Public Advocate Jumaane Williams acknowledges New Yorkers’ fears at annual ‘State of the People’ address

Screenshot 2024-05-23 at 6.18.11 PM
NYC Public Advocate Jumaane Williams delivered his ‘State of the People’ address in Jamaica on May 22.
Photo by Iryna Shkurhan

Five years after being elected to office, NYC Public Advocate Jumaane Williams took the stage in Jamaica to deliver his annual ‘State of the People’ address on Wednesday.

His afternoon speech at the Jamaica Performing Arts Center kicked off with song and dance performances followed by a medley of religious speakers who engaged the audience in prayers. Several other elected officials were in attendance, including City Comptroller Brad Lander, City Council Member and Majority Whip Selvena Brooks-Powers, and Queens District Attorney Melinda Katz. 

While William’s address last year primarily centered around public safety, this year, he chose to touch on a mix of issues that carry an undercurrent of fear for many New Yorkers. From fear of crime to fear of overdevelopment of one’s neighborhood, he called to the stage several New Yorkers who have been personally affected by some of these issues to share their stories with the audience directly. 

One is a Columbia University student who recounted growing up in gang activity and overcoming violence through recognition of his trauma. Another, a delivery driver for DoorDash who immigrated from the Ivory Coast two years ago, talked about the lack of safety and resources on the job. One high school student shared the downfalls of the public school system he had to overcome to create success for himself. 

I’ve always tried to make my office a megaphone, to amplify the needs of New Yorkers, to give voice to the people,” said the public advocate after taking the stage. “I want everyone to hear those voices directly, and come together to confront our neighbor’s fears with courage and action.”

Williams is the fifth elected official to hold the position of public advocate since the role was created to replace the President of the City Council in 1993. The role primarily involves investigating citizen complaints about the city’s shortcomings while also making proposals to facilitate oversight and improve services. The advocate can also introduce and co-sponsor legislation in the city council, but does not have voting power. 

Since taking office in 2019, Williams has passed the Fair Chance Act, also known as Ban the Box law, which prohibits employers citywide from asking about criminal history or running a background check until a conditional job offer is made. He’s also cracked down on illegal commuter vans, attempted to maximize affordable housing opportunities with the Housing, Not Warehousing Act, and advocated for immigrant rights. 

However, the majority of the legislation he was able to pass centered around protecting tenants from landlord harassment and lack of repairs in their buildings. He passed a law that formally defined tenant harassment and another that doubled fines for landlords who engage in it. 

One popular component of his office is the compilation of an annual Worst Landlords Watchlist, which features 100 property owners ranked by their violations to tenants.

During his address on Wednesday, Williams announced that his office will take the initiative one step further with a new platform for tenants to share their stories that will launch in the coming weeks. The initiative is in partnership with the organization WYL, which stands for Who’s Your Landlord and allows the public to read and write reviews about landlords.

The goal is for tenants who live in buildings on the watchlist to share their stories with the public and each other. Ultimately, Williams says it can help the tenants unite and organize for better conditions while applying more pressure on landlords to improve living conditions. 

“Fears when it comes to housing are often misdirected to instill panic and stall problems,” said Williams. “We have to make sure that we’re honoring the concerns of communities, but not stopping the progress we need to address the housing crisis.”

He also discussed the fear of crime that plagues many residents and offered solutions to address the root cause by turning away from handcuffs and funding community programs for crisis management, workforce development and mental health resources for vulnerable youth. 

“These are part of a new system, one that allows accountability for acts of violence while changing the structures that drive them,” said Williams. “Law enforcement are critical partners in public safety… best in acute moments of need. But officers can’t do everything, and they can’t do it alone.”

He also added that the city needs to double down on its commitment to closing Rikers Island, the city’s largest jail, which received a big round of applause from the audience. 

Fear inherently implies a threat to safety, and public safety is paramount among the concerns of New Yorkers. Unfortunately, it’s also an issue that has been mischaracterized and misunderstood by many leaders trying to look tough on crime without being serious about safety,” said Williams. 

As the public advocate pointed out, many of the issues he discussed on Wednesday were the same issues he discussed at his first State of the People address. He noted that while diversity in the city’s leadership has improved, the impact on the city’s diverse communities hasn’t.