The Closing: Jumaane Williams

NYC’s public advocate on battling REBNY, struggling to collect rent and living with Tourette’s
By Eddie Small | July 01, 2019 10:00AM

Jumaane WIlliams (Photo by Studio Scrivo)

Jumaane Williams is New York City’s sixth public advocate, a role that has infuriated many local real estate players since at least 2010 — when the office began publishing its “100 worst landlords” list on Bill de Blasio’s watch. Under Williams, the office will continue to publish the list (with a few potential changes for those who clear their violations) while finding other ways to hold landlords accountable for how they manage their properties. The Brooklyn native, who became public advocate following a special election in February, came from the City Council, where he represented Flatbush, Midwood and Canarsie. His political career has also included an unsuccessful bid for lieutenant governor. Despite recent rumors, though, he denies having any interest in running for mayor in the 2021 elections. Williams, who refused to accept real estate money during his bid for public advocate, has gained a reputation for backing many liberal causes, including Occupy Wall Street and universal rent control. The public advocate was arrested and charged with disorderly conduct at a rent reform protest in Albany last month. But he said that he still has allies in the real estate industry, including representatives for the Real Estate Board of New York and the Rent Stabilization Association, and that he understands the issues many city landlords deal with. As the owner of a small rental property in Canarsie, Williams told The Real Deal he’s had tenants owe him thousands of dollars. He also spoke candidly about being diagnosed with Tourette’s syndrome and selling marijuana in high school.

DOB: May 11, 1976
Lives in: Fiske Terrace, Brooklyn
Hometown: East New York
Family: In a relationship

Where did you grow up? I grew up in Starrett City in Brooklyn for the first 18 years of my life — Fourth and 33rd, Apartment 4F. Then my mother purchased a house on Avenue J in Midwood.

So you’re Brooklyn-born and raised? Well, I think I spent my first few days in Manhattan, and they quickly brought me where I belong.

What did your parents do when you were growing up? My father, rest in peace, was a physician, and then he got saved and was a minister. My mother, who’s retired, is a pharmacist.

What were you like as a kid? I was labeled a troublemaker for most of my school years. I wasn’t diagnosed with Tourette’s syndrome until very late, so between that and ADHD, I got reprimanded a lot at school. My mother got my sister and I very involved in the arts. I still managed to get into a little bit of trouble, but not as much as if she hadn’t. Drama was my first love, and acting is something I still love to do.

How did getting diagnosed with Tourette’s impact your life, especially your political career? In ninth grade, my mom and I were watching a “20/20” show about Tourette’s, and then she said, “I think you have that.” And I said, “I think I don’t.” She was right. I never really took time to internalize the diagnosis. I just had to keep moving. But I think it’s made me empathetic to people, and I always figured people were staring at me anyway, so I guess that helped me get used to things like that.

You recently said to a crowd that you sold pot as a teenager. Why did you decide to do that? I was going to bring it up earlier, but folks kept telling me I shouldn’t. So I didn’t tell them I was going to do it this time. I wanted to change the discussion around who’s selling or smoking pot. I did it for a very short time, and it was dime and nickel bags. The reason I stopped was because one dude didn’t want to pay, and he was like, “Tell whoever gave it to you to come talk to me.” I don’t want to encourage people to do stuff, but we shouldn’t be so ashamed that we can’t talk about things.

Are you worried at all about that being used against you down the road? My mom is. I’m 43. I have a lot of lived experiences, and I don’t think people’s experiences are helpful if they’re hidden. My body of work speaks much louder than a couple of dime bags in high school.

Where do you live now? I guess it’s technically called Fiske Terrace. It’s kind of like Flatbush.

Are you married or single? I’m not married, but I’m in a relationship. My girlfriend has an awesome 10-year-old daughter.

How did you get involved in politics? When I was younger my heroes were Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Spider-Man and the X-Men. And on campus at Brooklyn College, I really started seeing the connection between social justice and electoral politics.

You were pretty active in Occupy Wall Street. What do you think of the criticisms that it faced, both from the right and the left? I was the first elected official to publicly endorse Occupy. I think the benefits outweighed the criticism. There were things that were being done that just didn’t seem to have a purpose, but it changed a whole trajectory of conversation in this country — everybody immediately knows what the 99 percent is and what the 1 percent is. And there was a whole crop of operatives that came out of Occupy Wall Street that are now in nonprofits and elected officials’ offices, so I think that’s amazing.

People have called it a failure of a movement overall because it shut down. Would you call it a failure or no? Not at all. I think it’s okay to exist to bring issues to prominence. People wanted them to not only be the people bringing issues to prominence but be the ones who immediately had the solutions. That’s a hell of a weight to have on.

What led you to run for City Council? I always wanted to be part of transformational change, and I just thought this was a pretty good way to do it. It wasn’t necessarily the City Council. It could have been the Assembly. It could have been the Senate. I just wanted a way to get involved in that discussion at a higher level.

Was your lieutenant governor run more of a statement, or did you run with the full intention of trying to win? Everything I do, I’m trying to do it, so I definitely wanted to win. Someone reached out to me about challenging the governor, and I don’t particularly like kamikaze missions, but I looked at the lieutenant governor, and I’m like, “Well, what about that position? Why wouldn’t I do this?” So everybody thought I was crazy again, but if we had $50,000 more, I’d be the lieutenant governor now. We got much closer than people ever assumed we would.

When did you first consider running for public advocate? The day after the lieutenant governor election. I spent the next two weeks contemplating and speaking to people about it. A lot of folks were like, “Do this and continue what we started,” and that weighed heavily on me.

Why did you reject campaign contributions from the real estate industry in that race? There is a problem with big money in politics, just in general. Of the industries that donate, real estate isn’t the only one, but I do think they have an outsize impact. You see them directly harming people: zoning decisions, rent laws. And so I felt it made sense to take that pledge.

How would you characterize the relationship between real estate and the public advocate? The purpose of the office is to make sure the public is okay, and I think it makes sense to be looking at real estate on the public’s behalf. But we have a lot of small landlords who need advocacy as well, so we don’t want to leave them out.

You’re still planning to publish the “worst landlords” list. Will you make any changes to how you’ll collect the data? We haven’t really been able to dig into it yet. I do want to make sure there’s a way for folks to get off as well. I want to make a pathway for that.

The main criticism we hear is landlords saying they inherit the violations, and then they’re on the list even though they haven’t had time to fix them. Do you think that’s valid? I can see their point, but I don’t know that the argument is valid if you bought the buildings knowing the violations exist. I think if you didn’t know, it may be a different conversation.

You told us earlier that you’re a small-time landlord and have had tenants owe you thousands of dollars. Were you ever paid what they owe you? Nope. I did get a judgment for one. I never got the money.

Do you consider anyone in real estate a friend or ally? I have a relationship with [REBNY’s] John Banks. I think we have some repairing to do because our battle over the construction safety legislation was not a good one. I don’t think they bargained in good faith. Frank Ricci, of RSA, and I have a very good relationship. He used to joke that maybe they’d endorse me for lieutenant governor, and I was like, “No! I’m going to lose votes!” [This interview took place shortly before REBNY announced that Banks would step down as president of the organization and be replaced by Jim Whelan as of July 1.]

What form would you like to see universal rent control take? People usually just think about rent control from the perspective of how much the units cost, but the protections that come from being rent-regulated are just as important. Tenants [should] be able to call up and say, ‘I need a repair in my apartment’ without the fear of not having their lease renewed.

Are there any other reforms that you’d like to see the state and city adopt? I wish they would give the power of tenant laws back to the City Council. That’s probably not going to happen for two reasons: I think the real estate industry is terrified of the City Council, and I don’t think the state wants to give that up because there’s power and money there.

How do you respond to criticism that the public advocate is more of a symbolic position than a powerful one? I think it’s not just symbolic. At the same time, there’s power in the symbolism. They are correct in that it’s not the mayor, and it’s not the City Council. But it wasn’t designed to be. The weirdest thing to me is people who have said, “It’s not as powerful as it should be, so let’s get rid of it.” That doesn’t make sense. If it should be more powerful, let’s make it more powerful.

The last two public advocates are now the state’s attorney general and the mayor of the city. Do you see this position as a launching pad for higher office? Not any more than any other position. It does give you a higher profile. But I do not want to be president, and I’m not running for mayor in 2021.

Someone leaked your arrest for harassment and criminal mischief 10 years ago during the public advocate race. You said it was due to a verbal disagreement with your girlfriend at the time. Is there anything more you can say about it now? It’s still the same. It was what it was. We had a verbal disagreement, and then there was an arrest.

Did you figure out who leaked it? No. There are assumptions that the people who were running against me actually leaked it, which I assume it was.

You said in your victory speech that you’ve been in therapy for the past three years. Why did you decide to go? I had difficulties committing to long-term relationships that would lean toward marriage. Whenever that would start to happen, I looked for the exit ramp. Therapy helped me understand where my fears may stem from and what I actually want out of a relationship.

When you leave a room, how do you want to be remembered? I’d like to be remembered as more lighthearted than people think.

What do you like to do to unwind? I like to go to the gym three to four times a week, and I binge on Adult Swim on Cartoon Network. I love “Rick and Morty,” but you can’t explain “Rick and Morty” to anyone who doesn’t watch it.

What’s your biggest vice? Sugar.

What’s the hardest part of your job? Just doing the right things for folks. That’s very difficult.

—Edited and condensed for clarity.