Sunday, September 12, 2021



 Public Advocate Jumaane D. Williams outlined a series of proposed charter reforms aimed at combatting systemic racial inequities in New York City during a public input session convened by the Racial Justice Commission in lower Manhattan. The Commission was established in March of this year and tasked with identifying structural reforms to advance racial justice and equity and dismantle structural racism through Charter revisions.

"It is clear that we do not have a broken system that is in need of piecemeal reforms that tinker around the edges. The system is functioning the way it was intended to-marginalizing people on the basis of race across so many areas of our lives," the Public Advocate said to open Thursday hearing  "I hope that this Commission can be a vehicle for transformative policy changes that match severity and scope of the problems faced in our Black, Latinx, Asian, and Indigenous communities."

The reforms highlighted by the Public Advocate in testimony include:
  • Converting and Legalizing Basement Apartments
  • Establishing a Right to Permanent Housing
  • Ensuring Marijuana Legalization Economically Benefits Communities of More Color
  • Establishing a Baby Bonds Program
  • Establishing Life-Long Learning Accounts
  • Making Transportation Free for the Lowest-Income New Yorkers
  • Increasing City Council oversight of the NYPD
  • Reforming the City Budget Process
  • Equipping the Office of the Public Advocate with Essential Tools
Read more about each proposal in the full testimony below. Video is available here.



My name is Jumaane D. Williams and I am the Public Advocate for the City of New York. Thank you Chair Jones Austin for leading this Public Input Session and granting me the opportunity to speak. I'd also like to thank Mayor de Blasio for convening the Racial Justice Commission.

Over the past year and a half, the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed and exacerbated the racial inequities that have long plagued New York City. While all New Yorkers have been impacted, the data shows that those coming from communities of more color have been hit the hardest-both medically and economically. Simultaneously, continued police violence and worsening hate crimes have further reinforced how racism remains ever-present in our City. It is clear that we do not have a broken system that is in need of piecemeal reforms that tinker around the edges. The system is functioning the way it was intended to-marginalizing people on the basis of race across so many areas of our lives. I hope that this Commission can be a vehicle for transformative policy changes that match severity and scope of the problems faced in our Black, Latinx, Asian, and Indigenous communities. In this aim, I would like to raise the following items for consideration to include as City Charter revisions:

Converting and Legalizing Basement Apartments- Due to the impacts of climate change, flash flooding events are happening with more regularity. As we tragically saw in Hurricane Ida, this puts the hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers living in substandard basement apartments at serious risk. The Basement Apartment Conversion Pilot Program (BACPP) in Brooklyn's Community District 5 has successfully launched and begun to convert substandard basement units into safe, legal, and rentable apartments at low or no cost for tenants and building owners. This program must be immediately codified as a citywide program in order to protect the safety of residents, who are predominantly lower-income New Yorkers of more color.
Establishing a Right to Permanent Housing- Currently, New York City has a "Right to Shelter" mandate that requires the City to provide temporary emergency shelter to those experiencing homelessness on a given night. While well-intentioned, this framework has resulted in the overdependence on the shelter system, which provides insufficient living conditions and fails to address the root causes of homelessness. The forced relocation of people experiencing homelessness from designated hotels into the shelter system is a prime example of this harmful dynamic. The City should instead use a Right to Permanent Housing as its guiding principle in addressing homelessness. This would cement a commitment to a "Housing First" framework, which prioritizes getting people into homes without any prohibitive conditions, and then combining housing with supportive treatment services for potential issues such as joblessness, mental health concerns, or substance misuse.

Ensuring Marijuana Legalization Economically Benefits Communities of More Color- Now that New York State has legalized marjiuana, the City should take bold steps to create space in the new industry for entrepreneurs that come from the communities most harmed by the War on Drugs. In order to do so, it should create an initial period upon legalization during which vending licenses are exclusively granted to applicants who meet certain criteria including: long-term residence in an area in New York City disproportionately impacted by high rates of arrest and incarceration for marijuana and other drug crimes as a result of criminal drug policy; past drug-related convictions or direct familial ties to those with drug-related convictions; verified participation in the "underground" market prior to legalization; and Minority and Women Business Enterprise (MWBE) status. The policies enacted by Cambridge, Massachusetts in this regard can serve as a model here.

Establishing a Baby Bonds Program- Nationally, the white-to-black disparity in median net worth is 19 to 1. A Baby Bonds program would help close the racial wealth gap in New York City and provide young New Yorkers with much needed seed money for asset-building expenses. Through this program, the City would create investment accounts for children when they are born. The initial deposits in the accounts would be determined based on the wealth of the child's parents-with those with the poorest parents receiving the largest amount and those with the wealthiest parents receiving the smallest amount. The accounts, which would accrue interest over time, would become payable when the child turns eighteen and be available to use for clearly defined asset-building expenses such as paying for college tuition, purchasing a home, or saving for retirement.The State of Connecticut recently implemented a similar program earlier this year.

Establishing Life-Long Learning Accounts- As the Center for an Urban Future has found, over 456,000 New York City jobs are vulnerable to being eliminated in the coming years due to developments in automation. These jobs are disproportionately held by Black and Latinx workers. In order to ensure that New Yorkers can attain skills needed to thrive in the rapidly changing economy, the City should provide substantial support for education and job training by establishing a Life-Long Learning Accounts Program. Through this program workers could choose to place a percentage of their earnings in dedicated accounts and the City and employers would match these contributions up to an established cap. Funds in these accounts would be used for exclusive purposes of training and education and be subject to balance limits and limited investment returns in order to encourage their regular usage.

Making Transportation Free for the Lowest-Income New Yorkers- Transportation is a basic necessity that should not be denied to New Yorkers due to the inability to pay. As such, New York City should permanently codify an expanded Fair Fares program. Currently, Fair Fares provides half-priced rides to New Yorkers who are below the federal poverty line-this should be expanded to make fares completely free for those who are currently eligible. Additionally, eligibility should be expanded to include Access-a-Ride commuters, as it is essential that we make public transportation truly accessible for New Yorkers with disabilities. An expanded and codified Fair Fares would create immediate positive economic impacts and significantly reduce expenditures related to fare evasion enforcement, which is disproportionately implemented in communities of more color.
Creating a New York City Department of Public Safety- For too long, our City has equated public safety with policing. While the NYPD has a critical role to play by providing acute law enforcement solutions to criminal situations, policing by itself cannot address all of the components that make up personal and community well-being. In order to reframe public safety in a more comprehensive way and strengthen targeted approaches to distinct issue areas, the City should establish a Department of Public Safety to which the NYPD, FDNY, and MOCJ would report. This department would also include a citywide unit of social workers, medics, and mental health peers tasked with responding to mental health crises without law enforcement through a dedicated 9-8-8 hotline accessible to the public. This department would also house service units specializing in community-oriented responses to issues including gun violence, substance misuse, and traffic enforcement. Newark's Department of Public Safety could serve as a key model here.
Increasing City Council oversight of the NYPD
a) Given the immense influence and authority that the Commissioner of the NYPD holds, this position should not be made via unilateral mayoral appointment. Instead, the City Council should be granted advice and consent power over this position's appointment in a model that mimics the United States Senate's process regarding senior-level Presidential appointments. I would also like to note that I am also in support of implementing the same process for the Chancellor of the Department of Education (DOE). However, due to the State's control of the DOE, such a change would not be possible via the City Charter.
b) The NYPD's use of technology must be fully transparent, non-discriminatory, respectful of privacy rights, and limited to necessary use. The recent release of reports related to the POST Act demonstrate that the NYPD has amassed a military-grade arsenal of surveillance technology that fails to meet these criteria. New York City should mimic cities like Seattle and Oakland by requiring the City Council to approve police technology purchases.

Reforming the City Budget Process- The current City budgetary process disproportionately emphasizes the role of the Mayor at the expense of the role of the City Council. Our Office supports rectifying this imbalance by amending the budget process via the following measures that have been previously proposed by the City Council. If passed, these reforms would create a more democratic and transparent budget that would more accurately reflect the priorities of New Yorkers.
a)Requiring that the Mayor and Council jointly determine the units of appropriation included in the budget for key City agencies on an annual basis.
b)Implementing mechanisms to ensure adherence to the mandate for narrower, programmatic units of appropriation. This must include a more transparent and itemized budget for the NYPD.

Equipping the Office of the Public Advocate with Essential Tools- The Public Advocate's Office is limited in its ability to fulfill its charter mandate to provide oversight on City Agencies and investigate constituent complaints regarding City services. Being granted the following abilities which the Office currently lacks would strengthen government accountability and further racial justice. I acknowledge that naturally, as the current Public Advocate, these changes are of particular interest to me and my Office. However, I truly believe that these changes are in the best interest of the public and essential to a balanced government.
a) Subpoena Power- At present, the Charter states that the Office of the Public Advocate "shall have timely access to those records and documents of city agencies which the public advocate deems necessary to complete the investigations, inquiries and reviews." However, this power is limited and does not have the full weight of a subpoena. This delays investigations that the Office of the Public Advocate is empowered to conduct. With subpoena powers, the Office would be able to identify documents and records that specifically speak to an agency's failure to meet the needs of a racial group.
b) Appointment of Independent Counsel- The Corporation Counsel has determination over which cases can be pursued, which violates the intended separation of powers among city officials. In the event that the Mayor, City Council and Public Advocate disagree over a vital issue, the Corporation Counsel would likely side with the Mayor, leaving the other branches without needed legal resources. The Corporation Counsel should be required to appoint independent counsel in the event that these parties cannot resolve a trying matter.
c) Independence from the Corporation Counsel- The Public Advocate should have discretion to initiate, join or submit an amicus brief in an ongoing case in their official capacity without seeking permission from Corporation Counsel. Currently, permission is too often denied, particularly when a policy position is contrary to that of the Mayor. This ability should also be granted to the City Council.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

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