Upper West Sider Gives Back to His Home of 45 Years

Victor González outside of the Rabbi Stephen Wise Towers on West 90th Street. | JACKSON CHEN
Victor González outside of the Rabbi Stephen Wise Towers on West 90th Street. | JACKSON CHEN

BY JACKSON CHEN | Victor González served five years in the United States Air Force and more than 10 years as a tenant association president and as a Manhattan community board member.

His current public service, however, relates to the 44 years he’s lived in the city’s public housing. At 67 and as a proud resident of the New York City Housing Authority’s Rabbi Stephen Wise Towers on the Upper West Side, González, on January 18, was reappointed to the NYCHA board by Mayor Bill de Blasio.

Retired after 33 years with United Parcel Service, González spends most of his time helping people, he said. A warm smile, framed by a neat gray goatee, squinted his eyes as he greeted multiple neighbors on his walk over to Caridad, a local Dominican joint he frequents.

Appointed by Mayor Michael Bloomberg in 2011 as the NYCHA board’s first resident member and reappointed in 2013, González will be joined as a resident member on the board by two newcomers from Brooklyn – Jacqueline Young from the Lenox Road Houses and Jacqueline Arroyo from the Louis Armstrong Houses — as he begins his seventh year of service.

“No one understands the challenges and importance of public housing more than our residents,” de Blasio said of the three appointees. “As active leaders in their NYCHA communities, they will help move us forward as we work tirelessly to protect and strengthen public housing.”

González’s history with public housing started with his interest in strengthening the city’s commitment to NYCHA. After years of advocating and working with various housing organizations, he was curious about the moving cogs behind the system. His interest eventually led to him serving as the Wise Towers Tenants Association president and as the Housing Committee co-chair at Community Board 7.

And while the NYCHA board, with three resident members, three non-resident members, and the chair and CEO Shola Olatoye, operates similarly to community boards, his role there does have major differences, González said, especially in scope.

“Being the first resident to ever be appointed to the board, there was no roadmap to follow,” González said of his first term. “As a tenant association president, I was only responsible for like 300 families within the development, as opposed to a board member, where I now deal with over 400,000 residents.”

As a resident board member, González felt responsible for acting as the agency’s ear for NYCHA residents to voice their everyday concerns, which he would relay to the chair and other agency executives.

“It has been a privilege to work with Board Member Victor Gonzalez,” the current chair, Olatoye, said in an email message. “His positive attitude and desire to get involved at all levels so that he can help his fellow residents make him a true champion of public housing. I look forward to working with him and the new resident board members, as we continue to create safe, clean, and connected public housing for this and the next generation of New Yorkers.”

González brings more than his decades of first-hand knowledge to his role as a resident board member. His value, he explained, comes in good measure because he is someone who freely speaks from the heart, though he admitted those sincere words are often “shot from the hip.” And from talking with González, it’s clear that his animated hands are a big part of how those words are articulated.

Going into his third term on the board, he’s now focused on improving the agency’s partnerships with other organizations. Being an Air Force veteran, González said, he hopes to better connect NYCHA and the US Department of Veteran Affairs to improve the agency’s Veteran Affairs Supportive Housing program, where homeless veterans can receive vouchers for housing.

Similarly, the Wise Towers resident wants to improve the relationship between social workers and their clients in the city’s senior citizen housing programs through more communication and engagement.

“Moving forward with engagement is a very important thing,” González said. “And now everyone’s mindset is on engaging the residents, finding out what their concerns are, working with them and all the executives together.”

According to González, his particular approach to taking action came out of his upbringing by his mom and dad in East Harlem — or El Barrio, as residents there typically termed the neighborhood.

“My mother, a very strong, very religious person, she always told me, ‘Son, help people no matter what; don’t worry what anybody else does. You do what you need to do to help your fellow neighbor, and the guy upstairs is watching,’” González recalled. “That stuck with me all my life.”

Turning to his father’s influence, he added, “Then the old man, my dad, he told me, ‘Yeah, but be tough, don’t let nobody come and crap on your head and tell you eh-eh.”

His tenure at UPS of more than three decades may have been long, but he has lived in Wise Towers for two-thirds of his life. When asked when he first arrived at the public housing complex, González immediately recalled, “January of 1972.”

His prompt response might suggest just how important Wise Towers has been in his life, but in fact there’s a more significant reason for his quick recall – it was that same month that he first began living with his wife, who resided there.

Forty-five years later, González is an adamant believer in NYCHA as the only way the city can hope to address its serious housing challenges.

“I don’t know what everyone else’s conception is, but as far as I’m concerned, public housing is the last true bastion of affordable housing,” he said.