On Wednesday, Public Advocate Letitia James sat down with a small group of reporters to discuss her work as New York’s Public Advocate, and her goals moving forward.
She covered subjects ranging from Citi Bikes, to Affordable Housing, to her opinions on Mayor Bill de Blasio.
In terms of her own office, James hopes for a budget increase, which Mayor de Blasio has proposed. “It’s difficult to continue to operate with twenty staff members,” she said. James also emphasized that she is working closely with City Council. “I’m trying to remove the divide between City Council and the office of the Public Advocate.” James has attended several City Council meetings, and talks about being a steady presence there. “Operating in silos will no longer continue.”
James stated early on in the discussion that main priority moving forward is providing universal free lunch to New York City students. “The children who are below the poverty line often times are ashamed, often times are ridiculed, and often times hide in disgrace or go hungry…I want to remove the stigma of poverty, and I want to allow all children to eat a free nutritious lunch regardless of income in the city of New York.” James said that she needed $20 million for a free lunch program, most of which she claimed would be reimbursed by the federal government. As of today, there are just over 1,660 signatures in a petition for the program on the website Change.org. James also claimed that 46 city council members have signed a letter in support of a universal free lunch. The cost of covering this program, however, is uncertain, and will involve talks with the Federal Government. “There’s a question as to the reimbursement. Hopefully they can get beyond the challenges.”
When asked about the struggling Citi Bike program, James reminisced that she came out in favor of Citi Bikes when they made their debut, and said that she would support a co-public-private venture to try to save the program. She also expressed that she would like to see it expanded to reach more of New York. “The bike network only reaches downtown Brooklyn and then it falls off the face of the earth.” She remains open to the city using its own funds to help bail out Citi Bike. “I think what we need to do is put everything on the table, and have a robust discussion about how to save the program…I’m not saying no to that.”
On Charter Schools, James said that she is not against them per se, but outlined her problems (and lawsuit) with co-locating charter and public schools. “It’s unfortunate that we had to initiate litigation against the de Blasio administration in the absence of any standard or metrics in the instance of forced co-locations, and particularly in the absence of the blue book task force,” she said. She often referred to co-locations happening at schools that were already over capacity, and cited complaints that she’s heard of lunch being served at 9 am, and special-needs students being taught in closets because of the lack of space. “Halt the co-location in any school where children are being taught in trailers. I think that’s a reasonable request.”
On the affordable housing front, James was clear that she agreed with Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer in supporting a moratorium on the downsizing HPD is carrying out on New York subsidized housing. This downsizing involves moving tenants from bigger apartments to smaller ones. Citing HPD Commissioner Vicki Been’s testimony at City Council last week, James doubted whether the federal sequestration (and budget shortfall that HPD suffered) was completely at fault. “It’s unfortunately that the federal government has turned its back on urban centers, but at the same time I think HPD can do a better job with carving out certain exceptions so that seniors and disabled can live in their home during the twilight of their life.” She also listed her goals for affordable housing throughout the city that included redefining AMI to be between $30,000 and $80,000 for a family of four, increasing the size of apartments for families with children, and expanding the famous 80/20 affordable housing percentage to include more than 20% affordability.
On Police Commissioner Bratton, James was positive. “So far, so good.” She called for an increase in the number of detectives assigned to cold cases, and an increase in the number of Police Service Areas specifically assigned to public housing crime. There are currently only 9 PSAs in New York City. She also called for an increase in the number of police officers as a whole, citing a growing number of officers who are retiring. “Do I think we should increase the rank and file? Yes.”
James was mostly complimentary of Mayor de Blasio, saying that they don’t talk regularly, but they do have conversations. “If I had to grade the mayor, he’d get a B+,” she said, citing his push for sick leave, stop and risk reform, and universal Pre-K. “Were there some missteps in Albany? Yeah. But Albany is a strange place, and they live by a different sent of rules. And it’s really hard to get accustomed to those rules in your first 100 days.” On Cuomo, she said simply that his poll numbers were up, and declined to comment further.
James noticeably shied away from making any comments on the Rangel Espaillat congressional race taking place in Harlem right now. “This is not a political discussion. This is a discussion on policy.”