Lynne Patton on the “Humanitarian Crisis” in NYC Housing
New York’s top housing official goes deep on NYCHA, Donald Trump and rats the size of cats
When President Trump named Lynne Patton to run the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s New York and New Jersey office, Democrats, advocates, and media elites slammed her as a Trump loyalist who was unqualified for the job.
After all, Patton previously served as the vice president of the Eric Trump Foundation and as a senior family assistant, which is not exactly a fertile training ground for a position that oversees federal housing policy affecting millions of low-income and middle-income New Yorkers.
The former Trump Organization employee and campaign surrogate stepped into the same job that, two decades earlier, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio occupied under President Clinton. Speaking of the mayor, she soon went toe-to-toe with de Blasio over the city’s failed management of the public housing system, extracting a federal monitor to oversee its overhaul after a multiyear lead paint testing scandal and coverup, and stayed overnight in a New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) property for a month to draw attention to its decrepit living conditions.
Patton has brought more attention to the sleepy federal agency and public housing’s long-festering crisis than has been seen in decades. But her strength may be leveraging her close, personal relationship with the president to benefit a subject that isn’t at the forefront of his agenda: the housing needs of more than a million people of color in two predominantly blue states.
Commercial Observer: How did you meet the Trump family?
Lynne Patton: Because of my integration into that whole private school world, I ran in certain circles socially that had me on the invite list in the Hamptons, New York, and Connecticut. Eventually I ended up meeting a man named Michael Cohen [Trump’s fixer, now serving time in federal prison for a range of financial crimes connected to the president]. He and I bumped into each other at a lot of fundraisers and he thought I could be extremely helpful to a charity that one of Trump’s sons was starting, Eric Trump. I ended up being the head of Eric’s charity for St. Jude [Children’s Research Hospital] and helping Eric through his office work. His previous assistant didn’t come back after maternity leave. He never did hire a replacement for her.
Why were you drawn to housing?
During the campaign, because of my viral video on YouTube [Patton spoke about her relationship with the Trump family at the Republican National Convention in July 2016], I began traveling with the president to rural and urban areas of poverty to share my story that countered a racist narrative — how the president has more women and more minorities in positions of authority at the Trump Organization than any [other] company I worked at. I felt that I had made personal promises to many people in those communities. Even though he wanted me to take a job in the White House, I wanted to make sure that somebody was delivering on those promises that we made and I felt the best way to do that was to go to one of those agencies that was more on the ground doing that mission every day, and that would be HUD.
Early in your tenure, you lived in public housing for a month. What did you learn from your stay?
I’m proud that we have been able to put the humanitarian crisis that is NYCHA on the map more than any other person here in New York was able to do. That doesn’t mean it solved the problem, but it brought a lot of eyes to it. One of the reasons I did it was that I knew the federal monitor was coming and it allowed me to get a firsthand look at the work order system and how depleted NYCHA is with respect to its field staff. I stayed at a property in Harlem called Douglass Houses that has 19 separate residential towers, each with 25 floors. They had three janitors to take care of 19 independent towers. You could be the best janitor in the world and not be able to keep up with that workload. Because of my stay, I’ve been working with the deputy mayor who is competent and involved, Vicki Been, and Greg Russ, the new NYCHA chairman. We insisted … on a hiring plan to put more janitors on the ground.
Are there enough personnel to fix NYCHA?
The issue has always been [that] there isn’t enough funding but even Judge [William] Pauley said there’s more than enough funding to hire these people in the rejection of the consent decree we submitted. Even the president wants to know where the $30 million a week he gives to NYCHA is going. NYCHA spends almost $1.4 billion on salary and benefits every year. We need to ask ourselves why there are so many people in white buttoned-down shirts in 250 Broadway instead of maintenance and skills workers in the field with button-up overalls doing the actual work.
Isn’t NYCHA’s biggest challenge its physical renovations and capital needs?
It’s hard to maintain that if you don’t have people in the field keeping it clean and well-treated, too. But there’s no question the monitor’s first priority is exigent heath and safety issues: lead, mold and pests. I showered in brown discolored water when I lived there. We breathed in toxic mold spores that I could see on the ceiling. At one particular property a rat almost ran right across my feet. I looked over to see where it came from. There was a huge pile of garbage and all of his friends were eating in there. It’s sad. One of the residents said at night [the pests] all turn that courtyard into their basecamp and playground, darting around like pigeons and squirrels in Central Park. They’ve actually become unafraid of human contact.
What’s your relationship with Bill de Blasio like?
Bill de Blasio was actually in this office with me a year ago when we all signed with [HUD] Secretary [Ben] Carson the agreement between HUD, SDNY, the city, and NYCHA. He popped his head in here, we did our little spiel. He said to me behind closed doors, because I’m in this office, you have to run for mayor of New York. I don’t think I’ll take him up on that but those were his words, not mine. [Mayor de Blasio’s spokeswoman Olivia Lapeyrolerie told CO, “The mayor certainly does not think Ms. Patton should ever be mayor of New York City.”]
Has the mayor said anything since then?
The mayor and I have our little Twitter fights simply because the mayor is constantly trying to pat himself on the back for turning heat and hot water on … I tell him I’m not in the business of getting awards for doing your job. It should never be going off. He is not an active participant in turning NYCHA around and that is by design from our agreement. We don’t need him involved in this and we’re doing fine without him.
How would you describe his record on housing?
It’s confounding to me the mayor of New York has taken such an absentee position with reforming the biggest crisis next to transportation in this city. It is inexplicable to me that he could think he could run for president and not first fix what is going on in his backyard. To me, it’s not even about politics, it’s about the residents. It breaks my heart that he’s not there for them and he delegates it to the folks in his office who I work with.
This president is the one who assigned a federal monitor. This president is the one who is giving more funding for capital repairs [to] NYCHA than any president since 1997. This president is also the first sitting president to call an emergency meeting on the conditions of NYCHA because of my stay in NYCHA that brought national attention to this crisis.
[In 2018, the Trump administration proposed cutting $466 million from NYCHA’s operational fund and wiping out public housing’s capital funds entirely at a cost of $346 million. Last year, the administration again to sought to eliminate capital fund allocations to public housing. Said de Blasio spokeswoman Lapeyrolerie, “The only reason that NYCHA received increased federal funding in recent years is thanks to our congressional delegation standing up for residents and squashing the Trump administation’s draconian efforts to zero out the public housing capital fund.”]
Do you think you have the president’s ear on NYCHA because of your relationship with him?
Without a doubt. The president is a New Yorker. He certainly grew up and lived here at a time when NYCHA was in much better condition than it is today. He remembers that time.
One of the things that really shocked me was that I was so poorly received when it was announced I was going to be the new regional administrator. [And] that folks were more focused on claiming that I was a wedding planner and trying to job-shame me for being a past event planner than focusing on the real benefit I brought to this office, which is that I literally have the president’s cell phone number. I have Secretary Carson’s cell phone number. When is the last time someone in this position that can pick up the phone and call real decision-makers or text someone from the White House like Kellyanne Conway and let them know that maybe this executive order should go out on Davis-Bacon [a federal law requiring workers to be paid the local prevailing wage on public buildings]? Or talk to folks like Ja’Ron Smith [White House urban policy adviser] who are responsible for domestic policy in urban areas about opportunity zones directly?
It always struck me that all these housing wonks, who are so plugged into requests for funding and policy reform and tools for different funding like low income tax housing credits and Federal Financing Bank Risk Share, didn’t realize that all their wish list could be fulfilled by me and my team and what we bring to this office.
Do the wonks realize this now?
Yes! Finally! My phone rings off the hook because they see that when I say I’m going to do something, it gets done pretty quickly. One of the things they seized on was RAD — Rental Assistance Demonstration — a program that applies to both public housing and multifamily housing distressed properties. The multifamily component RAD2 [the second part of the housing financing program that gives HUD owners the opportunity to enter into long-term contracts that make it easier to pay for improvements] was due to the last general counsel, subject to prevailing wage. Any time you wanted to preserve affordable housing in this country you had to pay union wages. When they presented that argument to me, we could easily reinterpret the definition of reconstruction … that seemed like a no-brainer. We brought that language to the general counsel who immediately posted it in federal notice to now be interpreted to not trigger Davis-Bacon. That went into effect probably saving up to $7 million on any sort of normal multifamily repair. That enabled us to use that money for sustainable materials, green materials and more programs for people who live there.
When the president tweets things about Baltimore failing, does he have any concept of how people live in public housing and the complex problems that led to 50 years of neglect?
There is no question the federal government began divesting money from these cities probably since 2001. It’s been over 17 years of bipartisan divestment on both sides of the aisle. Nothing comes from pointing fingers and complaining about the level of funding when we’re all still responsible for delivering the same services. That’s how programs like RAD are born. That’s how bringing in the private sector happens. How can we get deep-pocketed charities to help address the crisis of affordable housing with us? The future of public housing is mixed-use. I always say public housing started with good intentions but what ended up happening is it ended up siloing poverty and opportunity. Mixed-use allows us to get people under the same roof with different socioeconomic backgrounds so low-income people are no longer living [in] food deserts or transit deserts.
Are there any models of cities that are doing it right?
I think Detroit is doing a fabulous job. Its mayor has single-handedly spearheaded a lot of the redevelopment going on through RAD and through public-private partnerships. He doesn’t take it personally — he takes it one project at a time, and we saw him doing a lot of good things in that city. Lieutenant Governor Sheila Oliver [in New Jersey] is doing a lot of great things there. She is also the commissioner of the Department of Community Affairs which is responsible for a lot of the funding that occurs in low income projects. She is very involved in making sure we turn things around in communities in Patterson, Camden, Newark, and Trenton.
Secretary Carson and the White House have been looking to limit public housing vouchers for undocumented immigrants. Can you explain why, and who you believe gets to live in public housing?
Right now, that’s a proposal from HUD — it hasn’t taken effect. I also think it’s important to note it does not impact anyone over the age of 62 who may be undocumented and living in public housing. They can stay. It also doesn’t affect anyone who lived in public housing prior to June 1995. Both of those two caveats protect nearly everyone in there. The majority of undocumented immigrants in public housing are elderly.
I think there’s a lot of partisan fearmongering going on. You don’t need to scare an elderly woman thinking she’ll be thrown onto the street. If she’s been in public housing before 1995, she won’t be thrown out. Period. I’ve made it clear to HUD that right now in Region 2, my priority is getting rats the size of cats out of NYCHA and other public housing authorities in the city.
What I mean by that is nobody else at HUD supports this president like I do and nobody else at HUD supports the America First philosophy like I do.
With that said, the president and secretary put me here to put decent, safe, and sanitary housing first and I intend to do that. Once that’s accomplished, we can maybe discuss who’s living there. For now, I think the rats are the only people who have to go from public housing. Until that happens, that will be my main priority. I also think it’s important to note the average waiting list for public housing in Region 2 is almost 10 years. I think the New York Times estimated if undocumented immigrants were removed from public housing it would free up almost 26,000 people from that waiting list. I don’t think people recognize that the amount of people who live in NYC public housing is larger than the entire city of Miami. Almost one in 10 people walking the street live in NYCHA. It affects a lot of people.
Do you interact with other people in the Trump administration?
All of the RAs [Regional Administrators for Region 2], get together for a monthly happy hour. We like to get off campus and just really figure out how we can help each other. Instead of going through all this red tape maybe all you need is a pitcher of sangria and some common sense at the table.
Do they all agree you’re the most fun of the regional administrators?
Not only do I like to think I’m the most fun, I’m the most outspoken. It’s no secret I have my social media posts that get folks’ attention. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.
Is that something you have to calibrate?
I’ve been told to calibrate it. Whether or not I do is a different story.
Who is telling you that?
Oh, the Secretary’s office, Office of Special Counsel, the General Counsel…
Don’t they have better things to worry about?
I think they do. It’s certainly possible for them to chew gum and walk at the same time. Somehow society has gone past the point where we can recognize a joke.
Obviously when Jeffrey Epstein was found dead in his jail cell, my reaction of “Hashtag Hillary’d” was a joke.
[After Epstein’s death, Patton posted on Instagram, “Hillary’d!! P.S. Let me know when I’m supposed to feel badly about this… #VinceFosterPartTwo.”]
It’s sad that we’ve gotten to a point where everybody’s first reaction is, “Oh my gosh, federal government official endorses conspiracy theories.” Meanwhile, it was the number one trending topic that day. But I guess when I say it, it’s taken more seriously.
Do you think you’d stay on in a second term if there is one?
If there is one? [Patton dismissed any thought that Trump wouldn’t win in November]. I have already started to think about what I want to do. As powerful as this position is, I think I could be of greater service if I helped dictate housing policy in the West Wing. I’d also consider staying on at HUD in a different capacity, but there’s nothing like delivering the services and programs you believe in in your own backyard. Waking up in your own bed and still being able to serve your country and this president are hard [opportunities] to turn down.
UPDATE: This story has been updated since publication to reflect Patton’s response to President Trump’s re-election prospects in November, and to clarify the timeframe around the proposed policy regarding undocumented immigrants in public housing.