I’ve been working in District 34 for a decade — my neighbors in Bushwick know my name, my WhatApp chats are constantly abuzz about what is going on in the Los Sures community, and I’m lucky to have a team that talks with my constituents every day. But I also recognize that there are tens of thousands of other constituents who remain unaware of their ability to contact my office. This is exacerbated by the fact that one in four New Yorkers have no internet at home to even be able to access this information. In a time when information is power, I introduced the “Know Your Rep” bill last month to empower New Yorkers across our city with the knowledge of where to turn for support. 

I got the idea for the bill from my longtime community organizer, who is also a Ridgewood native. As a child, he noticed his parents were unsure of where to go for help when navigating housing issues, unaware that they had the ability to seek assistance directly from their elected representatives for issues both big and small. This unfortunately continues today. I see people learn every day about their ability to look to our office for help. In order to get the word out to as many people as possible, the most effective approach is reaching out directly to people in their homes. This bill leverages the fact that over two-thirds of New Yorkers live in rented units and while not all-encompassing, rented units are a promising starting point. At its core, this bill is about the power of information — empowering tenants to create a much needed culture of responsiveness and accountability. 

The premise is simple: it informs New Yorkers about their elected representatives and city agencies, and their capacity to provide essential constituent services. Elected officials don’t just sit in City Hall or in Albany. My office alone deals with over 300 constituent cases a month: from helping people apply for SNAP benefits, to connecting constituents with legal services, to expediting resolutions for issues with housing and sanitation. We host pop up office hours throughout the district to ensure that we are meeting my constituents where they are at.

Gutierrez holds a press conference last year to denounce conditions in NYCHA housing. (image taken by John McCarten from the NYC Council Media Unit)

Critics may argue that the Know Your Rep bill just creates a new burden on landlords. While the law would merely require providing basic information to tenants, this is also a perspective that fails to consider the overwhelming benefits landlords receive by having informed tenants. Informed tenants are better equipped to navigate the complexities of local government, and if they are better equipped to understand how to access benefits that they qualify for, they are less likely to fall behind on rent payments, their children are more likely to succeed in schools. The list goes on. 

Residential owners play a vital role in shaping conditions for how millions of New Yorkers live — they are already required to deliver information to their tenants about everything from rent stabilization to lead contamination. My new proposal is not intended to foster conflict between tenants and landlords.  Instead, it seeks to build trust and, in cases where tenants are exposed to hazardous living conditions, this bill would create more accountability over landlords who neglect their legal and moral duty to ensure safe homes. Furthermore, the legislation could also help landlords connect directly with elected officials to assist on the issues that they are having directly as well. 

Amidst a housing landscape that’s currently rife with divisive narratives, it is imperative to identify and put forward initiatives that will unequivocally bolster civic participation, increase transparency and uphold the democratic ideals of equitable support for all.

Jennifer Gutiérrez represents New York City Council’s 34th District, which includes parts of Bushwick, East Williamsburg and Ridgewood.

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