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Condition of South Asians in New York grim: Survey

May 22, 2012 20:04 IST

Ten years after the first survey on the housing needs of South Asians in New York City, another Chhaya Community Development Corporation survey has found the situation no better.

'With the community's rapid growth during the most difficult economic period our country has faced in decades, South Asians are living in severely overcrowded housing conditions, are at high-risk of displacement, and face great barriers to achieving economic growth,' notes the report.

'South Asians are faced with many obstacles as regards housing, including language barriers, discrimination, and limited access to services and health care. Like many other new immigrants they encounter grave challenges to economic mobility too.'

The survey also found the overall financial situation of South Asians dismal.

Combined with a severe housing shortage in New York City, the economic downturn has left them living in severely overcrowded housing conditions, lacking financial stability, and at high risk of displacement, the survey found.

"The stereotype of South Asians is often one of the wealthy Wall Street employee or physician," said Seema Agnani, executive director, Chhaya CDC.

"However, our findings show that only 8 per cent of South Asians work in professional and technical fields. Instead, many with college degrees work as taxi drivers, hotel workers or retail staff."

NYC's South Asians increased from 113,857 in 1990 to an estimated 294,925 in 2010, a growth rate of more than 159 per cent. The Bangladeshi community grew by 973 per cent over the past two decades, while Pakistanis increased by nearly 75 per cent. Indians grew by 13 per cent.

Half of the surveyed renters did not have leases for their apartments, a disturbing trend that leaves tenants vulnerable to displacement, particularly in apartments that are not rent-regulated.

Many of these residents (41 per cent) paid rent in cash and, although in 2001 nearly all those who paid in cash received a payment receipt, most renters paying in cash in 2010 (60 per cent) did not.

Rent hardship was an issue for 16 per cent that had to borrow money to cover rent.

According to New York City's Housing and Vacancy Survey, 66.4 per cent of South Asians were renters in 2008. They face a number of issues, including severe overcrowding, high rental costs, lack of leases, and a prevalence of cash transactions that leave no documentation that rent has been paid.

The findings highlighted the need for new approaches to housing and the need for in-language information on tenant rights. One recommendation was to legalise basement units for renting, wherever possible.

"When we carried out the survey," said Anjali Chaudhry, lead organiser, Chhaya CDC, "We found that 35 per cent had basement apartments that could be converted safely to legal dwellings for extended family or much needed additional income. This is a viable option of creating more affordable rental housing whose time has come."

A 2008 Chhaya study of 446 homes in the Jackson Heights and Briarwood-Jamaica sections of Queens found 82 per cent had basement units, 35 per cent of which could potentially be brought up to code and legalized. Many homeowners surveyed also expressed frustration with the inability to legally rent out units in their homes to supplement income and create affordable housing in the community.

Currently, about 100,000 people live in unauthorised basements facing problems including safety risk. Legalisation will bring more money to the city and also more accountability.

'We recommend making it possible to bring these units up to code to ensure protections for tenants and owners. By creating an Accessory Dwelling Unit Code, homeowners would benefit from supplemental income and higher property values, and the community would see an increase in affordable rental housing,' the report noted.

Another recommendation was to allow multiple family members on a mortgage. If one member loses the job, others can still pay the mortgage.

According to the HVS, 37 per cent of South Asians live in rent-stabilized units and almost none live in public housing.

The HVS found that 37.5 per cent of apartments had one-two problems and 18.2 per cent reported three or more. Problems included inadequate or no heating, neighbourhood safety, lack of leases, and discrimination by landlords.

As Queens neighbourhoods like Sunnyside and Jackson Heights confront gentrification, illegal rent increases are commonplace. As a result, many are forced to either leave their communities for the Bronx or Brooklyn or live in more crowded conditions.

The survey found that 65 per cent of renters live with more than one person per bedroom and most households had three or more people living together, indicating widespread overcrowding.

Additionally, many South Asian families living in overcrowded conditions live in illegally converted units. These conversions generally involve modifying a one- or two-family home by constructing an additional unit in the basement or attic.

In 2009, South Asians made up 65 per cent of owners in foreclosure in the Briarwood/Jamaica Hills area and 56 per cent in South Ozone Park. Fifty-eight per cent of owners did not show proof of income when purchasing their home -- the majority of which occurred in the past decade.

More people in this category foreclosed their homes.

Homeownership in the US has been a primary strategy of asset building and financial security for individuals and families, and a goal for many immigrants. Thirty per cent of those surveyed owned their homes and the majority (69 per cent), indicated that they purchased their homes within the last decade.

Over a third (37 per cent) of those new buyers purchased in the last five years, meaning they likely bought homes that were losing value during the housing downturn that began in 2006. South Asian homeowners are also at extremely high risk of default due to the proliferation of subprime products

The survey included those with ancestry from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Tibet, and the Maldives, as well as Diaspora populations from places such as the Caribbean, South America, and Africa.

George Joseph in New York
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