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New York City Councilman Fears For Future Of Public Housing Under Trump


This week, Donald Trump announced Dr. Ben Carson as his choice to be the secretary of housing and urban development, or HUD. We're going to look now at what that might mean for one community with lots of public housing. Richie Torres is a New York City Council member representing the Bronx. He leads the Committee on Public Housing, and he grew up in a housing project himself. Mr. Torres, thanks for joining us.

RITCHIE TORRES: It's an honor to be here.

SHAPIRO: New York has the largest public housing program in the U.S. How much does that depend on support from Housing and Urban Development?

TORRES: So public housing in New York City is almost exclusively dependent on federal funding. I think it's worth providing some context about public housing. I would submit to you that there's been no institution in America that's been more savagely neglected by the federal government than public housing.

SHAPIRO: And that's even under Democratic administrations.

TORRES: Under both administrations - it's been worse under Republicans, but there's been a bipartisan neglect of public housing. And the New York City Housing Authority has been so systematically starved of federal funding that it has $17 billion worth of unmet capital needs.

SHAPIRO: So $17 billion is not a dream wish list. Seventeen billion dollars billion is getting the heating and plumbing working in every building that needs it.

TORRES: The core infrastructure needs - so in order to replace every system and every structure, every brick, every roof that requires repair, the government would have to invest $17 billion. And so public housing is standing on a precipice. And it is in such a fragile state that it frankly cannot afford to absorb a new level of budget cuts from the federal government. But I believe that those cuts are likely to come, and it worries me.

SHAPIRO: And then what happens?

TORRES: Well, most of the people - you know, the New York City Housing Authority houses a population the size of Boston - about 700,000 New Yorkers. And given the rent levels in New York City, the average rent in Manhattan is upward of $3,000 a month. The average rent in Brooklyn is upward of 2,000. Given those rent levels, most of the people who live in public housing would probably be homeless without it. And I'm concerned that if we were to lose public housing, we could have homelessness at levels that we've never seen before. The New York City Housing Authority, in my opinion, is at the forefront of preventing catastrophic homelessness in New York City. And we already have 60,000 people in our shelters. We already have 20,000 children in our shelters. So to think that the crisis could get dramatically worse is horrifying to me.

SHAPIRO: The New Yorker magazine published a profile of you this week in which you were interviewed before Ben Carson's name was announced. And you expressed concern that he would be chosen to lead the Department of Housing and Urban Development. What are your concerns about him specifically?

TORRES: Well, I'm concerned about the administration at large and the budget cuts to come. I suppose there could be one silver lining with Ben Carson. You know, his appointment is different from the rest of the appointments in the Trump administration thus far. He might not impose an ideological agenda on HUD because he knows so little about housing policy that there might be no agenda for him to impose.

SHAPIRO: Small consolation, it sounds like.

TORRES: I mean, if I had to choose between extreme ignorance and extreme ideology, I might opt for extreme ignorance, but neither scenario is particularly good for New York City.

SHAPIRO: You spend a lot of your time in and around public housing. Your mother still lives in the project where you grew up.


SHAPIRO: What do you wish people knew about these developments that they might not know unless they've spent time there?

TORRES: That some of the strongest people you can imagine live in public housing, that the resilience and strength is much greater than the brick and mortar of public housing. You know, I would not be where I am, but for my mother, but for public housing. You know, I've gone through many challenges in my life, but I always had the satisfaction of knowing that I had a permanent, stable home.

And for 80 years, there have been millions of people who have depended on the New York City Housing Authority for their stability. And some of those people are among the most successful in American life, like the head of Goldman Sachs or a Supreme Court justice like Sonia Sotomayor or an actress like Whoopi Goldberg. I consider it the grandest experiment in affordable housing that our country has ever seen. And it has existed for 80 years and has been successful for most of its existence until the federal government began savagely making budget cuts at the expense of public housing.

SHAPIRO: Richie Torres of the New York City Council, thank you for joining us.

TORRES: It's an honor to be here. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.