By Maria Rocha-Buschel
Lower East Side resident Jorge Vasquez has his lifelong neighborhood to thank for his aspiring City Council candidacy. Vasquez, an attorney who is running to replace term-limited City Councilmember Rosie Mendez in District 2, said that it was the local Boys & Girls Republic, as well as his mother’s influence, that got him involved in community advocacy.
“It was a tradition with me and my mom on Election Day where we would wake up and I would go with her to the polls,” he said, recalling that he and his mother also canvassed for Antonio Pagan, the City Councilmember for District 2 in the 1990s prior to Mendez’s predecessor, Margarita Lopez.
Vasquez said that he started attending programming at the Boys & Girls Republic, which offer youth the opportunity to participate in self-government, at age six and was putting bills together by age 10. When Vasquez joined, the program was known as the Boys Brotherhood Republic but the program later became part of the Henry Street Settlement and was renamed the Boys & Girls Republic.
“Those programs give youth the opportunity to be active in the community,” he said. “Being part of democracy, and even to be familiar with the courtroom and jury rules, is so important. I wouldn’t be an attorney without access to these programs and the advocacy it instilled in me.”
As an attorney focused on housing rights, Vasquez said that his career was partially inspired by friends he had in the neighborhood who were struggling when they were growing up. Most recently, Vasquez was an agency attorney with the New York City Commission on Human Rights but prior to that, he was a housing attorney with Legal Services.
“I had friends who were living in tents in elementary school, and that led me to right for fair housing,” he said. “I want to represent tenants who are struggling.”
He noted that while many advocates focus on new legislation to protect tenants, he feels that there should be more focus on the laws already in place.
“We need to make sure that rents are being properly calculated,” he said. “I’ve been doing things on a bigger scale, like organizing ‘know your rights’ presentations and reminding tenants to check the rent registry. We need to safeguard rent stabilized housing and see what J51s we have and need to make sure that units are deregulated through the proper channels.”
Vasquez said that working with seniors is also important for the community, especially because even when there are resources available, seniors aren’t always to access them easily. He noted that many of the resources for seniors are only available online, which restricts how many seniors actually benefit from the services because of their limited access to the internet.
“There are apartment complexes that have preferences for seniors but the notices are mostly blasted through emails so a lot of seniors don’t ever hear about it,” he said. “Everything is digital but even something like bus schedules, these are basic needs.”
Vasquez said that he is concerned about the plan to downsize Mount Sinai Beth Israel, especially because of the aging population in the district.
“The thing we can do is inform people that this is going on,” he said. “We also have to make sure hospitals get enough funding to prevent them from closing in the first place. Nobody benefits if these hospitals close. Small businesses and health centers are some of the biggest employers in the city.”
In addition to protecting healthcare jobs, Vasquez said that he is committed to helping small businesses in the neighborhood as well.
“We need more job trainings and need to be advising small business owners,” he said. “There are a lot of closed storefronts. I’ve hosted events to go over laws for business owners, to make sure they’re handicap accessible and so they know what’s legally allowed, from resources to utilities.”
He added that small businesses often struggle because owners don’t always notice small details like having a bookkeeper and creating business accounts instead of using personal accounts, which actually violates the law.
“District 2 is the home of creativity,” he said. “We need to show that this is where we can keep our businesses.”
Vasquez, who attended public schools in his neighborhood through high school, said that education is a focus of his campaign.
“I’m the product of public schools, but I benefited from after school activities that no longer exist today,” he said. “We need to make sure that youth have the best opportunities to succeed.”
Vasquez announced at the end of last week that he was officially on the ballot for the September 12 primary.
A former candidate for the City Council seat, Chetan Hebbur, also announced in July that he was ending his campaign and would be supporting Vasquez.