President Trump recently appointed his close family associate Lynne Patton as the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Regional Director for New York/New Jersey. The appointment generated some controversy because Ms. Patton had no prior experience in housing issues. Trinity Alumna and Director of Development Marisel Morales has some insight into what the position entails because she held this same position during the administration of President George W. Bush from 2001 to 2004. Prior to her appointment Ms. Morales had experience as the chief of staff to the New York City Sheriff, with prior work for the NYC Public Housing Authority, also earlier positions in the New Jersey Governor’s Office, and the U.S. Department of Labor.
Marisel Morales has written this blog about her experiences as the HUD NY/NJ Regional Director from 2001 to 2004:
My Time as HUD Regional Director for NY/NJ
By Marisel Morales (Photo on left)
I may well be one of a handful in the history of Presidential appointees to never have sent in a resume to a Transition Team. In early February 2001, I received a phone call from the White House saying my name kept coming up as a possible candidate for a position with the Administration. Until that day, it had never crossed my mind to leave my job as Chief of Staff to the NYC Sheriff to join the fledging Bush Administration.
It took three telephone conversations before I agreed to submit my resume to the Office of Presidential Personnel. I had a high-school aged son and made clear my intention not to relocate to D.C. at that time. They told me the job was HUD Regional Director for Region II, NY/NJ in NYC.
The White House believed I was perfect for the job because for starters, I had already been a federal employee. During Bush 41’s Administration I had been appointed the Region II Asst. Secretary’s Representative to the U.S. Secretary of Labor; I had worked for Secretaries Elizabeth H. Dole and Lynn Martin.
In addition, I had held several high level positions in the administrations of two N.J. Governors, Thomas H. Kean & Christine Todd Whitman including a stint as Director of Community and Government Relations for the latter. My experience also included years in New York City government. Before joining the NYC Office of the Sheriff as Chief of Staff, I had been Executive Assistant in the Office of Policy & Programs of the NYC Housing Authority’s (NYCHA) Department of Community Operations and the Public Relations Manager and Bilingual Editor in NYCHA’s Office of Public Information. I brought the trifecta of governmental experience to the game: federal, state and local. On the personal side, I had been a Board of Directors trustee in a myriad of community-based organizations.
After the customary long vetting process, I met with then-Secretary Mel Martinez in late August 2001 when he informed me I was his choice for the job; he was sending my name to President Bush for the appointment. I felt both humbled and blessed to be afforded an opportunity to serve the people who needed it most and hopefully make a difference in their lives.
Then came September 11, 2001; everyone’s world changed in an instant. Life would never be the same and the last thing on my mind was the HUD appointment. In late September 2001, Sec. Martinez flew to New York City and requested a meeting. He was there to make me an offer I could refuse – he said the job I had interviewed for had changed in a very dramatic way on 9/11 and he was giving me an escape hatch if I wanted one. Besides the regular duties the other nine HUD Reg. Dirs. across the country had, the NY Regional Director was about to inherit responsibility and oversight for the $3.7B appropriation coming for the rebuilding of lower Manhattan.
As Sec. Martinez noted, there was no roadmap for an unprecedented event like the one NYC had just suffered. I would have to create my own map and write the script as I went along. He added: “Not one penny of this money can go missing, the eyes of the world will be on you.” (The HUD scandal of the 80’s had been out of the Region II office, thus the caveat.) He told me President Bush believed it unfair just to throw something of such magnitude at someone who was not expecting it. Although they both believed I was the right person to get it done effectively on behalf of New Yorkers, taxpayers and the Nation, they wanted to give me the opportunity to walk away. I thanked the President and Sec. Martinez for their concerns and I accepted the challenge.
My tenure as the HUD Regional Director for NY/NJ was demanding. Aside from designing and implementing system controls for the distribution of $3.7B aid package, I had to innately navigate the very complex political landscape that was the World Trade Center (WTC) site. The WTC belonged to the Port Authority of NY/NJ, a bi-state agency. That translated into balancing the occasional competing interest of two governors (one Republican, one Democrat); four state legislative bodies; two Congressional delegations; one outgoing and one incoming Mayor of New York City; the Port Authority; Larry Silverstein; the federal government; the White House; Capitol Hill; and one very unusual, newly created entity known as the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation (LMDC). Sixteen years later, I am proud to say those $3.7 billion are accounted for and helped those they were meant to assist.
Barely a month into my tenure, we received a call from a local news station about a glitch in the “Officer Next Door” program. Two NYPD officers had been assigned the same lottery number by a third-party vendor and the number was picked. One of the officers was notified of the mistake and told he did not have the house he bid on. Before my Public Affairs Officer finished explaining, I knew what needed to be done. Resolving the issue entailed a call to the FHA Commissioner; an alternative selection of houses for the losing officer to choose from; the vendor to publicly acknowledge the error and put safeguards in place to prevent a reoccurrence; and getting it all done within 48 hours. A public relations disaster averted; a horror story became a fairy tale.
In 2004, eighty disabled families in Long Island living in nonprofit housing were about to lose their Section 8 subsidies resulting from an accounting error at HUD Headquarters. For two years, efforts to correct the problem had been futile. Then they came to me. There was one last resort, a clean and legal fix that involved the New York State Dept. of Housing, but its Commissioner was not budging. Not even the Governor who appointed her could get her to relent. The eviction notice legal timeline would have put the notices being handed out to the eighty families on the same day President George W. Bush was scheduled accept the GOP nomination in New York City.
Being intimately familiar with both NYC & NYS politics, I cleared the room and made a phone call to the one individual I knew could convince the Commissioner to engage. My conversation was short and to the point. I told the powerful legislator I knew he was THE one person who could get the Commissioner to agree to what I was about to request: that New York State pay the $270K+ HUD owed the nonprofit; HUD would then reimburse NYS within 30 days. I added that the commitment letter from the Commissioner to the nonprofit needed to be sent by 4:30 p.m. that afternoon and that I had two HUD legal teams on standby to help with the language – my Regional Counsel’s Office in NYC and the HUD General Counsel in DC. He said, “Your information is correct. I will call her and then call you back within the hour.” Ten minutes later, the deal was sealed and the crisis averted. To this day, my former staff does not know who I called that day. Knowing you helped eighty disabled families remain their homes is as comforting and rewarding as it gets. Not many know this story. Most of what public servants do, is done in anonymity. One of my biggest successes as a human being and a professional has, until now remained the biggest secret of my career.
Public service is neither for the faint of heart nor for the inexperienced and unqualified. This is especially true when the job at hand requires compassion, hands-on knowledge of the subject, as well as a clear vision and understanding that the role is bigger than any one person. One cannot bring pre-K Chinese checkers playing skills to a world where everyone else is a grandmaster chess player. That is a disservice to the people you are there to serve and to the taxpayers who pay your salary. None of that was lost on me when I accepted the HUD job in 2001. My esteemed HUD Regional Director for NY/NJ colleagues include a late Congressman, a Borough President and the current Mayor of New York City. I was a link in a long chain of dedicated men and women who for the most part, joined HUD for the right reasons and came to the job equipped with a substantive toolkit. It appears as if that chain was just broken and the noble tradition came to a screeching halt under the Trump Administration