The New York Times’s animus toward Donald Trump has now extended to his late father Fred, who, as detailed in a sprawling investigative story, engaged in “manipulation of values to evade taxes”—a practice that helped stake his son’s real estate career but also constituted “overt fraud.” That’s how the Times sees it today, anyway. In 1999, when Fred C. Trump died at 93, the paper’s view was different. The future president’s father was a “Postwar Master Builder of Housing for Middle Class,” as the paper titled its obituary.
Nineteen years ago, the Times got it right. The elder Trump deserves admiration for a career that showed the way toward what has become an elusive goal in New York: privately built and financed affordable housing. Fred Trump’s construction of his vast empire of modest housing began when he was 15. He was too young, the Times noted, even to sign checks when he undertook projects. “He became partners with his mother, Elizabeth: they called their company E. Trump & Son. His mother, who was a dynamo in her own right, was the partner who signed the checks.” Ultimately, Trump would erect “more than 27,000 apartments and row houses in the neighborhoods of Coney Island, Bensonhurst, Sheepshead Bay, Flatbush, and Brighton Beach in Brooklyn and Flushing and Jamaica Estates in Queens,” a feat that put him in the storied company of such postwar builders as William Levitt (Levittown) and Samuel Lefrak (Lefrak City). Theirs was affordable housing built the old-old-fashioned way: small units on small lots, or density through high-rise construction and low costs. Trump would save money on materials such as disinfectant by mixing the ingredients himself. He would “walk through the studs and across the plywood floors, picking up unused nails to hand back to his carpenters the next day.” The paper credited him with helping to “change the face of Brooklyn and Queens with thousands of homes for the middle class in plain but sturdy brick rental towers, clustered together in immaculately groomed parks,” even as he would be “overshadowed in the news . . . by his flamboyant son Donald.”
In 2015, just as the younger Trump’s presidential campaign was getting underway, the Times noted in another article that small, single-family homes in the Hollis section of Queens sold, circa 1926, for between $3,990 and $9,959, or between $56,000 and $141,000 in 2018 dollars. Values today top $600,000. The homes contained a “spacious living room, a dining room with parquet flooring and a kitchen with a breakfast nook. A small garage was in the back.” By contrast, public housing—the Democratic Party’s preferred solution for those of modest means—has not held its value quite as well.
Fred Trump was a hard-headed businessman. Aware of the fact that his firm served many Jewish buyers and renters, he represented himself as Swedish, rather than German. And the Trumps may not have been above racial discrimination—they settled a 1973 Justice Department suit accusing them of such, though without admitting guilt. The record makes it hard to know exactly what went on. As the Washington Post reported recently, “One affidavit from a former Trump Management employee, who said that he had been fired, said that Fred Trump told him ‘it was absolutely against the law to discriminate’” but later told him “‘he also wanted to get rid of the blacks that were in the building.’” It’s worth remembering that in the postwar era in which Fred Trump was active, the most egregious racial discrimination in housing was practiced by the federal government, through the insurance policies of the Federal Housing Administration. Trump’s sins, to the extent they occurred, demonstrate how important it was to adopt fair housing laws—to ensure that the same rules applied to all builders.
This context makes it especially rich to learn from the Times’s 2015 article that the 1920s homes built by Fred Trump in Queens served, over time, the aspirations of “upwardly mobile black families . . . the kind of families who still dominate the area today.” Constance Robinson-Turner, a dietitian who emigrated from Trinidad, said of Fred Trump: “From what I’ve heard, he was someone who was a people’s person, someone who was empowering and uplifting middle-class people.” The Times seemed particularly surprised to meet one resident of a Fred Trump house, an African-American carpenter named Ron Walker, who turned out to be a Donald Trump supporter. Walker described Trump as “a very smart man,” one who “knows business and knows how to run things.” How did he feel to be living in Trump-built housing? “Just awesome.”
Photo: Allison Peltzman