In the northern reaches of New York City, miles away from the glittery penthouses of Manhattan, sits City Council District 15 in the Bronx. Here, the median household income hovers near $23,000 per year, forty percent of the residents are immigrants, and a large portion of the community lives in public housing.
“I grew up with leaking ceilings and rooms filled with mold,” recalls the district’s councilman Ritchie Torres, the son of a single mother who raised her children in the Throggs Neck housing projects. “I faced many of the struggles that confront low-income New Yorkers. I was in and out of the hospital with asthma. I battled with depression. My two half-brothers were in prison. But despite every challenge I’ve had thrown at me, the one constant that endured was the benefit of a stable, permanent home.”
Elected in 2013 at the age of 25, Torres is the youngest member of New York’s city council. He is also the first openly gay member from the Bronx. As chair of the Public Housing Committee, he oversees the New York City Housing Authority, and as Deputy Leader, he is the only freshman member to hold a leadership position. And his name is being whispered in top political circles as a future mayor of New York City. Others believe he’ll go much farther than that.
A career in politics was not the plan when a teenage Torres signed up for his school law team. “I discovered a talent I didn’t know I had in debate,” remembers Torres, who eventually became team captain. His passion for arguing complex issues led to a chance meeting with then-District Manager for Community Board 10, Jimmy Vacca, a relationship that would propel him into the political sphere.
When Vacca ran for City Council in 2005, Torres volunteered for his campaign. “I had dropped out of college, I was at the lowest point in my struggle with depression, and I really thought my life was over,” he says. “Jimmy had more confidence in me than I had in myself. That was the greatest gift.” Torres went to work for Vacca as a community organizer and climbed the ranks to become housing director.
In making quality public housing his central mission, Torres has become a crucial voice for his constituents. “My life would never have been the same if we had gone into a shelter,” he explains. “I am the person I am today because of affordable public housing and the stability it provided my family. It gave me a foundation from which I could build a better life.”