The apartments were developed by Fred C. Trump, the father of the brash billionaire-turned-TV-star-turned-presidential-candidate, Donald J. Trump. The elder Trump was a prolific builder too, although in nearly every way different from his son: Where Donald sought the spectacular in Manhattan, Fred built thousands of units of good but banal government-backed housing for New Yorkers who would never dream of penthouse living.
Where the son spares no expense, the father counted pennies. Where Donald builds in glass and steel, his father built in brick. Donald has made the family name a synonym for luxury, but the origins of the Trump empire lie in Fred's decidedly less elite market: the lower-middle class, the outer boroughs, renters.
The differences reflect not just the separate eras in which the two men built, but also their diverging ambitions. The younger Trump looked at what his father had created, he wrote in his 1987 book “The Art of the Deal,” and decided he wanted to do something “grander, more glamorous, and more exciting.” The profit margins developing and managing modest-income housing were small. And sometimes you had to accompany burly men to bang on doors and demand past-due rent payments.
“The real reason I wanted out of my father’s business – more important than the fact that it was physically rough and financially tough – was that I had loftier dreams and visions,” Donald Trump wrote. “And there was no way to implement them building housing in the outer boroughs.”
The contrast between the two is also revealing for what it says about the son now that he’s running for president.
"My legacy has its roots in my father’s legacy," Trump, 69, said in written comments to The Washington Post. He credits his father, who died in 1999 at age 93, with teaching him about construction, contractors, negotiating and how to succeed in real estate. But from an early age, the younger Trump, who took over his father's company, knew he wanted to build skyscrapers, and his success doing so is part of the basis for his campaign, he said.
"Dreaming about building a skyscraper and actually getting it built are two very different scenarios," Trump said. "I know the difference. I understand the value of a blueprint and that can carry over into many endeavors."
But for some longtime observers of the Trump family's real estate history, there is a disconnect between Trump's anti-government rhetoric as a candidate and his father's legacy.
“It’s so funny the Donald does all his government attacks, because his entire heritage is from the government,” says Julia Vitullo-Martin, a senior fellow with New York's Regional Plan Association. She interviewed Fred Trump in the 1970s on behalf of the city when officials were trying to figure out how the construction industry, which had ground to a halt, could repeat Trump’s successes.
Today, Donald Trump's New York real estate portfolio includes a dozen ritzy buildings in Manhattan and its suburbs. Trump Place condominiums on the Upper West Side of Manhattan sell for more than $3 million. Then there's Trump Palace (55 stories with a marble and mahogany lobby) and Trump SoHo (a condominium-hotel with panoramic views of Manhattan's skyline) and Trump Park Avenue (a redeveloped 1920s-era building where a penthouse will cost you $35 million). His name is on skyscrapers throughout the world.
“Fred Trump built for people like me,” says Sol Cooperman, 70, now a retired accountant who’s been in Trump Village since renting a $220 a month, two-bedroom apartment there in 1977. Today he pays just $630 a month for it. “I can afford a little decent housing. But Trump Place — who can afford that type of square footage paying $300,000, $400,000?”
Shifting priorities of the city
Beyond Trump Village, Fred Trump did not leave his name on anything else. But his imprint is all over Brooklyn and Queens, in 1930s-era row homes and six-story garden apartments, and vast complexes like the one on Coney Island that made him one of the biggest builders of his day.
With the government’s help, he created badly needed Depression-era and post-war housing, often rent-stabilized. And much of what he built — though all of it has since been sold off by the Trump Organization — remains today part of the scarce stock of middle-class housing in a city that now has an abundance of Donald Trump-like luxury.
Today, Trump Tower, a glassy 68-story trophy when Donald completed it as his first eponymous project in 1983, seems more common.
“What both of them chose to do and how they made their money is so symbolic of the shifting priorities of the city,” says Matthew Gordon Lasner, an associate professor of urban studies and planning at Hunter College and the editor of the forthcoming book "Affordable Housing in New York." “After the traumas of the 1970s,” Lasner says, when New York nearly went bankrupt and many middle class families fled, “the next generation emerges with a very different set of priorities.”
If Fred Trump’s New York was a home for the upwardly mobile, he says, Donald Trump’s is a playground for those who have already made it.
The elder Trump's fortunes came, in large part, by leveraging public programs to spur housing. He began constructing hundreds of single-family homes in Queens and Brooklyn in the 1930s using mortgage commitments from the newly created Federal Housing Administration to obtain construction loans. Without the FHA, biographer Gwenda Blair wrote, Fred Trump would have been running a supermarket (one of his earlier investments). With it, he became the biggest builder in Brooklyn.
During the war, he moved to constructing thousands of no-frills homes for the Navy around Norfolk. Then after, when the government was trying to jumpstart the construction industry to house veterans, he built even larger FHA-backed apartments and projects, like Trump Village, that were financed through public bonds issued by the state.
“He knew how to negotiate all these different programs,” Vitullo-Martin says.
There was a “public-spiritedness” to all this construction, Lasner says, but it wasn’t altruistic. Over the years, Fred Trump became very good at turning a profit on modest housing — ordering his own mops, inspecting his own boilers, building in red brick because it was a penny cheaper than tan. Then he made more money taking over distressed apartments.
In the early 1970s
, the family company was accused of violating the Fair Housing Act by discriminating against black would-be tenants in 39 buildings it managed. Donald, then leading the business and with a hint of his later brusqueness, called the charges "absolutely ridiculous" and complained to the media that the federal government was trying to force landlords to rent to welfare recipients.
The company eventually agreed to a consent decree with the Department of Justice that required it to list vacancies in minority publications and with open housing advocates.
The impossible market
By the 1970s, Fred Trump had become a millionaire.
“He built what everybody’s talking about today as the impossible market,” Vitullo-Martin says. Developers now frequently insist that affordable housing isn’t profitable, that tax breaks and incentives to build it are too cumbersome. Only luxury pays. If a new thousand-unit apartment rises in New York, no one expects it to house lower-middle income families. “Who’s building like Fred Trump?” Vitullo-Martin asks. “No one.”
There are many reasons for that. Land is more expensive, building restrictions more complex, neighborhood opposition more fierce. Mostly, though, government is no longer such a generous partner.
“In the ‘50s and ‘60s, there was this idealism that we could solve people's housing problems,” says Andrew S. Dolkart, a Columbia University historian of architecture and development in New York. If people lived in crowded tenements, government and the private sector could design modern, light-filled apartments. And if GIs didn't have anywhere to live, millions of homes could be built for them.
“And we don’t even try now,” Dolkart says.
The thousands of Fred Trump homes that still exist are a legacy of that New Deal idea. His son’s legacy will lie, in contrast, in luxury hotels and golf courses.
“Nobody goes by any of the [Fred] Trump housing and says ‘wow look at that,’” Dolkart says. “Whereas you go by Donald Trump’s housing, and it forces you to look — not necessarily positively — but it’s the antithesis of the anonymous housing that his father built.”
In 2007, Trump Village, part of it now known as Trump Village Estates, left the public program that had governed it since the 1960s as a cooperative. Now the people who live there are free to sell their units at market-rate, which means the building will lose its affordability, the part that's harder to maintain over the years than the sturdy brick that built it.
Max Ehrenfreund contributed to this story.