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 groups 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 renters 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 dont 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 couldnt 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 wasnt 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 cant 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 arent 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 mortgages
cost themselves. "Often they have never been homeowners before,"
says Oda Freidheim, a staff attorney from the Legal
Aid Society, "and they dont know the law. Theyve
spent money to fix up the basement and theyre slapped with
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 neighborhoods population,
and so that garbage and traffic dont clog the streets. Whether
the zoning has been properly applied to all New Yorks neighborhoods
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 isnt 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 doesnt have a responsibility because its illegal
and the tenant doesnt have a right because its illegal,"
she says. "But if we make it legal someone has a right and
someone has a responsibility."
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