Thursday, September 29, 2016

Council Member Ritchie Torres - Civic Empowerment Lies at the Heart of Everything He Does

Bronx Health REACH’s Kelly Moltzen with New York City Council Member Ritchie Torres following the announcement of Torres’ $10,000 allocation towards Health Bucks in 2015.

Bronx Health REACH continues its series on individuals who have made a significant contribution to not only the Institute for Family Health, but to the  Black and Latino communities in the Bronx where they have been strong activists for needed change. A notable member of this group of change agents is New York City Council Member Ritchie Torres, representing the 15th Council District in the Central Bronx that includes the communities of Fordham, Mount Hope, Belmont, East Tremont, West Farms, Van Nest, and Allerton.

Growing up in New York City public housing Council Member Ritchie Torres knows all too well the poor housing conditions faced by residents of the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA). The mold from his childhood apartment triggered asthma attacks, resulting in many hospital visits. When his mother would call NYCHA staff about the mold, they would just paint it over. The problem would continue. As Chair of the NYC Council Committee on Public Housing, Council Member Torres is making sure public housing residents do not suffer as he did. In April, Senator Bernie Sanders and Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, candidates for the Democratic Presidential nomination, were were invited by Council Member Torres to tour public housing to see firsthand the living conditions residents must endure. Senator Sanders accepted the offer and was led on a tour by Council Member Torres to public housing developments in the Central Bronx and Brownsville, Brooklyn. Secretary Clinton toured public housing in East Harlem.

"By inviting Senator Sanders and Secretary Clinton to tour public housing I was sending a simple message: You cannot confront inequality from the ivory tower. By visiting these public housing projects, you see the abysmal conditions residents live in every day. What you see is the impact from federal disinvestment. How could this be, in a city that has an $80 billion budget, a state that has a $140 billion dollar budget, and a country that has a $4 trillion budget? The tour led Secretary Clinton to commit to secure more funding for public housing."

A central issue of concern Council Member Torres hears from his constituents is affordable housing. "Among my constituents there is anxiety and fear over losing their homes and neighborhoods. We have seen neighborhoods that have been gentrified out of existence, affordable housing has been gentrified out of existence, and my constituents, who are living paycheck to paycheck, are fearful that their neighborhood is next. We need more investment from the federal government to solve the affordability crisis here in New York City.”

Council Member Torres also knows that his constituent’s limited income restricts their ability to purchase healthy food. To address this the Council Member pioneered the use of discretionary funding for Health Bucks, worth $2 each, they are used to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables at participating farmers markets. For the past three years the Council Member has allocated funds towards Health Bucks for his district. "There is nothing more important than your health. With the funding for Health Bucks, more people in my district are able to purchase more fruits and vegetables at farmers markets. My hope is that more Council Members will take it up as a priority for their own districts."

The Council Member’s recent legislative efforts have included improving access to mental health services. "If you lack mental wellness, then a whole host of problems can arise. I have struggled with depression in my own life. It's a genuine disease in which you have no control, and can inhibit your ability to live a fully functional life. Knowing this I have introduced legislation requiring the city to create a mental health plan, specifically for LGBT seniors and others in the LGBT community who have been found to have some of the highest rates of depression, anxiety, and thoughts of suicide.”

With the Bronx being ranked 62 out of 62 counties in New York State by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation County Health Rankings & Roadmaps Report, Council Member Torres believes that no single policy will solve the problem. "Since the Bronx has some of the highest rates of obesity and diabetes, I believe improvements in the public health of the Bronx needs to come from several initiatives such as Health Bucks, expanding the number of green markets, encouraging more healthy food options by creating a zoning or financial incentive for super markets and bodegas to offer healthier eating options. The solutions are there. What is lacking is the political will to overcome the health challenges in the Bronx.”

He also contends that change comes when community members take an active role in civic engagement. “Civic empowerment lies at the heart of everything I do. Communities that are civically empowered attract more economic development, and are in a stronger position to hold elected officials accountable for addressing the community’s fundamental needs. My number one goal is to build civic infrastructure in those neighborhoods I represent. That is why I am a strong supporter of participatory budgeting - it is an effective tool for building civic engagement and improvement. It’s a way for people to take ownership of their neighborhood. You have a right to have a voice in how money will be spent in your neighborhood, and you have a right to expect services that address the core needs of your neighborhood.”

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