The election of Donald Trump, a real-estate developer with a history of discriminatory conduct toward minority tenants, to the White House has raised understandable concerns among fair-housing advocates.
Those concerns appeared justified when President Trump appointed Ben Carson to run the Department of Housing and Urban Development earlier this year. Carson, a retired neurosurgeon and one-time rival of Trump’s for the Republican presidential nomination, has precisely zero experience in housing policy.
Nevertheless, he has been charged with overseeing the nations largest public-housing agency.
And it appears the administration is continuing to build out the department with inexperienced leadership. In early June, The New York Daily News reported that Lynne Patton had been appointed to lead HUDs Region II, which includes New York and New Jersey. She officially assumed the role in late June.
Patton has no experience in housing policy, and until January of this year, helped run the eponymous foundation of the president’s son, Eric Trump which is currently under review by the New York state attorney generals office for allegedly misappropriating charity funds.
Patton is by trade an event planner and has worked for the Trump family since 2009. In that time, she has arranged celebrity tournaments at Trump-owned golf courses, planned Eric Trump’s 2014 wedding at the Mar-a-Lago Club in Florida, and served as a press liaison to the Trump family during the 2016 election. None of this qualifies her for her new job.
Region II is HUD’s largest regional office. In her new role, Patton will oversee the distribution of billions in tax dollars to housing programs.
New Jersey stands to lose more than $260 million in federal HUD funding under Trump’s proposed budget for 2017. According to Trenton think tank New Jersey Policy Perspective, more than 300,000 New Jerseyans in more than 150,000 households rely on rental assistance programs administered by HUD.
Roughly one in three of these households includes at least one child under the age of 18, and 61 percent include either a head-of-household or spouse who is elderly or disabled. These vulnerable New Jerseyans are especially susceptible to cuts in federal assistance programs, as housing costs in the state have reached an all-time high. The National Low-Income Housing Coalition currently estimates that a family must earn at least $23.31 an hour to afford a two-bedroom apartment at fair-market rent in New Jersey, which substantially outstrips both the state’s average hourly and minimum wages.
HUD has also provided essential housing assistance for families and individuals displaced by hurricanes along New Jersey’s coastline in recent years.
The Christie administration reported that more than 365,000 homes were damaged or wholly destroyed by Hurricane Sandy in 2012. Going forward, it is vital that HUD Region II be well-equipped and effectively led to address such weather events, to which New Jersey is particularly vulnerable.
Meanwhile, in New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA), the largest public-housing authority in the country, relied on HUD for roughly 70 percent of its operating budget and all of its capital-repairs budget. NYCHA buildings are currently in need of an estimated $17 billion in infrastructural upgrades.
This raises a critical question: Can Patton be trusted to not subvert the needs of thousands of low-income families to the interests of President Trump and his family?
According to Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), a government-accountability watchdog group, the Trump Organization currently owns a 4 percent stake valued between $5 and $25 million in the Brooklyn housing development Starrett City. HUD Region II dispenses Section 8 subsidies to Starrett City, the largest federally assisted rental property in the United States, consisting of more than 5,000 units in 46 buildings.
Patton’s inexperience, coupled with her history of personal loyalty to the Trump family, raises serious questions about conflicts of interest particularly regarding her oversight of the Starrett City property, Katie Zumalt-Rogers, an attorney with CREW, says.
For someone with no background in housing policy, Patton is being handed extraordinary power. In 2017, one in 14 New Yorkers live in NYCHA housing with 257,143 families currently on the waiting list. With local private-housing inventory dropping and average monthly rent for a one-bedroom apartment nearing $3,000, the need for quality public-housing options in New York City is pressing.
At the same time, Trump’s budget proposes cutting funding for the Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity (FHEO) by 3 percent. This could result in the agency’s failure to handle up to 225 complaints of housing discrimination. Funded at $72 million in 2016s fiscal year, FHEO leads the nation in the enforcement, administration, and development of federal housing policies and laws.
Last year, FHEO employed 514 full-time staff to carry out its programs, including overseeing more than 8,500 complaints filed through the office. This proposed budget cut may force FHEO to reduce its staff to 499 full-time staffers reducing its capacity to address the thousands of annual complaints in a timely manner and prevent future harm.
These cuts, coupled with the appointment of the untested and unqualified Patton to run Region II, indicate that the president believes himself to be above oversight. Subsequently, the ACLU urges sustained, robust funding of FHEO and calls on members of Congress to demand tough scrutiny from the Senate and House appropriations committees.
Thousands of the most vulnerable families in New York and New Jersey, overwhelmingly low-income and people of color, hang in the balance.