New HRA Commissioner a Thorn in Side of Past Mayors

New HRA Commissioner a Thorn in Side of Past Mayors

New HRA Commissioner a Thorn in Side of Past Mayors
February 28, 2014

A longtime thorn in the side of many previous mayoral administrations will now be calling the current New York City mayor "boss."

Mayor Bill de Blasio named Steve Banks, currently attorney-in-chief for the Legal Aid Society, as commissioner for the Human Resources Administration. Banks' appointment was widely acclaimed by advocates and public officials, but it will be an interesting pivot for Banks, who has a long history of butting heads with the city as an advocate for the homeless. Banks has found a battle to wage seemingly with every mayor, from fiercely bucking Rudy Giuliani's plan to force individuals at homeless shelters to work for the shelter or risk losing their children to foster care, to losing a legal fight to Michael Bloomberg to keep the Advantage rent subsidy program.

"I had just said to the mayor that I’ve been at the Legal Aid Society through now five mayoral administrations and this is the first one I’m not going to bring a lawsuit against," Banks said at the press conference announcing his appointment.

Perhaps the most high-profile of those lawsuits was McCain v. Koch, which fought for a number of protections for homeless children and families, including improved conditions in shelter facilities, and court orders prohibiting the city from forcing homeless children and families to sleep on the floors and benches of intake offices. The lawsuit, filed in 1983, was not settled until 2008 when a final judgment established a permanent right to shelter for homeless families.

Banks' homeless advocacy continued through the David Dinkins administration, as he was one of Dinkins' chief critics for being unable to solve the enduring issue of providing housing for homeless individuals. Specifically, he dinged Dinkins for his indecisiveness in directing the New York City Housing Authority to set aside units of housing for the homeless, telling the New York Times in 1992, "All this really presents a picture of a city that isn't very well run."

In fact, Nancy Wackstein, the director of Dinkins' office on homelessness, said she was "floored" when Lilliam Barrios-Paoli, de Blasio's deputy mayor for health and human services, phoned her to let her know that Banks was their pick for HRA commissioner. Wackstein, now the executive director for United Neighborhood Houses, served on one of the transition committees that advised the mayor on appointments for the city's human service agencies. She said that as an "old friend" of Banks, she worried that the nature of the job would be a difficult adjustment for him.

"With HRA particularly it’s a huge system, they have 5,000 employees, most of whom have seen commissioners come and go, and you’re also confronting people who have been doing things a certain way, the same way, for a  long time," Wackstein said. "I have to say, I am really impressed and I admire him tremendously for wanting to give this a shot in this point in his career."

Wackstein added that she was disappointed that Banks was part of a coalition of homeless advocacy that railed against the Dinkins administration a mere three months into his administration for failing to adequately address homelessness, and that she hoped that "the same thing doesn't happen to him" now that he is heading HRA.

As for the Advantage program, which provided rent subsidies for the homeless and an initiative de Blasio has committed to restoring as part of his administration's focus on decreasing the homeless population, Banks was a key litigator on behalf of the program's recipients, demonstrating that despite their previous rivalry--Banks ran against de Blasio for City Council in Brooklyn--they are in lockstep on their shared vision on the plight of the homeless.

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Nick Powell