The Real Deal New York

At the desk of:
Maria Torres–Springer

The HPD commissioner on her poor gardening skills, shoveling snow on the High Line, and warding off evil spirits
By Kathryn Brenzel | May 01, 2018 11:00AM

Maria Torres-Springer (Photos by Emily Assiran)

Maria Torres-Springer, 41, was named commissioner of the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development in January 2017. It’s her third gig with the de Blasio administration, having served as the CEO of the Economic Development Corporation — the first woman to hold that position — and commissioner of the Department of Small Business Services. She also previously worked for the Bloomberg administration as the EDC’s chief of staff. In her current role, she oversees an agency that has financed more than 87,000 affordable housing units since 2014 and is working to help meet the mayor’s goal of creating and preserving 300,000 affordable homes by 2026. Since taking office, Torres-Springer has steered the creation of nearly 25,000 new homes, and helped launch the city’s Neighborhood Pillars program, which provides financing to nonprofits to purchase older rent-regulated buildings and protect them against predatory investors. The HPD commissioner grew up in Northern California but spent four years of her childhood, starting when she was nine years old, in the Philippines. Torres-Springer moved to the East Coast in 1995 to attend Yale, where she received her bachelor’s degree in ethics, politics and economics. She went on to receive her master’s in public policy from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. Now, she and her husband, Jamie, and their two daughters, Leah, eight, and Amalia, four, live in Park Slope. Torres-Springer’s office on the fifth floor of 100 Gold Street — next to the Brooklyn Bridge — is spotless. Her desk is clear, aside from her computer, and a conference table nearby features only a candy tray that contains perfectly aligned Hershey’s Kisses. The HPD commissioner said keeping her office clean and ritualistically clearing her inbox at night helps her de-stress. “There isn’t a lot that you can control in this job,” she said. “Those are the things I latch onto in order to create at least the illusion of order in what is otherwise a pretty crazy line of work we do here.”

Mysterious gargoyles

Two gray stone gargoyles — mouths agape — sit under a window in Torres-Springer’s office. Their residency dates back to when Shaun Donovan, the former U.S. HUD Secretary, served as HPD commissioner in the early 2000s. It’s unclear where the gargoyles originated or how they became fixtures in the office of six HPD commissioners, but Torres-Springer said they embody the agency’s mission to help build new homes while preserving vital parts of the city’s history. She also noted that they’re fabled to repel evil spirits. “I like to think that they guard the agency,” she said.

PABs the penguin

In the lead up to President Trump signing the GOP tax bill into law, city officials worried that an important source of affordable housing finance — private activity bonds (PABs) — would be wiped out. The tax-exempt bonds ultimately remained intact, but before the new legislation went into effect, a staffer at the New York Housing Development Corporation gave Torres-Springer this “PABs the Penguin” ornament as a holiday gift. “There’s threats to immigration, to education, to health. It’s endless,” Torres-Springer said, noting that those issues tend to overshadow housing.

Garden sign

As a parting gift, Torres-Springer’s peers at the EDC gave her a sign that reads “Maria’s Garden” and a miniature Zen garden. At the time, she was just starting to get into gardening — a hobby that has blossomed into an annual experiment. She usually plants half a dozen or so different types of fruits and vegetables each spring, though she expects only a few to survive. “I suck at [gardening],” she said. “All of my plants are overwatered and overfertilized. Because they knew that was going to happen, they got me the Zen garden. That, at least, thrives.”

Daughter’s wisdom

When Torres-Springer’s daughter Leah was six, she sensed that her mom had had a particularly difficult day at the EDC and made her a card that read, “Keep going. You’re almost there.” The commissioner still turns to the card for inspiration and sometimes lends it to her team members when they’re having a bad day. The card is also a reminder of the “delicate balancing act” that all working parents struggle to maintain, she explained. “You’re always one stomach flu day away from total domestic devastation,” she said. “In order to stay sane and have perspective about the work that we do, I rely on my kids for a lot of that inspiration.”

High line rail

Torres-Springer briefly left government for two years in 2012 to serve as COO of Friends of the High Line, and her cohorts there gave her a piece of the defunct train line when she left. The High Line position often involved rolling up her sleeves. If it snowed, she and the nonprofit’s other members went out on the elevated park, shoveling themselves (salt can’t be used because of the park’s plants.) “Every little detail mattered, and people took so much pride in making sure the visitor experience there was excellent,” Torres-Springer said.

Bell-shaped charm

Last year, the Philippine Consulate General of New York presented the HPD commissioner with this token from the Southeast Asian country. Much like the stone gargoyles, the bell-shaped charm at the end of a beaded rope is said to “ward off evil spirits.” Both of Torres-Springer’s parents immigrated to the U.S. from the Philippines a year before she was born. She said her current role has enabled her to connect with New York’s Filipino community and help show that leadership roles in the city are open to minority women. The charm is the second evil-repelling totem in her office. “Not that I’m that paranoid,” she said jokingly, “but I do believe only the paranoid survive.”