Lynne Patton — whose official title is Regional Administrator for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Region II, but is better thought of as the Trump Administration’s Woman in New York — had packed one rolling suitcase and one stuffed duffel bag and a blow-up mattress and moved into New York City Housing Authority apartments for a month. She did this to call attention to the appalling condition of the city’s public housing stock — though she headed back to her home at Trump Plaza in New Rochelle, where she lives with her longtime boyfriend and dog, on weekends.
But on a recent freezing day earlier this month, as Patton led a horde of cameras and reporters through some of NYCHA’s most dilapidated and unfit apartments, the dismal state of public housing — a tale of peeling lead paint, cracked pipes, and maintenance waiting times often measured in months — was on no one’s mind. Did she regret, the press wanted to know, that she went to Washington, D.C. to stand mutely and memorably behind Representative Mark Meadows of the GOP as he publicly questioned former Trump fixer Michael Cohen? Faced again and again with variations on that question, she wore a perpetual I-am-not-angry-just-disappointed frown, her signature sunglasses perched on top of her head even in the hallowed and unsunny halls of Congress.
“I regret nothing,” Patton told the reporters. “Other than the fact that I gave MSNBC their best ratings in years.”
Patton’s appearance led freshman Michigan representative Rashida Tlaib to label her a “prop” in the committee hearings.
“The only prop in that room was Michael Cohen,” Patton said when asked about the remark. “Now let’s talk about NYCHA.”
The people who get appointed to be HUD’s administrator for New York and New Jersey usually fall into one of two categories. There are political people with deep ties in New York who use the job as a bit of résumé padding — Bill de Blasio, for example, held the post before running for City Council. And there are people who have spent their careers focused on housing and other intractable urban issues — Holly Leicht, Patton’s immediate predecessor, for example, has a degree from Yale, a law degree from Northwestern, and was the deputy commissioner for housing in the Bloomberg administration.
Before her current job, Patton was a kind of all-around executive assistant to Eric Trump. When she was named to the HUD post, the Daily News put her on its cover with the headline “THE WEDDING SCAMMER”, claiming that she lied about receiving a law degree and that her primary job in the Trump Organization was to plan Eric’s wedding.
That wasn’t exactly right. Patton came into the Trump orbit through Cohen. She was living in Westport, on Connecticut’s Gold Coast, and working as a paralegal at a law firm in Stamford. Patton’s father was a professor of epidemiology at Yale, and she described her childhood to me as a “kind of Cosby Show life but for an only child,” with striving parents who valued education and sent Lynne to the elite Tabor Academy boarding school in Massachusetts. Cohen and Patton were both regulars on the Manhattan and Hamptons charity circuit, and got to talking. Eric Trump was looking for an assistant, but Cohen told her that Eric needed someone to help run his charity, so she went in for an interview, and eventually grew in to a kind of chief-of-staff role for the various Trump kids’ assistants.
“I think the reason I have been with the family for so long is that I am not a yes-person. I have no problem telling Ivanka that the picture is not the best picture for the cover of Shape or the cover of Vogue, why don’t you choose this one instead. What started off as maybe, ‘Lynne, does this tie look good?’ turned into, ‘Lynne, should we hire this person, Lynne, should we buy this property, Lynne should we have another kid?’”
Patton and I spoke twice, several weeks apart, in her 35th-floor office in Federal Plaza, with sweeping views of lower Manhattan and the city beyond. Both times, Patton came dressed in workout gear — Adidas jacket, Nike leggings, running shoes, glasses perched familiarly on top of her head. The “WEDDING SCAMMER” cover of the Daily News is framed on one wall, along with half a dozen photos of Patton with Trump and HUD secretary Ben Carson. A MAGA-inspired red “USA” hat sits on the shelf and in the corner lies an indoor golf-putting game. A flatscreen TV plays Fox News.
In the 2016 election, Patton cut a widely circulated YouTube video on “The Trump Family I Know” which was made to rebut claims that the Trumps were racist. “Rest assured that I am a highly intelligent, free-thinking, and independent woman,” she intoned in the video. “I do not vote based upon the color of my skin or the signature on my paycheck. I judge my friends and forge my allegiances from direct personal interaction and moral character.”
She traveled the country on behalf of Trump, appearing at rallies in urban areas with Eric’s wife Lara, Apprentice vet Omarosa, and the YouTube stars Diamond and Silk. Patton gave a rousing speech at the Republican National Convention, in which she declared, “As a minority, I personally pledge to you that Donald Trump knows that your life matters, he knows that my life matters. He knows that LGBTQ lives matter and he knows that veterans’ lives matters and he knows that blue lives matter!”
After the election, Patton went to the White House, hoping to work on issues related to the opioid crisis — she has talked openly about her history of substance abuse — and minority and LGBTQ outreach, an area that she says was of particular importance to the president.
“I am a Republican, but I am a New Yorker first — and frankly, so is the Trump family. If you think the president cares about what bathroom somebody is using, he certainly does not.”
Reminded that the president had reversed a campaign promise and banned transgender troops in the military via tweet, Patton said it wasn’t the president’s doing. “There are reasons why decisions are made in the White House that don’t necessarily reflect what he believes as a person.”
Patton said she was recently at the White House for the christening of Eric’s baby son, Luke, with just a handful of non-Trump family members, “and two of them, two of the Trumps’ best friends were gay men, and I just don’t think that anybody thought about it. The president doesn’t think about it. The family doesn’t think about it. Nobody thinks I am the black friend when they are with me.”
The story was one of several Patton told that demonstrated her closeness to the Trump family. She said she had been at a restaurant just a few weeks before with the Trump kids when somebody started heckling Donald Trump Jr., saying, “Don’t worry, Mueller is coming for you Donnie-boy.” Patton had to be restrained from going over to the table and starting a fight. “They are my best friends, Eric and Lara are, and Jared and Ivanka and Don and Kim are great and I love Vanessa and all of their kids,” she said. “When you have been through baby showers and weddings, you get very close.”
Trump-adjacency is Patton’s bureaucratic calling card. When she was at the White House for the christening, she sent senior staff a photo of herself with the president’s family. Invited to a Black History Month celebration, she took Carmen Quiñones, a NYCHA tenant president, down to Washington with her, and has had a conference call with the president about the state of public housing in New York.
“He’s a New Yorker, first and foremost. He wants to know why the conditions are so bad given the amount of money that we give for repairs,” Patton told reporters during one of her NYCHA tours. “And quite frankly, I don’t blame him.”
Patton clashed early and often with the staff down in Washington, where she first landed during the transition between administrations. According to a complaint filed to a watchdog for federal employees, Patton tried to get HUD’s liaison to the White House fired because “she was critical of President Trump.” Patton leaned on Eric Trump and others to intervene in bureaucratic squabbles. She clashed with Sheila Greenwood, a longtime HUD staffer, particularly when Greenwood ordered Patton to take a cheaper shuttle flight from Washington to New York instead of the train. According to the New York Times, Patton ended up paying for the train ticket out of pocket, and the whole imbroglio led to Patton’s being transferred to work out of the regional office in New York.
(Update: After this story was published, Patton responded to dispute the Times report, insisting “That trip was AFTER I had already come to New York, so your timeline is off and the story is 1000 percent inaccurate anyway. The better (and more brutally honest) way to phrase it likely would be: ‘The decision to transfer Lynne back to New York accomplished two critical things: it effectively placed a political loyalist Trump could trust to oversee his home state and HUD’s largest program region, plus Secretary Carson was able to geographically quell what had become a daily “Mean Girls-esque” battle between his former Chief of Staff, Sheila Greenwood, and Senior Advisor in Patton. Win win.’”)
Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a nonpartisan watchdog group, has filed numerous ethics complaints and requests for documents in regards to Patton’s tenure at HUD, most recently for her appearance at the Cohen hearing and for her possible participation in a reality TV show about African-American conservatives. (Patton told me that she had no plans to participate, that she merely wanted to find out from HUD if her participation would be permitted under federal guidelines, and that it wasn’t a reality TV show, as was reported at the time, but a “docuseries.”)
Other complaints focused on Patton’s social media usage. In addition to an official account, Patton still keeps her personal account from her nongovernment life. The personal account is a regular supply of content familiar to any denizen of the MAGA universe, with its accusations of Democratic voter fraud, jokes about Elizabeth Warren’s heritage and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s intelligence, and mockery of the women who accused Brett Kavanaugh of sexual assault. In January, Patton tweeted every day about someone killed by an illegal immigrant. She called White House reporter April Ryan “Miss Piggy” in a tweet she later deleted.
Her official account is not so different. Last month, she wrote, “To the DELUSIONAL partisan officials who want to know what @HUDgov & @POTUS ‘bring to the table.’” Patton included a chart of the government’s funding commitment and added, “We ARE the fucking table.” One night, Patton took to Twitter to announce that Carson was coming to New York the next morning for “a huge and historic announcement,” adding that “whether or not this announcement will be great news for @NYCMayor remains to be seen.” The tweet led to a collective freakout among New York’s elected officials, who feared that NYCHA was going to be put into a federal receivership.
“Playing coy about something that could impact 800k people — many living in horrific conditions —is disgusting,” responded Council Speaker Corey Johnson via Twitter. “This isn’t a ratings ploy. This is real life. Enough with the games.”
Patton seems determined to blame the existing Democratic Party infrastructure in the city and the state for NYCHA’s condition. She has accused local officials of being far more concerned with taking the credit for any reforms at NYCHA than with actually helping the residents. “I am not the governor who likes to pop into a NYCHA property without warning and point out all the problems with it,” she said of Governor Andrew Cuomo, who himself led HUD during the Clinton administration. “I am a person who wants NYCHA [leadership] there with me so they can see the problems we see. Otherwise it is just political posturing.”
Bill de Blasio announced with great fanfare last year that there were going to be major improvements to NYCHA’s heating and water infrastructure, but Patton says it isn’t enough. The mayor, she says, “doesn’t get credit for turning the heat and hot water on faster than last year. Even the other day, the secretary” — and here Patton lowers her voice to a soft whisper, in her best Ben Carson impression — “was like, ‘Well, go a little light on the mayor,’ and I was like, ‘I am happy to. I like the mayor. I know he cares about housing. He had my job. But if he continues to brag about turning on heat and hot water, I am going to continue to be a perpetual thorn in his side.’”
Soon after Patton returned from Washington with Quiñones, the NYCHA tenant leader, the two were onstage for a regular NYCHA town hall that Patton has been holding with public-housing residents. They were, as was to be expected, nearly riotously angry about the state of NYCHA, and blasted anyone in charge for letting conditions deteriorate to the point that they had. Rather than defend herself, Patton quite cleverly channeled the anger to her benefit, telling the residents that she was on their side, and that they had a right to be angry at the administrators and elected officials who had let them down all of these years.
By the end, the town hall turned into something of an anti-Democratic MAGA rally. “Democrats didn’t work for me. They didn’t work for many of us,” said Charlene Nimmons, a public housing activist from Brooklyn. “Let’s stop saying it’s Trump’s fault. Let’s not forget the Democrats have been in office for years, we have been going to meetings and campaigning for years, and now one of the best opportunities we have had in years comes under a Republican administration.”
“We need to stop accepting these crumbs the Democrats give us,” added Quiñones, before leading the crowd in a rambunctious chant of “this mayor has got to go!” while Patton nodded along.
The truth about Patton’s role at HUD is that it can be kind of a hard one to mess up. Policies mostly come out of the headquarters in Washington, and the field offices that the regional administrator ostensibly oversees report to Washington, not to New York. The job is designed to facilitate the implementation of federal policies, and the people who have been best at it, like Patton’s immediate predecessor Leicht, are skilled at getting the field offices around the region what they need from headquarters.
Patton met Leicht only once before starting the job, and longtime employees say that other than her current focus on NYCHA, Patton’s approach to the job has been scattershot. Soon after beginning in the post, Patton set the staff to work on a ten-point plan of priorities. The plan has been neither completed nor released. At one point, Patton announced that HUD was going to evict any person living in public housing suspected of being a member of a MS-13, an idea that went nowhere, and at another time promised to help the FBI house cooperating witnesses.
“It was just chaos and drama from day one,” said one former senior official. “In the world she comes from, coverage is the name of the game, and being in the spotlight, that’s the tone that comes from the top and permeates on down from everyone Trump.”
For decades, the HUD office has been a fairly apolitical place; presidents and HUD secretaries have come and gone, and most were anonymous public officials. The work went on. But longtime employees say that it’s different now. Many career officials have left, and those who are there say the experience of the last couple of years has been demoralizing. “Let’s just say there has been a sharp uptick in online shopping in the office,” said one former staffer.
Using her background in philanthropy, Patton suggested raising a massive amount of private charitable dollars to help cover needs at NYCHA — at one point, according to sources, proposing a goal of $200 million. Patton told staffers that they could tap wealthy benefactors who grew up in NYCHA housing, like Whoopi Goldberg, Nas, and Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, having them sponsor buildings or various maintenance projects in exchange for some kind of naming rights — “the Whoopi Goldberg Gardens,” if you will. She also floated adding a jar to Starbucks cash registers allowing customers to donate money to public housing, much like St. Jude’s does at CVS. At one point, Russell Simmons came by the HUD headquarters and seemed amenable to the donor idea, but wanted to add private security from the Nation of Islam to keep order over the sites in his name, according to Patton. The idea didn’t work at HUD, and some staffers wondered if Simmons suggested something so outrageous just to get himself off the hook from an ask from a Trump family insider.
“The days of the federal government galloping in on a white horse with a bucket of money are over,” Patton said. “There has been a downward trajectory since 2001. That is 17 years. I always say, if your parents reduced your allowance when you are 5, would you still be complaining about it at age 15? Or would you go out and try to mow some lawns and do some babysitting and try to figure out how you can make the best of what you have?”
It is easy to be cynical, especially about the Trump family friend put in charge of affordable housing in New York. But few who have interacted with Patton doubt that she is genuinely committed to the work and sincere in her desire to improve the lives of poor and disadvantaged people in New York and New Jersey. The month-long NYCHA sleepover may have been a stunt worthy of reality TV — but it sure isn’t easy either, sleeping on an air mattress and living with strangers for days on end. The job, people who have spoken with her say, has been an eye-opener for her, as she learns that some of the GOP orthodoxy around public housing and the people who utilize it isn’t exactly right.
“There is a misconception that a lot of folks who live in public housing are lazy, are freeloading off the government,” Patton said. “I am not saying I harbored these opinions, but I am saying I can understand why a large majority of society does and maybe a large portion of my particular political party, and that is something I very much look forward to disputing and correcting the record on. The large majority of people who work in NYCHA are working-class Americans, tax-paying Americans, and more importantly, rent-paying Americans, and they shouldn’t have a giant hole in the ceiling of their bathroom or a light bulb held up with duct tape.”
And even people who are dismayed at the way the office has been run these last couple of years say that if all Patton is able to do is increase the funding that the federal government provides NYCHA, she will have done her job. All the tweets, all the scattershot plans, all the Facebook memes and town halls and Congressional circuses, all of it would be fine if she could just lean on the president to get NYCHA the money it needs.
The outlook doesn’t look good. Trump’s last budget zeroed out capital funding for public housing, and his most recent one still includes drastic cuts to it.
To hear Patton tell it, this is all nine-dimensional chess. Trump is threatening to take away funding for housing in order to get the funding he wants for the military and border fencing.
“I am not in his head but I think it is wrong for the media to put this proposed budget on a pedestal like it is a window into the president’s soul. That is ridiculous,” she said. “The man has been a developer his whole life. To say he doesn’t like housing, I know that is not true.”
Housing experts say that their great fear is that Patton will raise hopes among NYCHA residents and then walk away if nothing gets fixed.
“The last thing NYCHA residents need is someone who overpromises,” said one former staffer. “Things don’t get better, or they don’t get better quickly, and the tabloid spotlight fades. She walks away and the people who have been doing this work for decades are going to be left holding the bag, and they won’t have any answers.”
This post has been updated to include Patton’s comments disputing the New York Times report about her travel to New York.