At my inauguration I promised that the public advocate’s office would be a place where the voice of the people spoke loudly. Over the past year, operating on the leanest budget of any city agency, we have worked hard to achieve that goal by providing forceful oversight of City Hall and giving thousands of overlooked New Yorkers the help they needed.
We helped snowbound residents stranded after December’s blizzard. We got results for parents who were shut out of major decisions in their child’s education. And we developed a watch list of the city’s worst landlords to help tenants fight back against appalling conditions.
Throughout all this work, we carried the belief that when people are given the opportunity to participate in the decisions of their government, we all achieve better results for our city.
One of the biggest tests for our office came following December’s blizzard, when entire neighborhoods were left stranded by a lagging city response. Frustrated and unable to reach city services through 311 or 911, over 900 New Yorkers sought help from us in the four days following the storm. We worked to get the Department of Sanitation to redirect plows and personnel to the hardest hit areas, and focus attention around blocked hospitals. And to make sure another storm never puts New Yorkers’ lives in jeopardy again, we now partner with community groups to monitor the streets around over 50 hospitals citywide to keep them clear after a big snowfall.
We worked to improve our children’s education by giving parents a greater say in how the city runs our schools system. My office surveyed 874 parents whose schools were being forced to share space with other schools. Despite the major impact these changes had on their lives and the education of their children, nearly half of these parents had never even seen the form the DOE uses to give them a chance to offer feedback. After we submitted a report to the DOE exposing this and other flaws around parental engagement, it passed a new policy requiring public notices ahead of any school closing and face-to-face meetings with stakeholders. Today, my office is gearing up to make sure the DOE lives up to the letter and spirit of that commitment by calling out instances where major changes are being made to schools without input from parents and the community.
We fought to protect thousands of New York City tenants whose apartments are deteriorating to the point of becoming unlivable. In September, my office launched New York City’s Worst Landlords Watch List to publicly expose landlords who are neglecting basic repairs. Since then we’ve added more than 400 buildings to the site, and 22 buildings have since cleared enough of their violations to come off the list. We also used the watch list to recoup $143,000 in taxpayer dollars by forcing a listed landlord to pay overdue back fines. In 2011, we are going to strengthen laws protecting tenants from irresponsible landlords, starting with legislation I introduced at the city level called the HEAT Act, which increases fines on landlords who fail to provide heat and hot water in our coldest months.
In addition to continuing on the initiatives we spearheaded last year, my office is going to focus on finding ways government can use tax dollars more efficiently and advocating for new programs that create middle-class jobs and support small businesses. I believe we can better use our city’s combined pension assets of over $100 billion to support more New York City-based businesses and initiatives. And we need to ensure developers are giving more back to the neighborhoods they build in by creating a higher number of good local jobs and community benefits. I will pull together all these tools to create jobs and economic opportunity for all of New York City’s residents.
Never has there been a more urgent need for government to find innovative ideas and policies that can change New Yorkers’ lives for the better. 2011 demands a new sense of energy and urgency from all parts of city government to continue to improve people’s lives and prove this is a city that can do more with less. As your public advocate, I plan to make that vision a reality.
Bill de Blasio is the Public Advocate for the City of New York. You can reach his office at www.advocate.nyc.gov or by calling (212) 669-7200.