LOWER EAST SIDE. Rallying in front of a tenement plagued by a chronic lack of heat and hot water, a coalition of immigrant families and advocates launched a campaign to encourage immigrants to speak out against poor housing conditions.
"We are here in the cold for one reason," said Councilwoman Rosie Mendez. "Sometimes it is colder in our apartments than out here. We will not be silenced anymore."
Because of language barriers and inadequate outreach, the Department of Housing Preservation and Development fails to help thousands of immigrant families who are living in substandard conditions, according to a report issued by the Communities for Housing Equity coalition (Make the Road by Walking is a founding member) and CUNY’s Center for Urban Research. People with limited English proficiency were more likely to suffer maintenance problems but less likely to report them, the study said.
Mendez plans to introduce legislation to mandate HPD improves its outreach to immigrant communities.
"We knew there was a 311 number you could call," Zhi Qin Zheng said through a translator, "but we didn’t know we could call about housing complaints."
Zhi, who has lived at 61 Delancey St. for more than 20 years, had never heard of HPD until advocates began organizing tenants. When the electricity was out for three days last New Year’s, Zhi’s son called to file a complaint with the agency in English, but when HPD called back, Zhi was unable to communicate.
Since the building changed hands in 2001, Zhi said the landlord has been trying to evict rent-stabilized Chinese and Latino tenants. There are roughly 300 violations in the building and tenants are staging a rent strike.
"There are, like, 14 people in one apartment," said managing agent Nir Sela. "They have illegal construction. They don’t call the city to complain about leaks because they’re scared their apartments are fire hazards."
Sela said tenant construction caused many violations and when he put a new lock on the door, he had to make 220 keys.
Haeyoung Yoon, staff attorney for the Urban Justice Center who is helping draft Mendez’s legislation, has represented some of the tenants here and called Sela’s accusations "baseless."
"We’re constantly losing low-income housing stock," she said. "One way landlords are displacing tenants is failing to make repairs. Improving [services for immigrants] is one way to prevent that from happening."
Of HPD’s 400 housing inspectors, 231 are bilingual, speaking 30 languages. A 24-hour translation service is available to inspectors and staff, offering 150 languages. Many of the report’s recommendations were already in place, a spokeswoman said.