A report on the challenges faced by immigrant tenants in New York
City, recently released by the Pratt Center for Community Development
along with the New York Immigrant Housing Collaborative and a host of
other organizations including Chhaya CDC, states that immigrant renters
in New York City confront severe challenges finding safe, decent, and
affordable housing. Identifying those challenges, the report finds that
by almost every measure, immigrant tenants face housing problems to a
degree much greater than native-born New Yorkers.
It also proposes measures New York City and State officials can take
to improve housing conditions that disproportionately affect the city’s
recent immigrants. More than 1.5 million immigrants moved to NYC
between 1990 and 2007, seeking a better life. As a result, New York is
once again an immigrant city: as of 2006, 37 percent of New Yorkers
But even as they have brought new energy and investment to
neighborhoods, many of these newcomers have ended up in overcrowded,
illegal, expensive, or unhealthy living conditions. Like all renters,
immigrants have faced an economic squeeze over the past decade, as
rents have risen while incomes have remained flat.
The median income for households headed by foreign-born New Yorkers
is $35,500, significantly less than the median income of native
born-headed households. Even as the city has seen high levels of new
construction, the number of units that are affordable for low- to
middle-income families has decreased precipitously.
From 2002 to 2005, the city lost more than 205,000 units affordable
to the typical household. The median monthly rent for unsubsidized
apartments in the city increased by 8 percent, while the citywide
median income fell by 6.3 percent.
For unsubsidized low-income renters – a group that includes a
disproportionate share of immigrants – the typical share of earnings
spent on rent rose from 43 percent to more than half of income, in just
The foreclosure crisis is exacerbating the problem, and even drop in
real estate prices is providing little relief. Rent declines are
concentrated in Manhattan luxury housing, the only part of the market
with a high vacancy rate.
In the outer boroughs, where most New Yorkers and most immigrants
live, widespread foreclosures are leading to the eviction of tenants
and homeowners alike.
To better understand these challenges and move toward policy
solutions, the Pratt Center – as part of a collaborative effort
convened by the New York Immigration Coalition, including Asian
Americans for Equality, Chhaya Community Development Corporation, Make
the Road New York, Mirabal Sisters Cultural and Community Center, and
Neighbors Helping Neighbors – conducted a study to examine the housing
conditions of immigrant tenants in New York City.
The survey included 541 foreign-born residents of the New York City
neighborhoods with the greatest concentration of immigrants, asking
questions about housing conditions, affordability, access to subsidized
housing, and other essential indicators.
Key findings of the survey show that immigrants face severe
affordability problems, compounded by "predatory equity,"
gentrification, and rapid rent increases: Foreign-born New Yorkers are
more likely to pay high portions of their income for rent.
More than half of all immigrant renters pay over 30 percent of their
income for rent (56.5 percent, compared with 47 percent for native-born
The problem is especially severe for low-income tenants. For
households with income of less than half of the area median income
(about $37,000 for a family of 4), nearly 82 percent of immigrant
tenants pay more than 30 percent of their income for rent, and more
than 50 percent pay over half their income for rent.
On average, families pay a significantly higher portion of their
income for rent than they did just a few years ago. These affordability
problems are compounded in neighborhoods where gentrification has
increased rents sharply.
In addition, an emerging phenomenon of "predatory equity" – in which
new building owners and investors seek rapid tenant turnover and
dramatic rent increases – is especially prevalent in some immigrant
The survey finds that immigrants are more likely to live in
overcrowded and illegal conditions: Immigrants are three times more
likely to live in overcrowded conditions than native-born New Yorkers.
In addition, many immigrant families live in illegally converted
basements or other spaces; about half of survey respondents knew of
families living in illegal units.
One estimate puts the number of such units at more than 100,000
citywide, concentrated in neighborhoods with high proportions of
immigrants. An overwhelming percentage of respondents to the survey
reported that they knew people living in poor conditions.
However, the likelihood that a New Yorker lives in substandard
housing conditions appears to be correlated with race more than with
immigrant status: More than 70 percent of immigrant renters surveyed
for this report indicated that "most" or "a lot" of immigrants they
knew live in poor or dangerous conditions.
More than half have seen mice or rats in their buildings in the last
90 days, and nearly half have cracks of holes in their apartments.
Also, the report states that immigrants have less access than
native-born New Yorkers to publicly subsidized affordable housing
Immigrants are much less likely than comparable native-born New
Yorkers to live in affordable housing created through public programs.
A survey by the Community Service Society found that just 32 percent
of immigrant black and Hispanic New Yorkers live in subsidized housing,
compared with half of native-born black and Hispanic New Yorkers.
In Queens, the borough with the highest proportion of immigrants,
little affordable housing has been produced by recent city, state, or
federal initiatives. Among the findings of the survey was the
disturbing increase in "underground housing".
Between 1990 and 2000, New York City gained approximately 114,000
apartments that are not reflected in the official number of
certificates of occupancy the city granted for new construction or
renovation. Many more have almost certainly been created since.
These phantom apartments are the city’s housing underground: units
that have been created in spaces that are not approved for living. They
include private homes that have been cut into rooming houses,
two-family homes with unauthorized basement apartments that house
illegal third families, unapproved residential conversions of
commercial lofts and other types of unlawful construction. Research by
the Pratt Center for Community Development and Chhaya Community
Development Corporation shows that these units predominate in
neighborhoods on the outskirts of the city, in Queens, Brooklyn, and
In these communities, populated by large numbers of recent
immigrants, the existence of unauthorized apartments is controversial.
Many neighbors view these units as drains on neighborhood services,
indications of an uncounted population using schools, hospitals,
streets, and services.
The people who live in these units, understandably, see things
differently. For them, these units are necessary, a crucial resource in
a city sorely lacking in affordable alternatives. While these units
provide an important refuge for families who cannot find other housing
options, they are a tenuous option.
One call to the Department of Buildings can lead to eviction, and
tenants in these units are not protected by rent laws or the housing
maintenance code. Approximately half of those surveyed knew of
immigrant families living in partitioned rooms (49 percent) or
basements (52 percent) and a similar proportion (48 percent) of
respondents knew of immigrants living in apartments of one sort or
another – such as those in attics, garages, or basements that they
understood to be illegal.
Interestingly, knowledge of immigrants living in illegal units was
not concentrated at the lowest incomes. While 43 percent of the
lowest-income respondents reported an awareness of immigrants in
illegal apartments, 55 percent of the middle income tier and 58 percent
of those in the highest income tier reported such awareness.