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Language Barriers Silence Immigrant Tenants

Shaun Donovan, commissioner of the Department of Housing Preservation and Development, has responded to this article. For his response, see below.

Immigrant tenants and advocates for them have long complained that language barriers and inadequate outreach keep the city’s housing inspection agency from reaching thousands of immigrant families living in deplorable housing conditions. A new report by City University of New York and housing advocates offers lends credence to these complaints.

The report, entitled “Living in Isolation: Issues of Access to City Housing Services Among Immigrant New Yorkers,” shows that while immigrant households and New Yorkers with limited English proficiency are significantly more likely to have housing maintenance problems than other New Yorkers, they are less likely to report problems and to try to get services from the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development.

Residents of neighborhoods with large numbers of immigrants, such as Chinatown and the Lower East Side, file far fewer housing complaints than those in other parts of the city. This is despite the fact that, according to the report, households in those communities are more vulnerable to landlord harassment and more likely to be living in poor housing conditions than people in other communities. The bottom line, say tenant advocates, is that the New Yorkers who are most in need of city housing assistance have been the least able to get it.

The report, issued by the City University of New York’s Center for Urban Research and Communities for Housing Equity (a coalition of housing groups to which my organization, the New York Immigration Coalition, belongs), looks demographic data from the 2000 census and the 2005 New York City Housing and Vacancy Survey and overlays that information with city data on housing complaints.

Suffering in Silence


The report points out that New Yorkers with limited English benefit far less from the Bloomberg administration’s improved complaint procedures processes than other New Yorkers. Following the launch of the city’s 311 non-emergency hotline in 2003, the number of housing complaints filed with the city soared, almost doubling between 2001 and 2005.

But immigrants, who account for one in four New Yorkers, are less likely to take advantage of 311 or other avenues for complaint. A 2006 report by Communities for Housing Equity, found that only 18 percent of the immigrants and New Yorkers with limited English that it surveyed who had housing problems, reported those conditions to the housing department. For example, one women told the African Services Committee of an array of problems in her building: an insecure front door that allowed robberies; broken elevators; garbage strewn hallways, leaks and a collapsed ceiling. She had not gone to the city with her difficulties, though, because she did now know which agency to contact and, even if she did, was not sure she would be able to communicate with the people there.

She is not alone. The report, “Hear This! The Need for Multilingual Housing Services in New York” found that 62 percent of immigrants are not even aware of the existence of the housing department. And so, many such tenants prefer to contact already overburdened community-based organizations for guidance.

“I lived in horrible conditions for 20 years before I finally realized that there was a government agency that could help me,” said Zhi Qin Zheng. Now she is a leader for the Chinatown Tenant Union.

Even tenants who know about the housing department may find it difficult to get the services they need. Language remains a barrier. “It is so difficult to communicate with inspectors if they do not speak Spanish,” explained Rosalia Cruz, a tenant in Brooklyn and a tenant leader at Neighbors Helping Neighbors. “I can’t explain to the inspectors the problems that I’m having, and they say things to each other that I can’t understand.”

The City’s Response


For its part, the housing department points out that of its over 400 housing inspectors, 254 are bilingual, speaking a total of 30 languages. The agency has created a language card for housing inspectors to use when tenants do not speak English and allows inspectors to telephone an interpreter. Inspectors also have access to a translation service, offering 150 different languages, according to a housing department spokesperson. The agency has established a language access taskforce to look at the communication problems. And, to increase awareness about the services that it provides, the administration has launched its Taking It to the Streets campaign, which sends staff to different neighborhoods to talk about the services the housing department provides.

But some of this looks better on paper than in reality, some tenant advocates say. Currently inspectors are dispatched without regard for the language needs of the tenants, some charge. “Of the dozens of times I have called 311, only once has an inspector come who has spoken Spanish,” Cruz said.

Tenant advocates are working to enact city legislation, sponsored by City Councilmember Rosie Mendez, that would require the housing department to improve outreach, hire more bilingual and multilingual inspectors and assign inspectors with consideration for the language needs of the tenants and increase the translation of HPD documents.

Ericka Stallings is a housing advocate with The New York Immigration Coalition.

• • • • • • • • • •


By Shaun Donovan

Preserving our existing housing stock and ensuring that tenants live in safe and well-maintained apartments is a vital part of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s $7.5 billion New Housing Marketplace Plan to build and preserve 165,000 apartments and homes for 500,000 New Yorkers over 10 years. The Department of Housing Preservation and Development is committed to helping all New Yorkers access our services, and we are implementing a language access initiative across the agency. The initiative will increase meaningful access to quality housing information for city residents who are non-English speaking or have limited proficiency in English.

We encourage tenants to call 311, the city’s non-emergency hotline, which serves as its customer service center, to complain if their landlord is not making repairs. Tenants do not have to know the name of the city agency they wish to contact, and they can be certain that the call center representative will be able to take their complaint: 311 offers simultaneous translation services in over 170 languages. Requests for information on affordable housing and complaints about poor housing conditions are two of the most common inquiries the housing department receives through 311.

The department recently expanded the affordable housing hotline to make it available in Mandarin, Cantonese, Haitian Creole, Korean and Russian. The multilingual hotline will help more New York City residents gather the information they need to apply for affordable units created by the New Housing Marketplace Plan, the largest municipal affordable housing plan in the nation’s history. The hotline provides listings of affordable homes and apartments available through the city’s housing lottery system. Interested applicants can find out about open lotteries by calling 311 and asking for the Affordable Housing Hotline in any of the languages available.

HPD also recently released an online 311 tool, available in Spanish as well as English, which allows users to check on the progress of their complaint on the housing department’s website. This is an important step forward in our efforts to enable tenants to better use the city’s code enforcement services.

The housing department is continuously improving the multilingual capabilities of its housing inspectors. More than 200 out of its 400 housing inspectors are bilingual, speaking a total of 30 languages. All housing inspectors use a language card that allows them to identify which language tenant with no or limited English speaks and to request appropriate free interpretation services by phone. A 24-hour a day, 7-day a week language translation service is available to housing inspectors and office staff. It offers translation into 150 languages. Additionally, the inspectors carry brochures in five most widely spoken languages in New York City, other than English.

Exciting and diverse New York City neighborhoods are the product of the hard work of immigrants who have come to our city for generations to share our success. With the Department of Housing Preservation and Development’s Language Access Initiative more tenants across the city will share in the city’s economic success through new affordable housing opportunities and improved housing conditions.

Shaun Donovan is the commissioner of the Department of Housing Preservation and Development


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