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Longtime critic named to head NYC's HRA

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio. Credit: Getty Images / John Moore

Mayor Bill de Blasio Friday picked a longtime foe of New York City government's poverty policies and onetime political rival to head its main welfare agency.

Steven Banks, now the chief lawyer for the Legal Aid Society, will lead the $9 billion Human Resources Administration, which serves more than 3 million New Yorkers. The agency doles out temporary cash assistance, Medicaid, food stamps and other programs for the old, infirm and those with HIV/AIDS, enforces child-support orders, and more.

"I've been at the Legal Aid Society through now five mayoral administrations, and this is the first one I'm not bringing a lawsuit against," Banks said yesterday at City Hall, eliciting a hearty chuckle from de Blasio.

Banks, 56, was among three appointments announced Friday. Nisha Agarwal, 36, was named to lead the Mayor's Office of Immigrant Affairs. Lorraine Grillo, 64, will remain head of the School Construction Authority. First named in 2010 by Mayor Michael Bloomberg she will continue to get $192,528 a year; Agarwal, $192,198; and Banks, $205,180.

Banks battled the Ed Koch administration so destitute families would be entitled to city shelter at least on par with criminals. He castigated David Dinkins' City Hall for keeping homeless people in welfare hotels. He fought a Rudy Giuliani policy to send children to foster care if their shelter-seeking parents refuse work assignments. He railed against a Bloomberg-era database tracking the intimate details of millions of poor individuals.

And in 2001, he lost a Brooklyn City Council race -- to de Blasio.

Agarwal, a daughter of immigrants, will help spearhead a municipal ID card for city residents who are not in the country legally. The program is set to debut later this year, and the administration hopes the card will appeal to all New Yorkers by offering bonuses such as business discounts.

The mayor and Banks said HRA would undertake a review of existing policies "and see whether or not people are treated fairly," Banks said.

"The word 'human' is in the title of the agency," Banks said, adding: "We have to make sure that people are treated as human beings."

Said de Blasio: "Certainly some of the culture that dominated HRA, particularly in the Giuliani years, was insensitive to the people being served and we want to end that."

Asked whether he thinks welfare recipients should work for benefits, Banks said work should be encouraged but the city should "help people who can't get work get the assistance that they need."

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