By Sydney H. Schanberg
Adapted from Op-Ed columns in The New York Times which appeared on June 4 and August 2, 1983
It was only a small item in the paper. And then a small follow-up item. They were unremarkable in size but they contained stunning news.
What these few paragraphs said was that Donald Trump — master builder, real estate impresario, accused by many of caring only about glitter and money — had offered to house some of this city’s downtrodden homeless in a building he owns on posh Central Park South where he has 14 empty apartments.
The city government reacted suspiciously to his offer. These misguided officials believed — heaven forfend — that Young Trump’s purpose was Machiavellian. Endowed with distrustful natures, they thought he wanted to install the down-and-outers at 100 Central Park South (across from the St. Moritz Hotel, full views of Central Park) for the sole purpose of driving out the rest of the tenants so he could demolish the building and put up another Trump pyramid.
Donald Trump acknowledges that he does indeed want to get the present tenants out in order to put up a new luxury building, but he insists that’s not why he’s offering shelter for the homeless.
“Some people think I must doing a number on the people in the building,” Mr. Trump told me. “That’s not true. I just want to help with the homeless problem. It’ll take two or three years to get everybody out, and in the meantime I’ll have more and more vacant apartments for the indigent.”
The city’s response came from Robert Trobe, a deputy administrator at the Human Resources Administration. He wrote to Mr. Trump: “While we greatly appreciate your offer, it does not seem appropriate to house clients in a building slated for demolition.”
Mr. Trobe was more candid in a later interview: “In light of the temporary nature of his proposal and his interest in moving out some other people, I’m left with an uncomfortable feeling and therefore am not pursuing it.”
When Trump initially made his offer, he mentioned only that the free apartments would have heat, hot water and “beautiful views.” Officialdom never gave him a chance to elaborate.
Now, he says, “I’ll also pay for nurses. And I’ll pay for any medical supplies that are needed.” It’s enough to sweep you off your feet. But the city, Scrooge-like, says nothing doing.
Young Trump says the building in its present status, because its apartments are rent-controlled or rent-stabilized, is being misused by “people of great wealth” who are paying minuscule rents for “the best location in the city.” “I have multimillionaires living in rent-controlled apartments.”
The building, says Trump, is a symbol of the bizarre anomalies imposed on the city’s critical housing supply by the rent-regulation system. He contends that if we could abolish the system, at least for the plutocracy, and charge fair market rents to all those with a net worth of over $1 million, buildings throughout Manhattan would produce significantly higher tax revenues for the government— and instead of pinched city budgets, we would have bulging surpluses. “We’d have money for cleaning our streets,” he promised. “Money for more cops. The city would be healthier.”
Before we allow ourselves to rejoice, however, there seem to be several nagging problems.
While some of the tenants in the 15-story building are quite rich, many are elderly people living on fixed incomes, such as Social Security, who have made their homes there for 20 years or more.
Although he is right that the building-as-is produces little if any profit and generates only a modest property tax check annually for the city, Mr. Trump knew all that when he bought the place. He didn’t mind because he thought he could empty it swiftly and erect a big profit-maker in its place.
His several court suits to get tenants out have so far failed — one judge suggested that his case was frivolous — and the tenants have accused him in turn of harassment and cutting of the building’s services.
And finally, if this young P.T. Barnum of real estate is so concerned about our pinched city budgets, why is he then suing the city for a $20 million tax abatement for the Trump Tower, a Fifth Avenue building on which he has already turned a profit of over $100 million?
While other landlords — just the bad apples, of course — bring in goods and dogs and arsonists to drive out tenants, Donald Trump is only bringing in derelicts. “I am sincere, he says. “I just want to help get some of these people off the streets.”
While the city will always need brash and hustling developers, his proposal was obscenely condescending to the homeless, using them as pawns without feelings, callous to the tenants and devious to the city agency for the homeless, which said no thanks instantly.
But then, Charles Sternberg, executive director of the International Rescue Committee — a laudable organization that since 1933 has been helping refugees settle and find jobs in this country — wrote me a letter asking if I thought Mr. Trump would offer the same free apartments to Polish exiles from the solidarity movement who are seeking a haven in the U.S.
The Trump offer was perfect for them since they need only temporary housing to give them time to find permanent apartments. Moreover, none of the suspicions justifiably raised about placing the homeless in these apartments could attach to the Polish refugees. I suggested to Mr. Sternberg that he write directly to Mr. Trump. His plea to the developer spoke about the “generous offer” toward the homeless and “about a problem we are facing with regard to Polish refugees who are now arriving in New York and for whom we are looking rather desperately for affordable housing.”
Mr. Sternberg’s letter went on: “They are homeless in the sense that as newcomers they have never had a home in the United States. And they are quite desirable tenants, having been exiled from their native country for their active participation in the Solidarnosc struggle…”
No response came, so after two weeks, someone from the International Rescue Committee called the Trump office, spoke with an assistant and “was told that our suggestion was not really what (Mr. Trump) had in mind.” The assistant said they would “get back” to the I.R.C.
When there was still no word five weeks after the initial appeal, Mr. Sternberg wrote a second letter to Trump. In it, he talked about the growing number of Poles being released from detention on condition they leave Poland and noted that the housing shortage here was not limited to Polish refugees. The I.R.C. has been helping thousands of Vietnamese, Cambodians, Laotians and others. “Your readiness to assist us,” Mr. Sternberg wrote,” “would…serve as an example. Impressed with the spirit of your initial offer, I thought of you as the initiator of a trend which would be of major humanitarian significance in a city which has never been oblivious of the words inscribed on the Statue of Liberty.” We called the Trump office to find out the reason for his coolness to this idea. A secretary explained: “That wasn’t the intention of our offer. We were talking about people who live in America now — not refugees. I don’t think this is something he [Trump] would consider.”
Let’s all urge him to reconsider. Otherwise, some people around town are going to start calling him a phony. Unless the Trumps are direct descendents of the Onondagas or the Sioux, their ancestors must have arrived in America in need of a home.
Just when did Donald become selectively xenophobic? He has no objection to foreigners buying multimillion-dollar condominiums in his Trump Tower on Fifth Avenue.
Now’s his chance to prove that he was sincere the first time, and that he wasn’t just trying to scare his tenants out of his Central Park South building — for profit only.