Councilmember Torres : A public housing puppet on REBNY's strings

Councilmember Ritchie Torres, a marionette of real estate interests.  Source :  Photo Illustration by Progress Queens (Including an image CC 2.0 by Corteck)

Councilmember Ritchie Torres, a marionette of real estate interests.  Source :  Photo Illustration by Progress Queens (Including an image CC 2.0 by Corteck)

New York City Councilmember Ritchie Torres (D-The Bronx) was elected to the New York City Council in November 2013 with the assistance of real estate interests.  

His 2013 campaign committee willingly received a large campaign contribution of $2,750 from Taxpayers for an Affordable New York, an anti-tax group of big business interests that included the Business Council of New York State, the Real Estate Board of New York, and the Rent Stabilization Association, as Progress Queens has reported.

Councilmember Torres’s campaign also directly and indirectly benefited from $377,867 in spending from the Jobs for New York, Inc., a Super PAC funded primarily by members of the influential real estate lobbying group, the Real Estate Board of New York, or REBNY, according to the online records of the New York City Campaign Finance Board.  This astronomical amount was spent by REBNY’s Super PAC to support Councilmember Torres’ campaign and to defeat the campaign of his primary challenger, paving the way for Councilmember Torres’ eventual election.

With a freshman Councilmember so indebted to real estate interests, what did Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito do ?  Advised by lobbyists, she appointed Councilmember Torres to chair the Council committee on public housing, naturally.

As the new administration came into office at the start of 2014, a new class of elected officials began to review policy proposals left over from the former Bloomberg-Quinn administration.  One of those policy proposals included a neoliberal plan to sell off Section 8 housing developments owned by the New York City Housing Authority, or NYCHA, to private real estate developers, a plan that grassroots progressive activists thought could not be enacted under the de Blasio-Mark-Viverito administration, until it was, when transaction agreements were signed last December, effecting the sale of approximately 900 project-based, Section 8 apartments by NYCHA to a consortium of three real estate developers.

Making it all possible for real estate developers and lobbyists to railroad the structured finance transaction through to closing, unchallenged by anyone, was Councilmember Torres, who owed his entire young political career to influential and wealthy real estate interests.  He made the transaction possible simply by just looking away as real estate interests cherry-picked some of the best properties that a cash-strapped NYCHA had to offer in neighborhoods in the city with the greatest potential for price appreciation.

In an interview with Progress Queens, Councilmember Torres clung to the excuse that as an elected municipal legislator, he had no authority over independent city agencies, such as NYCHA, saying that Councilmembers only have oversight.  Either ignorant of the power and platform that elected officials have to exert an influence over public opinion to keep NYCHA and the administration in check or (what is more likely) obedient to the influential real estate interests, which have paid for the rights to pull on his strings, Councilmember Torres has nevertheless failed the taxpayers and NYCHA tenants all across the five boroughs, who have counted on having a diligent and competent chair on the Council committee on public housing to guard and defend the public's assets, which include the city's stock of Section 8 housing.

Making matters worse is the fact that Mayor Bill de Blasio (D-New York City) has also feigned ignorance as to the details of the controversial sale of NYCHA properties to developers, on whose behalf some of his own administration officials acted to lobby still yet other officials to support the controversial sale of Section 8 apartments.  Mayor de Blasio has incredulously defended his ignorance, even though he has the authority to appoint the board, which governs NYCHA and ratified the sale.  

This double-whammy of ignorance have acted to compound the failures by other elected officials in this botched sale, because it set up a situation where influential campaign supporters can continue both to exploit conflicts of interest and to raid public assets for private profit.  

NYCHA claimed it needed to offload this portfolio of buildings, because the agency did not have the money to pay for major and urgent repairs to the buildings.  However, as Progress Queens reported, four of the buildings, which were sold, had received major improvements in the time before the sale was closed.  Along the way, the fast-tracked sale sidestepped a requirement in the City Charter that city real property must be subjected to the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure, a violation of law that disenfranchised the public from having any input on the sale. 

In the dangerous confederacy of dunces down at City Hall and City Council, there should be at least one true progressive in charge, who possesses the courage to snip the marionette strings from which real estate interests control the city's land use policies, including those that affect the city's stock of public housing.

Councilmember Torres has undoubtedly come a long way for such a young elected official.  However, he has more maturing to do, before he can act like the leader that taxpayers and NYCHA tenants expect him to be.

  -- Progress Queens