By Jacques Jiha, Commissioner, NYC Department of Finance
Born in Haiti, I came to this country when I was 21 years old to further my education. I paid my way through school working as a parking lot attendant, earning a bachelor’s in economics from Fordham University, and then a master’s and Ph.D. at the New School for Social Research.
Since then, I have been fortunate to have had a broad range of jobs in both the public and private sectors. Those experiences have led to the opportunity to now serve as the Commissioner of the New York City Department of Finance. What a journey it has been – not just for me, but for so many New York City immigrants, who have come to this country in search of better opportunities and realized their dreams, improving not only their lives but the lives of others.
Just three decades ago, Haitians were often referenced as “boat people” – a startling description of those who, during the 1970’s, were escaping the Duvalier dictatorships. No other group of refugees entering the United States had ever been referred to as such. In fact, up until 1980, Haitians, who had risked their lives to sail to the U.S., were not allowed to even apply for asylum.
A lot has changed for the Haitian community since then, and New York City is a great representation of how far we’ve come and how significantly we have contributed to the America.
Haitian New Yorkers represent our culture in so many dynamic ways across industry – in sports, art, music, the corporate and business sectors, as well as politics. It’s the American Horatio Alger story of imagining your goals, working hard and achieving the dream – and, in the process, being of service. “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?’” That is a quote from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. that inspires the work that I do, particularly as a part of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration.
In the last two-and-a-half years, we have worked closely with all communities to better understand their challenges and improve their lives. These efforts can be seen throughout the City. All five boroughs have added jobs at significantly higher rates than previous years to an all-time high of 4.3 million jobs. Stop-and-frisk by New York City police is the lowest ever from a high of 700,000 stops a year to roughly 30,000 last year, while we remain the safest big city in America.
Prior to the Mayor’s Universal Pre-K initiative, only 19, 000 four-year-olds were enrolled in full-day pre-K in New York City. In the last two years, enrollment has tripled to more than 68,000. And the percentage of students reading at grade level in New York City has increased by 44 percent over the last three years.
Under the City’s expanded Paid Sick Leave law, 3.4 million private and nonprofit sector workers now have the legal right to paid sick leave – nearly 1.2 million more workers who did not have this important workplace benefit before.
Nearly 900,000 people have signed up for New York City’s first municipal identification program called IDNYC. It is the largest program of its kind in the country. Roughly 66% of survey respondents who are immigrants said that the ID card is their most commonly used form of photo identification.
We are also ahead of schedule on the City’s affordable housing 10-year goal of 200,000 units. Currently over 50,000 homes have been financed, providing for 130,000 New Yorkers. Beyond that, the New York City Rent Guidelines Board voted to freeze rents for one-year leases for more than one million rent stabilized apartments.
We have also strengthened our New York City Rent Freeze Program, which include the Senior Citizen Rent Increase Exemption (SCRIE) and the Disability Rent Increase Exemption (DRIE). These benefits “freeze the rent” of eligible senior citizens and renters with disabilities. In 2014, Mayor de Blasio signed legislation into local law to raise the maximum income requirement for these exemptions from $29,000 to $50,000 – the first such increase since the program was established 40 years ago. This benefit, which is managed by my agency, the Department of Finance, could benefit as many as 80,000 seniors and people living with disabilities in New York City.
I am proud of all that we have been able to accomplish in such a very short time. Our ability to effect so much change is a strong example of the benefits of having a diverse workforce. The Mayor’s team is a broadly diverse group of professionals who know and love this City. We are intimately familiar with the problems and challenges of the New York City communities because we come from these communities – and we are committed to improving them.
On Labor Day as we celebrate the social and economic achievements of American workers, it seems a most appropriate date for what is the world’s largest celebration of Caribbean culture. On Monday, so many of us will be on Eastern Parkway waving our countries’ flags, dancing, socializing, and partaking in all of the festivities. But this weekend-long celebration of the West Indian American Day Carnival is so much more than merriment. It’s recognition of our strength and our resilience in our adopted homeland. It’s a celebration of our ability to not only dream big but to accomplish great things for the benefit of us all – in one of the greatest cities in the world.