As Public Advocate, James Will Likely Focus on Housing

Council Member Letitia James (Photo by Erin Horan)
Council Member Letitia James (Photo by Erin Horan)

By Ben Brody

The director of a leading Fort Greene housing advocacy group said she expects newly elected Public Advocate Letitia James to fight for tenants just as she did when she represented the neighborhood in the City Council.

“We’re very, very happy that we’re going to have someone we’ve worked with for many, many years,” said Juanita Edwards, director of community organizing at the Pratt Area Community Council (PACC), a housing-advocacy organization in Fort Greene. Edwards said that James’ history working with PACC and other organizations to give legal advice to tenants, help long-term residents stay in housing and get residents repairs when landlords drag their feet would position her well to continue her work on housing, which Edwards said she was confident James would be taking on.

James, though, has been relatively reticent about her plans for the Public Advocate’s office, which fields complaints, investigates alleged inequality and corruption in city services, attempts to bring transparency in the city’s workings and steps in if the mayor is incapacitated. She has mentioned working on issues including pedestrian safety, stop-and-risk and cyber-protection, but allies and experts have said that, because of the office’s small $2.1 million annual budget in recent years, James, who frequently touts her housing activism, will likely focus on issues including tenants’ rights and affordable-housing availability. James did not respond to multiple requests by email and phone to comment for this story.

“I would continue to fight for more affordable housing and to hold developers accountable by making sure they build such promised housing,” James wrote before the election on a candidate questionnaire for Citizens Union, a non-partisan organization that advocates for greater transparency and efficiency in city government. The question asked about her top priorities.

While housing in the city is often a private issue that ostensibly lies outside of the public-oversight functions of the Public Advocate’s office, the city provides public housing to 400,000 residents under the New York City Housing Authority and thousands more live in affordable housing that developers must provide according to contracts with the city or community organizations. The office’s broad mandate also allowed the current public advocate, Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio, to take on housing issues, making his “Worst Landlords” watch list a signature initiative.

James has given hints of other ambitions. Her campaign website, letitiajames2013.com, says that she would end the much-maligned policing tactic called stop-and-frisk, and (somewhat vaguely) that she will “take a stand” against school closings. In the Citizens Union questionnaire, she wrote that she wanted to create a Cyber Awareness and Protection Unit to increase awareness and report instances of cyberbulling and identity theft.

During a vigil on Nov. 5 for 9-year-old Lucian Merryweather who was killed in Fort Greene when an out-of-control driver jumped up on the sidewalk where the boy was walking, James also said she’s committed to protecting pedestrians throughout the city and had spoken to de Blasio about the effort.

“We’re talking about coming together under the umbrella of the Office of Public Advocate,” James told mourners. “We need better signage. We need enforcement. And we need to tell everyone to slow down.”

Jeanne Zaino, a professor at Iona College in New Rochelle who studies the city’s politics, warned, however, that James might not be able to take on many projects, because, she said the office’s purpose can be unclear and its power limited.

“It’s an office that’s important,” Zaino said, “but it’s not well-staffed or well-funded.”

Bob Liff, a Democratic analyst and former political reporter who endorsed James, said that the $2.1 million annual budget often limits public advocates to keeping the public informed, signing reports or reminding the public about politicians’ campaign promises, for instance, rather than hiring contractors or allocating funds to fix a particular problem, as the mayor might.

“A lot of it starts to seem like fluff,” Zaino said, “like it’s more PR than instituting changes.”

Liff said he would like to see James reach out to “outside public-policy institutes to augment what she can do in-house.”

Indeed, James wrote in the Citizens Union questionnaire that her number one campaign promise would be the creation of a Citywide Advocates’ Network that would partner “with a network of local non-profit and faith based organizations across the City to advocate for our communities” on issues like consumer protection and exploitation of tenants.

James, who is now the first African-American woman elected to citywide office, is a graduate of Lehman College and Howard University Law School. Often described as smart and tenacious, she worked as a public defender and then did a stint in the office of Eliot Spitzer when he was attorney general. In 2001, after time as a staffer for State Assemblyman Roger L. Green and others, James ran against then-Councilman James E. Davis. She lost, but after Davis was killed in a shooting at City Hall in 2003, she won a special election for his seat, running as a candidate for the left-leaning Working Families Party and beating Davis’ brother Geoffrey.

As a member of the City Council, James held hearings as chair of the council’s Contracts Committee on ballooning costs for city projects and contractors, and the resulting scandal, which became known as CityTime after the city’s payroll system, is still garnering headlines years later. She also criticized the mayor’s handling of snow clean up in the outer boroughs and in addition to her housing activism and opposition to Atlantic Yards and Stop & Frisk.

“She’s good at focusing on a topic and mentioning over and over again,” said Council Member Gale Brewer, who represents the Upper West Side of Manhattan. “I think people didn’t believe that CityTime was such a big problem, but she kept pushing it.”

Liff said that quality will be valuable in her next job, even if the position is formally invested with “very little power.”

“She’s a tough activist with kind of strongly held beliefs,” Liff said. “She will apply those as effectively as one can in the context of a job that the city charter doesn’t give much to do.”

“She’s smart and she does her homework,” Brewer added. “She’s there to improve people’s lives. And the public advocate to me is the perfect job for her.”

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