En Español Know Your Rights
Source: City Limits
Subject: Language Access
Type: Media Coverage

How to Say 'HPD' in Yiddish or Yoruba

In
a polyglot city, public agencies struggle with exactly how multilingual they
should be.

A City
Council bill intended to improve access to the city’s housing services among
New Yorkers who are not fluent in English reveals a chasm in perspective, with
supporters considering the city’s current practices discriminatory, while the
administration maintains it already achieves the goals of the bill in a more
flexible and efficient way.

Immigrant
advocates make the case that limited English proficiency (LEP) New Yorkers are
unlawfully denied access to the range of Department of Housing Preservation and
Development (HPD) services—including housing code enforcement and assistance for
subsidy applications—because of language barriers. Intro. 596, the Equal Access
to Housing Services Act, is meant to improve access to HPD services by making
interpreters available in HPD housing inspections, meetings and phone
communications, and by translating important notifications, forms and direct
correspondence in a number of covered languages. Council’s Committee on Housing
and Buildings held a hearing on the legislation March 27; 35 members of Council
presently support it.

The bill
provides specific requirements that build on the more general guidelines set
forth in Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the federal law that
prohibits discrimination by any entity receiving federal funds—including local
governments. (In 2000, the White House included non-English speakers as a
protected group under Title VI.) HPD’s opposition to the bill is based on its
belief that it is already fully compliant with Title VI. Standing up for the
8,600 Queens residents who speak Tagalog, the
22,000 Brooklynites who speak Yiddish, and the 4,600 Bronxites who speak Kru,
Ibu or Yoruba – among others – supporters of the bill argue otherwise.

"Our
perspective is informed by our members’ experiences with HPD," said Andrew Friedman, Co-Executive Director of Make the Road New York. "The reality is that all too
frequently people with limited English can’t understand written materials,
can’t communicate with inspectors, and don’t know what their options are.
Whether HPD is compliant with [Title VI] guidelines or not, the fact is the
system isn’t working, since the agency isn’t able to communicate with millions
of people."

City
officials say they already have the machinery in place to continue to improve
language access without the legislation. "We feel that our current language
access programs are fairly robust, and flexible enough to allow us to change as
community needs change and as our needs change. We don’t feel that legislation
is needed," said HPD spokesperson Seth Donlin. He added, "But that’s not to say
that what we do for language access can’t be improved."

Advocates
say they realized the importance of a legislative response to ensure language
access through their experiences taking on other city agencies. Nearly a decade
ago, many of the same groups saw that LEP residents were denied access to the
city’s welfare system because of language barriers. Filing both a lawsuit and a
Title VI discrimination complaint, advocates learned that litigation-centered
processes were arduous and ineffective.

"From an
advocate’s perspective, these complaints often take years to come to resolution
and we’ve not had much success with them under the current [federal]
administration," said Amy Taylor, coordinator of the Language Access Project at
Legal Services for New York City.

So advocacy
groups initiated legislation, which became Local Law 73, the Equal Access to
Human Services Act, introducing tools for city welfare workers to screen
individuals’ primary languages and refer them to translators. As written, the
law became the basis for the administration’s efforts to promote language
access programs in other city agencies. Several years later, City Council
considered Intro. 464, the Education Equity Act, which sought to require the
Department of Education to provide interpretation and translation services for
LEP parents. Though Mayor Bloomberg vetoed that bill on the grounds that it
infringed on the mayor’s authority to oversee the school system, the
administration worked with advocates to adopt their recommendations into
regulations promulgated by the schools chancellor.

Both
administration officials and Councilmembers agree that the welfare- and
education-related regulations reflect progress (though compliance is still
contested: See City Limits Weekly #618, Dec. 17, 2007, If You Don’t ‘Get It,’
You Might Not Get Benefits). Bloomberg spokeswoman Evelyn Erskine notes that
the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs—an office that didn’t even exist when
advocates first started pushing for increased language access in the city’s
welfare system—operates an inter-agency task force on language access issues.
Around 15 city agencies have contracts with phone translation services.

"While Local
Law 73 is still being implemented, many other agencies are moving forward with
this on their own. The mayor is committed to provide all New Yorkers with the
best possible access to city services, and encourages all agencies to do this
to the extent possible," Erskine said.

But they
disagree about how to move forward. Whereas the administration sees its current
work as sufficient, Councilmembers and advocates consider new language access
bills important ways to institutionalize progress.

"Under
Commissioner [Sean] Donovan, HPD has demonstrated a great interest in language
access," said Councilwoman Rosie Mendez, a Lower East Side Democrat and one of
the bill’s authors. "My reason for introducing this is that I don’t know how
long we’ll have Commissioner Donovan at HPD. It’s important to codify language
access so we’ll have a guide for future commissioners to follow."

The
legislation would require HPD to translate or interpret in each of the nine
most-spoken languages per borough—a number derived from socioeconomic and
linguistic data. (Since the prevalence of foreign languages differs by borough,
the Independent Budget Office calculates that the bill will require coverage
for 17 languages in total.)

In their
testimony, supporters of the bill sought to prove the extent to which LEP
tenants have been denied HPD services because of language barriers. They pointed
to two studies by the Communities for Housing Equity, an umbrella advocacy
group supporting the legislation. In a 2005-2006 survey of nearly 700 immigrant
and LEP households, only 18 percent of the families had ever reported a housing
problem to HPD, even though 60 percent lived with one or more critical housing
violations in the past 12 months. Many didn’t even know that a city agency that
responded to housing complaints existed: 62 percent of survey respondents had
never heard of HPD. John Mollenkopf, director of the CUNY Center
for Urban Research and co-author of the other study, said the data
"indicates that immigrant neighborhoods are generating fewer complaints to
HPD, relative to the bad housing conditions our research tells us exists."

HPD responded
that the legislation amounts to a mandate that would tie the agency’s hands. In
his testimony, HPD First Deputy Commissioner John Warren emphasized that the
bill calls for HPD to hire translators in languages for which the agency has
seen no need to date. He testified that last year the agency received only
13,000 calls requiring translation out of a total of 300,000 handled by the
agency.

Supporters
of the bill dispute the legitimacy of HPD’s numbers. Mendez observed that HPD’s
estimates for translation needs were based only on calls that go through 311,
and don’t include walk-in traffic, callers whose language needs aren’t
accurately identified, and, most importantly, all those who don’t know about
HPD in the first place.

Much of the
disagreement has to do with the presumed cost of implementing the bill. The IBO
estimates that it would cost HPD over $7 million a year, along with $375,000 in
one-time costs to meet the requirements of the legislation—including filling
nearly 120 new bilingual inspector and in-office translator as well as support
positions. Amy Taylor from Legal Services for New York City thinks it would cost
significantly less, since IBO based its estimates on the cost of hiring
full-time staff even though the legislation allows for contracting out for some
of the lesser-spoken languages.

The two
sides also disputed the effectiveness of HPD’s current language access efforts.
The agency contracts with a translation call-in service, the "language line."
When an inspector responds in person to a call for service, he or she is
supposed to prompt the tenant to identify his or her native language—inspectors
carry "language cards" for such a purpose—and then connect the tenant by phone
to a translator. Translators are also available when foreign language speakers
contact HPD through 311. HPD also currently employs over 180 bilingual and
multilingual inspectors who collectively speak 26 languages, and maintains a
pool of volunteer translators. It sends out important brochures and notices for
translation into the most common foreign languages, which are determined based
on the volume of requests HPD receives for such services through the language
line and inspectors’ observations. (Currently the agency makes translations
available in Spanish, Mandarin, Cantonese, Korean, Haitian Creole, and
Russian.)

The bill’s
sponsors counter that each of HPD’s language access strategies is fatally
flawed. They argue that the language card, frequently cited by HPD, is rarely
used. "The language card has been around for a couple years, and inspectors
still neglect to use it frequently," said Greg Geller, deputy chief of staff to
Mendez. "Since those resources aren’t being used well enough, we believe
inspectors who can speak the top nine languages are going to be necessary."

Advocates
similarly argue that the high number of current HPD bilingual and multilingual
inspectors is misleading. According to Ericka Stallings, housing advocacy
coordinator for the New York Immigration Coalition, HPD doesn’t record a
household’s language needs. Therefore, the agency has no system in place to
ensure that bilingual inspectors are accurately dispatched to an LEP tenant who
speaks the inspectors’ language. She reported instances of Mandarin-speaking
inspectors showing up at Spanish-speaking households. Ramona Marines, a
long-time Bushwick resident, testified at the hearing that she has called HPD
three times in the past year; only once did her inspector speak Spanish (in
spite of her requesting a Spanish speaker to 311), and the other times she was
not shown the language card.

From
sponsors on the Council down to LEP tenants, supporters of the bill feel a
sense of urgency because of current housing market pressures. "Landowners are
quick to convert affordable housing units into market-rate units, and have been
harassing and neglecting residents in order to force the families out,"
said Margaret Chin, deputy executive director of Asian Americans for Equality.
"Tenants have been forced to endure hazardous, over-crowded and deplorable
conditions as landlords refuse and neglect repairs."

Supporters
of the legislation are prepared for long negotiations ahead. "We need to look
at this bill again and look at the testimony. It’s obvious the administration
wasn’t thrilled with the bill. We want to keep the crux of bill in place but
try to see if there’s a middle ground," said Geller.

Advocates
hope that the process prompts government officials to think more globally about
addressing city residents’ language needs: Issuing an executive order listing
cross-agency requirements and streamlined contracts bringing all language
access services under one roof, for example.

"Every
agency in New York City
faces the same needs in terms of providing interpretation and translation
services for two million people they’re supposed to be working with," said Friedman of Make the Road New York. "The reality is that every agency should have
comprehensive language access services, but many simply don’t."