Close Trump ally spends month staying in public housing

Shining light on social and economic tensions

Copyright 2018 CNN

Lynne Patton

David Williams walked up to his longtime neighbor at the nation's largest public housing development to ask about the important visitor who'd been crashing on her living room floor.

Before April Simpson could answer, Williams, 66, tore into what he called President Donald Trump's token appointment of an African-American brain surgeon with no relevant expertise to head the US Department Housing and Urban Development, which subsidizes complexes nationwide for low-income residents. And he reminded her of the President's attempts to impose draconian cuts on public housing, already plagued at many sites with leaks, busted heating and vermin.

"I'm like, really?" Williams asked incredulously.

Simpson wouldn't bite.

'I'm not talking about Trump," replied the tenant association president at New York's Queensbridge Houses. "I'm not talking about politics. I'm talking about the residents."

Simpson, 57, had been steering clear of rhetoric as she pressed her neighborhood's case to her special houseguest: Lynne Patton, a HUD regional administrator and longtime Trump family associate who, for the past month, has spent her weekday nights in four New York public housing projects.

The sleepovers have shone a stark light on simmering social and economic tensions across the country, not least because Patton -- who earns $160,000 a year and is mulling a reality TV show -- has been the key player.

"The real challenge is looking into the faces of the residents that have agreed to host me and tell them that change is coming but trying to convince them that this time is different," said Patton, adding that she'd paid visits to public housing developments long before this tour. "They've been lied to so many times."

Patton entered the Trump orbit a decade ago as vice president of the Eric Trump Foundation, then became a family aide. Before her appointment in June 2017 as a regional HUD administrator, she served as HUD Secretary Ben Carson's senior adviser and director of public engagement. Since then, her controversial tweets and appearance at a congressional hearing with the President's ex-fixer, Michael Cohen, have drawn attention.

Now, Patton's public housing tour, which came to an end Friday at a Brooklyn development, has brought the federal bureaucrat together with some of the nearly 400,000 New Yorkers who live in 325 developments run by the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA).

Nearly 6,500 mostly black and Hispanic people reside in Queensbridge Houses' 26 aging brick tenements, which sit near the Queensboro Bridge, across the East River from Manhattan's wealthy Upper East Side and less than three miles from the hulking glass tower that bears Trump's name.

"It might as well be another country," said Nicholas Dagen Bloom, a New York Institute of Technology professor and a public housing expert.

Patton had hoped her visits would expose what she called a "humanitarian crisis" in public housing.

"As she has met the people, there is probably an empathetic dimension to it," Bloom said. "She is someone who strikes me as empathetic on this."

But like federal officials long before her, Patton blames many quality-of-life problems on poor local management. Experts, however, say the crisis is fueled, at least in part, by the fact that, since 2001, HUD has slashed funding to New York's housing authority by nearly $3 billion.

It's perhaps those competing forces, so stark to many residents here, that have typified Patton's monthlong experiment.

"She's not necessarily the best messenger," Bloom said, "but her message is important."

'Something even more horrific'

Patton came up with the idea of the sleepovers after reading headlines the weekend after Thanksgiving about thousands of NYCHA residents who were living without heat and hot water, she said.

She was in her apartment at the luxury Trump Plaza in New Rochelle, New York, about 15 miles north of Manhattan. She'd been in her HUD post for more than a year.

"It's not tolerable, and it's not acceptable," she recalled to CNN. "How am I sitting here in the comfort of my apartment, stuffed still from Thanksgiving ... when there are people who are literally without heat or hot water right now down the street from me?"

Four months later, as residents trying to get to work on a frigid March morning maneuvered around clusters of reporters, photographers and TV cameras, Patton followed Simpson, the tenant group president, to see apartments in the sprawling Long Island City complex.

The first stop was a small, neat apartment that Luis Paulino, 71, shares with his wife, Lydia.

In 2015, shortly after the couple moved in, the ceiling above their bathtub started leaking brown water. Last summer, after a handful of repair orders were submitted, the old pipes coursing above the ceiling were replaced, but workers left a hole the size of a small suitcase.

"Now that politicians are involved, maybe they'll do something for us," Paulino said. "But it will be for their benefit."

As his wife pointed out patches of mold, peeling paint and soggy plaster throughout the apartment, reporters and photographers lined up by a wall adorned with photos of the Paulino grandchildren to see the damage up close.

Patton directed traffic in the narrow hall. She asked an aide to take photos after plastic sheets were removed to uncover the hole -- the images later posted to her social media accounts.

"Get some news people," Patton told someone else in her entourage. "Let other people come in. Not you. You guys were already in here."

In another apartment, Janet Taylor showed a bathroom wall with an exposed light bulb where water streams down from the leaky ceiling.

"There could be a fire anytime," said Taylor, a Queensbridge Houses resident for 48 years. She grew so frustrated trying to get it fixed that she stopped submitting repair orders.

In the apartment of Miriam Montanez, 53, Simpson screamed after seeing large sheets of peeling plaster on the walls and ceilings of the living room and bedroom. Montanez said she lost the use of part of a hand when she suffered severe burns after grabbing an exposed hot water pipe in her bathroom to balance herself during a seizure. She sleeps on a makeshift mattress on her living room floor, she said, to dodge the occasional stray bullet that whizzes in from the street.

"This is a damn shame that human beings are living like this," Simpson yelled at one point.

Patton agreed: "Every time you think you've seen the worst of it, there is something even more horrific."

Patton calls conditions a 'humanitarian crisis'

As with most housing authorities across the country, the federal government is NYCHA's principal benefactor. But Trump's last two proposed budgets looked to slash the monies considerably.

This year, NYCHA will get about $1.5 billion in capital and operating funds from HUD, including what Patton touted as significantly more money for capital improvements. Still, the housing authority has said it needs $32 billion for everything from kitchens and bathrooms to roofs and windows in every development over the next five years.

Meantime, the President's latest proposal calls for more cuts to the HUD budget, including to the repair fund.

"Both in terms of operating and capital funds, the federal government for the last couple of decades has ignored the actual needs," Bloom said.

In addressing the problems in New York, Patton pointed to years of mismanagement by NYCHA that exposed hundreds of thousands of residents to lead paint and other ills. The situation led the city this year to sign a court-ordered agreement to appoint a federal monitor to oversee improvements.

"It's a humanitarian crisis," Patton said of living conditions in New York public housing. "Quite frankly, I think it's a national emergency."

Patton said she has had direct contact with the federal monitor overseeing NYCHA and that she even had a recent conference call with Trump, a Queens native, about the public housing crisis.

"The fact that there are eyes on this now at that magnitude has made this whole experience worth it," she said.

Patton also said Trump's latest proposed cuts are a way to leverage other government spending priorities, adding that the only budget that matters is the one he ultimately signs.

"Politics don't matter when people are living like this," she said. "The President, people forget, is a New Yorker, first and foremost. He wants to know where the money is going."

Simpson, who was born in her parents' bed at the Queensbridge Houses, doesn't disagree.

"I have a couple of broken tiles and an intercom phone on my wall that hasn't worked in almost two years," she said. "That's light stuff, especially when I visit neighbors who are missing sinks and tubs or have holes in their walls. If you go in some apartments, you think you're in a third world country."

For some, Patton's tour had the feel of reality TV

For the past month, Patton has arrived on Monday afternoons at housing projects, where she usually was met by swarms of reporters and photographers. She toured apartments and met residents for town hall-style events. She usually spent nights on an inflatable mattress in the living room of the tenant association president's home.

"My back is killing me," she joked last week.

Patton said she intends to share the findings of her monthlong tour with NYCHA's federal monitor. She hopes for significant changes on the ground in six to eight months.

"Until you actually live in NYCHA and experience what they're experiencing, you really don't see the full picture," she said.

After hosting Patton in her living room and chatting over hot coffee each morning, Simpson said she will be closely watching what happens at the Queensbridge Houses in the coming months. She said she doesn't care about the housing official's relationship with the President or the HUD secretary; her neighbors are her main concern.

"I'm not promoting her as the savior, that she's the one who saves us and all our apartments are going to get done," she said. "No. I don't want to be used."

Bloom and others have suggested Patton's public housing stint has the feel of reality TV. Patton dismissed the claim, saying that spending nights in public housing is the best way to understand living conditions.

At the same time, Patton told CNN she has the first family's blessing to follow in the President's footsteps as a reality TV star, even as she serves as a high-ranking federal housing official. She said she hasn't spoken about the gambit with the President himself.

The show, still in development, about black Republicans would overlap with Patton's tenure as HUD regional director for New York and New Jersey, which provides rental assistance to more than 800,000 households and homeless services to more than 80,000 people.

Patton has signed an agreement to work with the show's production company, said Leslie Oren, a spokeswoman for Truly Original, the New York-based creators of "The Real Housewives of Atlanta" and other reality and documentary series.

Patton said she wants to finish improving conditions in public housing before doing the show, which she told CNN could earn her more than $28,000 per episode. Patton told CNN that HUD lawyers "had no problem with me filming after work hours."

But for Williams, whose cynicism about Patton's agency long preceded her visit to Queensbridge Houses, talk of a TV show only solidified his suspicions about what HUD prioritizes when it comes to some of the nation's most vulnerable residents.

"I almost fell out of my chair when I heard about the reality TV show," he said. "She's taking after her boss. She's spending all this time going from place to place to place with all the cameras. I have no faith."

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