Illegal immigrants are probably the most vulnerable people when it comes to housing. They are easy targets for exploitative landlords who threaten reporting them to immigration authorities if they try to assert their rights. Unaware of laws that set standards for apartment conditions â€“ and intimidated by landlords â€“ they hesitate to complain, and often live in miserable conditions, going months without heat or hot water.
If they do actually find themselves in Housing Court they often face a double whammy: They do not understand the language being spoken, and they also do not understand the legal system they are dealing with â€“ a system that regularly confounds English-speaking legal citizens who do know something about the law. Like most tenants, they represent themselves at the court, and their opposition is an attorney, highly educated and well-versed in the language of the court.
These problems have inspired advocates from immigrant organizations and housing organizations to come together. Responding to a call from the New York Immigration Coalition, advocates are searching for answers to the housing problems immigrants face. Comprising 40 percent of New Yorkers, immigrants’ housing problems are substantial.
But there are few easy answers. Consider the case of West African immigrant Safiatou Diallo, a slight woman with three children. She was in the Housing Court recently trying to figure out if she could continue living in the two-bedroom Bronx apartment she has called home for the last three years. It was doubtful.
Although the apartment was rent stabilized, a status that offers tenants many protections, Diallo was never on the lease and only distantly related to the man who was. He disappeared about four months ago and Diallo, who occasionally earns some money braiding hair in Harlem, has only a fraction of the back rent the landlord was seeking and makes not nearly enough to pay the $888 monthly rent.
Diallo does not speak a word of English. In the village in the Ivory Coast where she grew up, housing conflicts are resolved by the village chief and almost never would result in someone becoming homeless.
“Maybe I can find a roommate,” she said in her native language, as she considered her options. “I have nowhere to go otherwise.”
But with no right to the apartment and the landlord’s attorney unwilling to even consider giving her a lease, Diallo’s idea was a non-starter.
The coalition’s project was launched after focus groups comprised of immigrants identified a variety of housing issues. The groups varied by nationality, gender, age, immigration status and area of the city, from senior citizens in Chinatown to undocumented West Africans in Harlem to Arabic-speaking women in Brooklyn.
“What was interesting was that although there was a unified voice for affordable housing, there were unique issues for each group,” said Ben Ross of the New York Immigrant Coalition.
“In the South Asian, Arabic-speaking community, there was a lot of landlord harassment and discrimination,” Ross said. “In the undocumented Mexican community, there were a lot of people who did not know their rights and did not have the materials to provide housing assistance.
“In the communities that were more established, like Chinatown and Dominicans in Washington Heights, they knew a lot but had language access barriers.”
Since then, Ross has organized meetings that have included a wide variety of groups working with immigrants and others working with tenants. Just connecting these groups was a step forward. At the first meeting, advocates exchanged business cards, probably as important a step as the discussion of problems for immigrants and tenants.
“We need to link the two advocate worlds,” said Monica Tarazi, New York director of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. “The immigrant rights community has not really focused on housing issues and the housing advocate world has not really focused on immigrant rights. If they have, we have not really worked together.”
The expertise, connections and experience of advocates in both worlds will be extended as a result. Already, housing advocates are setting up training workshops on tenant rights. And immigrant advocates are helping housing advocates recognize the problems immigrants face, such as language barriers at Housing Court.
As much as the advocates’ collaboration will help immigrants understand their rights, however, many have already learned that that may not be enough. Housing advocates are hoping that helping organizations that help immigrants will bring more people out to rally for better housing code enforcement, more just enforcement of housing laws, creation and preservation of affordable housing and strengthening of the rent stabilization law.
Manuel Castro, the environmental and housing organizer at Brooklyn’s Make the Road by Walking advocacy organization, said his organization already recognized that more could be done by uniting immigrants under the housing banner as well as informing them.
“We’ve been working on trying to put up legislation and working with different groups,” he said. “We are in agreement with HPD on inspections â€“ we need more comprehensive inspections. But even though people get inspections, that doesn’t mean repairs are going to get made.”
Joe Lamport is the assistant director of the City-Wide Task Force on Housing Court, a coalition of community housing organizations.