DECEMBER 2002

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Crowded in Queens

By Josh Brustein

Seema Agnani has a difficult job. Her organization,, Chhaya Community Development Corporation, is a housing rights advocacy group for South Asians. But many of the group’s clients are renters who live in illegally converted apartments in Queens, leaving Agnani and her colleagues with the tricky task of advocating for the rights of people who technically have none.

Even more complicated, the landlords in these disputes are not always the black-and-white villains of most New York City tenant tales. They are, like their tenants, often immigrants themselves, and victims of the same system.

For the last decade, Queens has seen a huge influx of new residents, some 250,000 of them new immigrants. New construction has not increased at anywhere near that rate, and many people have moved into converted basements, living rooms, or even garages. Since these apartments are illegal because they violate zoning laws, their residents have no legal rights.

Chhaya sponsored a conference late last month for housing advocates and members of city agencies to come together to discuss how the city-wide housing crisis has affected immigrants in New York, examining the situation through the eyes of South Asians.

In this tight market, immigrant tenants are often forced to take what they can get, putting them in a vulnerable situation. According to a study done by Chhaya, about half of South Asians do not have a lease, and almost two thirds pay their rent by cash, both factors which contribute to the renter’s insecurity.

This leaves tenants open to discrimination and abuse from landlords. But immigrants are often reluctant to come to city agencies to complain, some because they are afraid of being prosecuted for immigration violations, others because they are not comfortable with English, and some simply because they don’t understand the system.

Agnani says even community groups such as hers have trouble getting people to file complaints, in part because their housing problems revolve around more immediate concerns - such as avoiding eviction.

But even those who do go to court sometimes emerge worse off. Agnani recalls a tenant who was going to be evicted from an illegal conversion and came to her group for help. Her client couldn’t speak English well, and wanted them to interpret. But when Agnani got to court, she found out that the landlord spoke even less English, and she ended up interpreting for both sides. The landlord did not understand that he wasn’t legally entitled to the rent, nor did he realize how much money the eviction would cost him. Finally in court when both sides fully understood the case, they wanted to settle between themselves. But it was too late.

"If the unit is illegal, the court can’t let the tenant stay, because of the liability issue that the court itself faces" says Agnani. "In this case, the homeowner ended up being fined, the tenant ended up having to leave, and everyone lost out."

Landlords who own illegally converted apartments aren’t always slumlords. Many of them found that in this city where rents are so high, it seemed cheaper to buy a house in Queens than to look for an apartment. But often the mortgage ends up being more expensive than they had expected, and they end up struggling to get by. Not knowing that it is illegal, some convert a basement or living room into a rentable space.

South Asian immigrants often find themselves in this situation, either because they were misled by real estate brokers about how much a property would cost, or because they underestimated the mortgage’s cost themselves. "Often they have never been homeowners before," says Oda Freidheim, a staff attorney from the Legal Aid Society, "and they don’t know the law. They’ve spent money to fix up the basement and they’re slapped with a violation."

The Department of Buildings' policy has been to deal with illegal conversions on a case by case basis. Some housing advocates say that a better way to solve the problem would be to change the zoning laws. These laws were established to control overcrowding and to make sure that living conditions were safe.

Zoning also regulates neighborhood density to assure that services like schools and hospitals can handle the neighborhood’s population, and so that garbage and traffic don’t clog the streets. Whether the zoning has been properly applied to all New York’s neighborhoods is debatable.

Illegal conversions "range from hellholes on one hand, to on the other hand large homes that could be subdivided legally," says Freidheim. She believes that many neighborhoods with illegally converted apartments can handle the extra population. "If you leave the whole universe underground," she says, "it hurts the homeowners, the landlords, and especially the tenants."

Agnani agrees. If it can be determined that the population living in illegal conversions isn’t overly straining the amenities of the neighborhood, she says, then there is no reason not to re-zone these areas to allow landowners to legally convert their property into extra apartments.

Chan Jamoona, of the United Hindu Cultural Center of the USA in Richmond Hill, Queens, believes that this is the best way to correct what is now an unregulated system that lends itself to abuse. "The landlord doesn’t have a responsibility because it’s illegal and the tenant doesn’t have a right because it’s illegal," she says. "But if we make it legal someone has a right and someone has a responsibility."

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