I am thrilled to introduce Maria Torres-Springer, the Commissioner of the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development, the largest city housing agency in America.

Maria is leading the charge to implement Mayor de Blasio’s Ten-Year Plan, which will create or preserve 200,000 affordable homes in all parts of the city.

She has an impressive record of expanding economic opportunity and building relationships between community, government, and private businesses to support neighborhood revitalization projects throughout New York.

The mission of the agency Maria leads is to promote the quality and affordability of the city’s housing and the strength and diversity of its neighborhoods.

They finance the construction and preservation of affordable housing in the five boroughs and monitor the health and affordability of more than 84,000 units in 4,000 buildings.

Maria has a long and distinguished history in our city government, including positions as the President of the NYC EDC and Commissioner of the City’s Department of Small Business Services.

Most importantly, Maria is passionate and dedicated.

She is driven by a true desire to help people.

And she speaks from the heart.

Which is exactly what you’re about to hear.

It’s an honor for me to introduce our city’s Housing Commissioner, Maria Torres-Springer.



By Maria Torres-Springer, Commissioner, New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development

The housing crisis is hidden

Crime is down in the U.S. But there is another, perhaps more pernicious type of violence that is gripping the nation.

One which allows us, the richest nation on the planet, to overlook the housing crisis that is plaguing families from coast to coast. A violence that allows us, heirs to the American dream, to ignore the rapid erosion of stability – let alone opportunity – that is putting that dream further and further out of reach for far too many.

It is the violence of looking away.

Consider this: in 2016, an NHP Foundation survey found that a staggering 75 percent of respondents across the country said they were afraid that they or someone close to them could lose their home. But in that same year, the number of times affordable housing came up in the presidential debates was a big fat Zero.

Why is it that something so fundamental, so core to everything we care about as people—home – hasn’t translated into a national priority? Why are we looking away?

While it is intuitive to most people, but not often uttered, housing is a basic human necessity. Home is where everyone’s day starts and ends. It is where all of us go to rejuvenate; to gain strength; to find comfort. Home is a sanctuary.

And yet, for a growing number of Americans, finding and keeping a home is a source of great anxiety.

Over the past several decades, as housing costs have skyrocketed and incomes have stagnated, more and more people across our country struggle to find housing they can afford. Today, in no state can a person working full-time at the federal minimum wage afford a two-bedroom apartment.

We are at a real crisis point. But that crisis is going essentially unseen: housing is simply missing from the national agenda.

Why are we looking away from the issue of housing?

The question is why. Why is it that Americans have embraced the value of home, but have ignored housing as a critical national issue? Today, I want to talk about a few possible theories I have about why we are looking away from the issue of housing.

1) You might think that the housing crisis isn’t really that bad.

One. You might think that the housing crisis isn’t really that bad. The fact is that there are very few news stories that cover the issue in depth, and unless you are a housing policy wonk, the most glaring statistics are unlikely to come across your social media feeds every hour. You might assume the problem is local or limited to big, high-cost cities like New York, where, to be sure, a full third of renters pay more than half of their income in rent. But nationwide, 11 million households are spending more than half of their income on rent. And the fact that more than half of Americans have less than $1,000 in savings leaves a huge swath of our country one unforeseen event – a job loss, a sickness, a cut in hours – away from being evicted. Families with children are the most vulnerable of all—single parents with children face the highest rates of eviction, at 30 percent, but married couples with children aren’t far behind, at 27 percent. The crisis is bad and getting worse, with profound repercussions for the individual families behind the numbers.

2) You might think that it’s not your problem.

Two. You might think that it’s not your problem. You may see the housing crisis as an issue for the very poor or an issue affecting cities or rural areas; but I can’t say this enough: there is no place in America that has been spared by this crisis. This is not a blue state problem or a red state problem; this crisis has come home to roost in everyone’s back yard. And as devastating as the impacts are for the lowest-wage earners, this crisis is touching more families at a larger range of incomes than ever before.

More people are seeing the rising cost of housing, and increasingly, feeling the impact, as their aging parents or their college-graduating children or their neighbors or their employees struggle to find a place where they can afford to live. The housing crisis impacts people you know and the places you live. The competitiveness of our cities and regions depends on our ability to attract workers and jobs, and our communities need people to teach our children, deliver our mail, nurse our sick, staff our courts, ring up our groceries, police our streets, and build our homes. This crisis is your problem.

3) You may believe other problems matter more.

Three. You may believe other problems matter more. To be sure, we face a crowded field of priorities: education, the economy, health care, the environment, racial equity, safety. I would argue that housing intersects with all of these issues in profound ways. Where you live matters; it affects where you go to school; what jobs and opportunities are available to you; how far you travel to work; whether your children have asthma—it all starts at home. Housing is a first-order problem, and solving the housing crisis is critical to tackling issues ranging from education to health.

4) You may just believe the problem is too big.

And last, you may just believe the problem is too big. As the housing crisis gains speed and force and touches more and more Americans, it can feel increasingly overwhelming. And rather than face it, we look away because the picture is too bleak, too scary: both in terms of what it means for us personally, and for what it means for us as a country.

To be sure, the problem is complicated and challenging, but I believe it is also solvable. We have the tools; we know how to provide safe, quality homes that people can afford. Over the past several decades, our nation has built a sophisticated public-private partnership model to provide affordable housing, and in places like NYC, long a laboratory for innovation in housing, we have an affordable housing machine that is ramping up to produce 25,000 affordable homes a year.

We have the tools, and more importantly, we know they work. At HPD, we’ve studied the impact of private affordable housing on people who have secured a home through our lottery. We found that they experience better housing outcomes (like a lower rent burden, higher housing quality); better neighborhood outcomes (like increased sense of safety); better financial outcomes (as in they are more likely to have health insurance and money left over after paying their bills); and better health outcomes (like lower rates of diabetes and asthma, less psychological distress).

The government has long served as a lynchpin in ensuring the strength of our housing market, from subsidizing mortgages so that more people could achieve the American dream, to investing in large scale public housing to move people out of unsafe tenements, to ensuring a basic standard of living for our most vulnerable neighbors.

It can be done. We now just need the political will to bring the solutions to scale, and to make sure they benefit all Americans. We need people to care not just about home, but about housing.

How do we make people see the problem?

So how do we make people see the problem? First, we need to bring the facts of the housing crisis into the light, and take a long hard look. We need to make clear that this is a problem we all share, and that it is connected in profound ways to all the other issues that we care about. And while it is a big and complex challenge, it is one we have the tools to solve. So how do we do this?

1) Simplify the message.

First, we must simplify the message. The model of affordable housing is an enormously complicated one that, while highly effective, can seem impenetrable to anyone who is not an industry expert. The lengthy list of programs represents a virtual alphabet soup of acronyms that can be alienating and baffling to outsiders, especially to those families and communities most in need of affordable housing.  That is why we have to get rid of the endless jargon, and we have to do a better job of connecting housing to home.

2) Build a bigger army.

Second, we need to build a bigger army. Let me be clear, there is a war on affordable housing being waged across our country. For decades, the federal government has been chipping away at programs and resources for public and affordable housing, and today, all of those programs are under attack.  If we are to fight the many cuts now on the table, defend against the many more coming down the pike, and expand the pie to get the resources Americans need, the conversation about housing can’t just be for insiders – we must expand the network of supporters. We need a broader set of allies to spread the message and advocate for change.

To do that, we need a new type of coalition building, one where our politics reflect what’s best in us, and not what’s worst.  There is a lot of focus on the political divisiveness that is eroding our democracy, and it is a challenge to be sure, but many of our most powerful tools to create affordable housing have long held bipartisan support.  Already, we’ve fended off some of the most serious threats by reaching across the aisle to find and partner with allies around the nation, but we need to reach a much broader cross-section of people if we are to amplify the message and ensure that housing stays top of mind at all levels of government.

3) We have to show what is at stake.

And last, we need to show what is at stake in human terms. The housing crisis affects all segments of our population. Perhaps the most heartbreaking is its effect on children. Every day in my work, I hear from New Yorkers who are desperate for affordable housing. Families who fear they will not be able to stay in their homes or in their communities; who were forced to move far from their social safety net; who commute long distances to work or to keep their children in their schools; who make stark painful choices between paying the rent and buying medicine, groceries, the clothes on their backs. This instability and the fear that comes along with it are very real.

And for me, it is deeply personal. I grew up in California where my family relied on a section 8 voucher to afford our home. I still remember vividly the fear we felt every year when the Alameda County Housing Authority came to do their annual inspection. My parents’ anxiety was palpable; all of us worried about what would happen if our house failed that inspection or a problem arose and we lost that voucher. The threat of losing our home was real and ever-present. It is a feeling that sticks with me still and reminds me every day just what is at stake for the millions of kids in America who are growing up without something that is absolutely essential to their well-being—and their future success in life—a decent, safe home.

We have to find a way to make people care.

That is what is at stake. Their stories and their futures are why we all need to care. I believe all of us already do care—about home. We now need to connect the dots to recognize the housing crisis as a genuine and growing threat to all that home represents—security, stability, opportunity.

Because this crisis is real, and it is getting dramatically worse year after year.

Ultimately, the question we need to answer, and the question we need to force our national leaders to answer is “What kind of country do we want to be?”  One where access to a safe, decent, affordable home is within everyone’s reach? Or one where seniors, working families, even children worry about where they will sleep at night?

The time is now to answer this question. The time is now to address this crisis. Looking away is no longer an option.