported, he said. The city’s budget relies on seven billion dollars a year in federal funding, for services from welfare payments to rental subsidies and childcare vouchers, all of which would be imperilled if spending is cut. In addition, NYCHA is perhaps the most vulnerable agency in the city, since it gets nearly all its government funding from HUD. Torres is equally troubled by Trump’s suggestion that Ben Carson run HUD. Carson grew up poor, in Detroit, the son of a single mother who sometimes relied on public assistance, but he has said that he is “interested in getting rid of dependency.” Torres worries that NYCHA is a “natural target.”

A few days after the election, he was in a slightly better mood, when the city’s Department of Homeless Services reported that it would open a shelter, in his district, for L.G.B.T. young adults. Torres had fought hard for the facility, which will have eighty beds, and will serve as a refuge, providing counselling and access to medical care.

There was some other news in the borough that week: executives for Trump Golf Links at Ferry Point had been trying to lease an additional twenty acres of city land, including part of the waterfront, in order to extend the course and qualify to host the U.S. Open and other major tournaments. The city had decided to reject the request.