By nature, the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s regional administrator in New York and New Jersey is a low-profile job. Then came Lynne Patton. Something of a celebrity ever since she published a YouTube video defending Donald Trump against claims of racism in May 2016 and spoke at the Republican National Convention a few months later, her June appointment to lead HUD’s New York operations became tabloid fodder. “The Wedding Scammer,” was the headline that ran in the New York Daily News, referring to the fact that Patton once helped plan Eric and Lara Trump’s wedding (Patton points out that she wasn’t the wedding planner).
Prior to HUD, she spent eight years as a vice president at the Eric Trump Foundation and has no experience in public housing, which led to some skepticism.
In mid-November, The Real Deal sat down for an interview with Patton, who said she soon plans to release a 10-point plan for the future of New York’s public housing.
Since the interview, news broke that the New York City Housing Authority, which receives much of its funding from HUD, for years failed to inspect thousands of apartments for lead paint but falsely claimed that it did. In a statement, HUD said that it “requested that NYCHA account for its non-compliance and provide an action plan for achieving and maintaining compliance.”
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
You’ve been at HUD for almost a year and at your current job for five months. You’ve been in the press a lot. Do people recognize you on the street?
Usually they do because of my ever-present sunglasses on my head. (laughs) But I’ll be honest with you, the last two years has really been like a public rollercoaster. I think people more or less have been recognizing me ever since I spoke at the Republican National Convention.
You had little experience in public housing prior to your appointment. What have you been doing over the past couple of months just to get up to speed?
There are several of us in our appointed offices that have arguably less experience in that discipline, but I think that’s what the American people voted for this time around. They wanted maybe folks from the private sector to bring more of a business perspective. With that said, since I’ve landed I’ve established monthly meetings with HUD’s most institutionalized stakeholders such as NYSAFAH — which is obviously a group of developers. This administration is extremely developer-friendly given the President’s background.
Have you been meeting with real estate industry executives to discuss policy?
Oh yeah, for example I have an upcoming meeting with REBNY president John Banks. One of the points in my ten-point plan I hope to implement is to promote is the sale of HUD’s single-family homes.
How would you partner with REBNY on this?
I think it’s about just educating each other and making sure that we’re aware first of all that these opportunities are out there. Secondly, that we collaborate to increase the visibility of the homes that are available.
What’s your relationship like with NYCHA chair Shola Olatoye?
Ever since I’ve landed she’s been nothing but extremely helpful and really informative and patient and educational. HUD is responsible for 60 percent of NYCHA’s funding. It’s an awesome responsibility. It’s imperative that we work together.
Another key player is Councilmember Ritchie Torres. He’s been a lot more vocal criticizing your appointment specifically. Have you talked to him at all?
You know, Ritchie Torres is not someone that I’ve worked with personally. A lot of folks in the housing industry I’m sure if you reached out to them would say that they are extremely impressed by my knowledge and grasp of the needs here in Region II. I even met with Congresswoman Nydia Velazquez who was also extremely critical of my appointment. She was extremely impressed by my willingness to show up to face her constituents. For me it’s about having a seat at the table and making it clear: I’m here, I’m willing to listen to everybody’s concerns. And then not only am I willing to listen but I’m willing to take those concerns directly to the decision makers in Washington by way of the Secretary and the President of the United States.
Who are you in regular contact with in the White House?
I would say I have friendships with almost everybody in senior leadership there. We talk often and on a regular basis about everything from the holidays to of course priorities that face the housing community, to certainly issues that face the White House. This is a very tight and close-knit administration. We were a very bare-bones campaign. The majority of us are still serving the President of the United States. I am extremely close to the Trump family. We talk and text regularly.
What are some of the specific things you’ve brought up or pushed for in the White House?
As it stands right now, there’s nothing more critical and important to me than the Private Activity Bonds and their place in the tax reform. It’s imperative that we keep these bonds in the tax reform, the problem though is that the president has a lot of non-negotiable deliverables. It’s imperative that we try to identify another avenue for the 10-year $39-billion tax interests that the PABs bring to the table.
Have you been advocating for fewer cuts in HUD’s funding?
Yes, yes, yes. And I think that’s where my unique position with this administration and of course with the President and with the Secretary really comes into play. It’s about identifying a compromise that best suits the needs, particularly here in Region II. And I think I can certainly impress upon the President when that day comes to take that into consideration.
Is it easy to convince him of the necessity to fund public housing?
You know, I think it’s something that he already supports.
I mean, he proposed a massive cut to the department’s budget.
What he’s supporting is the efficient and effective allocation of taxpayer dollars, something that has been long abused in government. It doesn’t mean (programs) are just going to go away. For example, when we were on our listening tour, $30 million in CDBG money just vanished in Dallas. These are things that the American people just can’t sustain. The days of misappropriation are pretty much over. One of the things that is also very important to the Secretary and I is identifying pathways to self-sufficiency for the residents. To me it’s always been about promoting less of a traditional and more of a transitional mindset as it pertains to affordable housing.
What would that mean in practice?
I think what it means is it’s really about supplying the tools necessary for financial independence. I think it begins by fortifying HUD’s Section 3 program. I also think that involves working with NYCHA and their jobs plus program. I’ve been having countless meetings with developers on how they can collaborate with NYCHA.
And (the envision centers) are part of this whole push to get people into jobs?
Yes, and in fact one of the things that’s so great about the envision centers is that it’s really not just pie in the sky. The first one is actually opening I believe on Dec. 6 in Detroit. The difference between the envision centers and a glorified community center is that the envision centers will be measured on the success of the actual outcome of the folks that are assisted there, and not just by mere participation. The funding will be provided by the private sector and public-private partnerships and nonprofits.
What’s the private sector’s incentive to fund this?
You’d actually be surprised how many nonprofit funders and communities and corporations are out there that really don’t need an incentive to do good things. In the course of the listening tour we came across countless corporations, Fortune 500 companies, first of all, who all have to give to charity on a certain level anyway. So why not give to something that they know is evidence-based and factual? One single donor gave half a million dollars just after overhearing Secretary Carson talking about it at a cocktail party in Washington, D.C.
Secretary Carson has also famously warned against making public housing too comfortable. Do you share that stance?
Like I said, I do share the stance that it’s about being able to provide residents in public housing with the tools to self-sufficiency. I don’t think Secretary Carson would ever consider throwing anyone out on the street. Obviously I would neither. That’s not what he meant with that phrasing he used. This administration has made it very clear that we will no longer be measuring compassion based on the number of programs out there or the number of people on those programs, but rather by the number of people we can get off those programs. And I think that that is compassion. By the way, that only applies to able-bodied folks.
Do you believe in the long-term necessity if public housing? Do you want New York’s public housing stock 50 years from now to be as big as it is today?
Someone brought this up at one of my upstate conferences the other day, and I think it really hit the nail on the head. They said the concept behind public housing began with good intentions. What it’s done since is silo poverty, sometimes silo even race. I think helping others is something that it always going to be necessary from a federal government level, but as Region II progresses it’s becoming clearer and clearer that affordable mixed-income housing is really the way to go. Even yesterday when I toured a bunch of NYCHA facilities with public advocate Letitia James, a lot of the residents we met were proud to tell me they’ve been there for 30, 40 years. Since its inception public housing has always been intended as a temporary solution to a permanent problem, so it’s imperative that we bring that sort of attitude and mindset back. These are not heirlooms, we shouldn’t be passing (the public housing unit) from generation to generation.
If you want more mixed-income housing, would that entail selling off more of NYCHA’s housing stock to private developers?
Yeah, I think they’ve made that very clear with their NextGen plan. I think collaborative partnerships with the RAD program are also necessary. From a HUD perspective one of the things we can do is reducing regulatory burdens that they face.
Do you think NYCHA should sell actual public housing units to private developers to turn into market-rate units?
It’s certainly no secret that NYCHA’s public housing properties sit on some of the most valuable real estate in New York City. How they choose to leverage that is really up to them. With somebody as creative and innovative as Shola at the helm I have no doubt that these opportunities will be explored.
Completely different question: Starrett City…
I can’t talk about Starrett City. I have recused myself.
Secretary Carson said he plans to reinterpret the Obama-era Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule, which requires local governments to come up with rules against housing segregation or risk losing block grants. What’s your take on the rule?
One of the things I plan to roll out with my 10-point plan is to host monthly meetings with (civil rights) advocates to identify ways we can work together. There is really nothing more important than fair housing to the HUD legacy. It’s certainly one of the reasons why HUD was created in the first place, is to provide fair housing for folks who were being discriminated against based on race. What’s interesting now is that the discrimination we see most prevalent is disability.
Just to make sure I understand you: you’re basically saying the biggest discrimination in housing today is no longer based on race, but based on disability?
I wouldn’t say that. I’m saying more of our cases nationally, the volume of complaints. There’s no question that race and religion continue to be discriminatory factors in terms of housing.
To get back to the AFFH rule. Why reinterpret it? What’s wrong with it?
I don’t know if anything is wrong with it, I just think that it needs to be sort of reinterpreted and applied in today’s environment. I think it certainly continues to be relevant. I really have to defer to the Secretary on the larger-scale policy of that.
For years HUD argued that Westchester Co. failed to comply with a federal consent decree requiring it to speed up the racial integration of its neighborhoods. HUD has now decided that Westchester is complying with the terms of that settlement.
Because they did. The result would be the same no matter who the RA was. The implication was that ‘here’s the racist Trump Organization, I mean Trump administration, coming in and totally agreeing to the sort of racist analysis of impediments that Westchester had put forward’. But that’s not accurate at all. Not to mention that I’m black (laughs). In case you haven’t noticed.
While we’re on that subject: you’re a public figure. You comment on things that have nothing to do with public housing from time to time. You published a Facebook post in the wake of President Trump’s Charlottesville remarks defending him. What made you do that?
I think politicians on both sides conceded that there are folks that had their reasons for being involved in that situation. I think arguably some people would say it began with the statue protests. I think what President Trump meant with those statements was what he’s been saying all along, which is first and foremost there is no excuse for racist and bigoted behavior. He has disavowed white supremacy groups from day one. No different than folks on the left side, there are folks on the right side that also sometimes take these hot-button issues to a degree that they shouldn’t through violence and through measures that the president disagrees with. And all he was saying is that there are folks on both sides of the fence that are guilty of that. I don’t think there’s anyone of us who can disagree with that. I know President Trump is not a racist man.
But the point was more that he implied a moral equivalency between Nazis and counter-protesters by saying there are bad people “on many sides.”
Not at all. I think what the media did was conflate the fact that this was kind of giving Nazis a pass. He’s never done that. Never. Like I said before, as the daughter of a man born in Birmingham, Alabama, there is literally no amount of money in the world that he could pay me or that HUD could pay me to represent a bigoted or intolerant administration. I just wouldn’t be here.
So you stand by his remarks?
I read that you got involved with the Trumps through Michael Cohen. Can you tell me how that came about?
Really what happened was Michael Cohen and I kept running into each other at various fundraisers and events in the city… One day I think he went up to me and was like ‘who are you and why are you always where I am?’ And I was like, ‘Well I was just about to say the same thing to you.’ And from there it became clear to him that I possessed my own Rolodex of influential contacts that he thought might prove beneficial to the Eric Trump Foundation. And that’s how I connected with them. To this day I consider Eric and his wife family.
What’s your response to the allegations that the foundation basically funneled money to Trump entities?
You know as much as I wish I could get into that, I no longer speak for the Eric Trump Foundation so I would encourage you to contact them directly.