No Roof No Roots No Rights

The search for a roof over one's head can become a journey into a waking nightmare

The rats — bold, tenacious and totally fearless — are what bothered him the most. Prem, who requested his last name not be used, says the rodents have the run of the old apartment he shares in Baltimore City, MD, with five other Nepali men, most of them undocumented. “It is impossible to have beds for six people in two rooms,” he says. “So we have small roll-out beds or mattresses on the floor. There are many rats running around the apartment and it’s difficult to catch them. We can’t complain. The landlord doesn’t care. He knows we have to live here and have no choice.”

Prem, who is from the town of Pokhara in Nepal, had a small business and a modest life there. “It was quite comfortable though not many facilities. There was safe water, enough rooms to sleep, enough to eat, enough everything.” He had heard many stories about America’s riches and greatness, but has been thrown instead into the depths of its ugly underbelly.

So how do six strangers manage to live together in two rooms?

“It’s all about compromise,” says Prem, who works at a gas station. “We have only one toilet and there are problems with the water and a leaking roof. There is not enough heat or hot water. Six people working at different times is hard. They all use the bathroom, eat and come in at different times, some at night. So you can’t sleep very well.”

One hears of the great successes of the South Asian community, of their huge McMansions which have more bathrooms than bedrooms, and more bedrooms than people. But Prem’s life is a reality too and there are countless others like him, living in homes which hardly deserve the name.

“Since the late 80’s and 90’s the nature of the influx of immigrants has changed drastically. It’s not just the engineers and the doctors any more; it’s really low income, underclass immigrants and that includes South Asian immigrants who are undergoing a very difficult time here to make ends meet,” says Partha Banerjee, executive director of New Jersey Immigration Policy Network, a statewide advocacy and policy organization for immigrant rights and justice based in Newark, NJ. The immigration status of many of these newcomers is in limbo and impeded by language access as they struggle with health and housing issues.

The problem is more acute in urban areas where new immigrants tend to congregate, where the rents are very expensive, well outside the means of the below minimum wage that some of the undocumented people make. Says Banerjee, “The rents are so high, they are being driven out of the cities. Some landlords take advantage of the immigration status of these people and because they are caught between a rock and a hard place, if you will, they have no means to go to law enforcement or a lawyer, if they are denied fair housing.”

Jagtar Singh, who is the night cashier at a gas station in Baltimore City, came from Talwandi Sabo in the Bathinda district of Punjab in the 1980s. He shares a large room with five others, some of whom are legal and others undocumented. He says, “We get very low wages and so it’s very difficult to manage the good living and good apartment.” He tells of other lives, of people sending a portion of their meager wages back home: “They are living at low standards. There are people who are living six to eight in one room and there is no bed, no mattresses and they just put a sheet on the hard floor. Some are working in the day time and some at night time, so they share the bedding in rotation.”

Those who are unable to get any accommodation, turn to the gurudwara, which provides them free space and meals for a month. Since there are four gurudwaras in Baltimore, some switch from one to the other and then restart at the first one. Says Singh, “These too are part of the living conditions.”

Both Prem and Singh were helped by Project Voice, an initiative of the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker organization in Baltimore. Ruben Chandrasekar is the regional organizer of Project Voice, whose constituents are mainly South Asians immigrants from India, Nepal and Pakistan — low wage workers who work in gas stations, convenience stores and fast food places. A survey conducted among these workers showed that most make $7.50 an hour and work 60 hours a week, sometimes even 72 hours. 80 percent of them do not make overtime wages even though they qualify.

“A lot of the undocumented workers don’t know there are wage hour laws; others who are documented still tend to work for businesses which are from their own culture as they are afraid to go into the mainstream to look for work,” says Chandrasekar. ” Sometimes they go two months without a single day off. Many are single, but they don’t live single because they think they can’t survive single.”

Access to public housing is not a viable alternative, because it depends on immigration status and is reserved for the very poor, often the unemployed, and even then, there is a long wait. So is there a large crowd of low-income Indians in Baltimore? “From my experience, yes,” says Chandrasekar. “It’s a population most people tend to ignore. When people think of people from South Asia, they think of the engineers, the doctors, and the IT workers, but there’s definitely a working class population here from the Punjabi community, as well as from Pakistan and Nepal.”

The housing market in Baltimore, as in many urban centers, is booming with gentrification and prices have skyrocketed in the last decade, pricing out low-income workers. Baltimore has a lot of substandard housing, many with multiple code violations in rental properties. Says Chandrasekar: “So when you can’t access the higher income apartments, the difference in the housing condition between a working class South Asian worker and a working class black worker is not that much different — and that’s the thing most people don’t want to talk about or recognize. If you’re working class in this country, regardless of whether you’re black or South Asian, you face similar challenges — low-income jobs, no benefits, bad housing, no health insurance.”

Poverty is the great leveler and it is making its way into the affluent suburbs too.

Pockets of the poor can be found in Jersey City, Camden, Atlantic City and even some areas in Bergen County and Palisades Park. Banerjee says, “Even in the so-called rich Indian pockets of Edison or Metro Park or Metuchen some pockets are really bad. It could be workers in the back of a kitchen washing dishes — people don’t even know they exist — they are doing that and nothing but that, because they don’t have the power of language or education or they do not have a proper immigration status. So these people are living in the same area, but in complete darkness, if you will.”

The problem is perhaps most acute in the urban sprawl of New York City, which attracts so many wanderers and dreamers and undocumented workers. According to the US Census Bureau and New York City Department of Planning, immigrant renters are three times as likely to live in overcrowded conditions as native-born New Yorkers, and immigrant renters are 62 percent more likely to live in dangerous housing conditions.

Research done by Chhaya Community Development Corporation, a Jackson Heights based housing advocacy group, shows that South Asian Americans live in the most overcrowded housing and pay much higher rents than other New Yorkers. One-fourth of South Asian American rental households are overcrowded by federal and municipal standards of no more than one person per room. Only 8.2 percent of New York City’s general population falls into that category. In addition to overcrowding, living in illegally converted units is commonplace for South Asian American families. The extended family structure and low income make even window-less illegal basement apartments a viable home.

One out of every four New York state households paid over half their incomes for housing, a rent-to-income burden that is impossible to bear for low-income households. A worker earning the minimum wage ($6 per hour) would have to work 121 hours a week to afford the fair market rental of $945 a month for a two-bedroom apartment in New York. Many New York households cannot afford to pay the fair market rent and housing advocates estimate there are 100,000 illegal apartments in New York City.

“Many of New York’s desi immigrants are caught in a shadowy triangle of low wages, substandard living conditions, and pervasive fear of the growing assault on immigrants in today’s changing political climate,” says Suman Raghunathan, interim director of Chhaya CDC. “Some of these issues are very specific to New York, given the type of urban density that we do have here. It’s certainly hard because New York has a legendary housing gap. It’s an issue that needs to be addressed.” Tenants are totally at their landlord’s mercy and have to accept whatever he provides to them. Sometimes the housing violates sanitation or fair housing standards, sometimes landlords it has no heat or hot water, and sometimes there are no windows in these basement apartments.

According to Chhaya CDC, housing patterns for South Asian Americans vary considerably: The number of homeowners in Queens, for example, is much higher than in Brooklyn, the Bronx and Manhattan. Yet, the proportion of renters in Queens who live in unregulated units is much higher than the other boroughs.

The largest population of South Asian Americans in the city can be found in Queens, where at least 40 percent of each South Asian ethnic group resides. Brooklyn has the next largest community. Their concentration is in mostly low- to moderate-income communities. Homeownership for South Asian Americans of moderate income is often a tough battle, because of predatory lending practices, often by members of their own community. Only one-fourth of South Asian Americans are homeowners in the city. According to Chhaya, in the process of purchasing homes, low income South Asians commonly experience limited options in financing, incur higher loan fees and pay more for their homes than New York City homeowners in general.

Poor housing often contributes to poor health: Among New York City’s South Asian communities, the Pakistani and Bangladeshi have been identified as two of the five communities most affected by childhood lead poisoning and account for at least a quarter of the total lead poisoned children in New York City, according to a 2002 report by city’s Department of Health and Human Services. Although lead paint has been banned in residential housing in New York, the lead dust from deteriorating lead paint in older housing continues to be the primary source of childhood lead poisoning.

Affected children can develop learning and behavioral problems, delayed growth and the ill affects can persist even after the blood lead level has declined. Nearly 4 percent of the 587 cases requiring intervention in 2003 were from Bangladesh or Pakistan, far disproportion to their overall numbers in the population of New York.

“We found a great percentage of South Asians were affected by lead poisoning simply because they lived in over-crowded conditions in illegal basements, and in houses that were of substandard quality,” says Tenzing Chadotsang of Chhaya. “They didn’t know their rights and landlords didn’t inform them about the problems of lead poisoning.” Chhaya’s research showed that certain neighborhoods in Queens that had a high percentage of buildings built before 1960 also had a high percentage of Bangladeshis and Pakistanis living there. Says Chadotsang, “The two were co-related. It wasn’t just old housing there; it was also the highest percentage of the community living there. These homes were all over Queens, but mostly in the Astoria and Jackson Heights area.”

According to Deborah Nagin, director of Lead Poisoning Prevention Program at New York City’s Department of Health, the city has a very strong rules requiring landlords to maintain housing and fix lead repairs. If there is a child under 7 living in an apartment, the apartment has to be inspected and repaired. The Department of Health is collaborating with Chhaya to train two South Asian architects to become lead EPA supervisors who in turn will train South Asian construction workers, supervisors and landlords in safer practices in home repairs.

As low and moderate income South Asians tussle with housing issues, both Chandrasekar and Banerjee emphasize the importance of collaborating with other communities and immigrant groups so that their struggle assumes a part of the larger rights and justice struggle. Says Chandrasekar, “In a city like Baltimore it’s impossible to talk about immigrant rights if you don’t first deal with human right violations that have always existed in the black community. We cannot push an immigrants rights framework without engaging the black community. The only way we can do that is to connect the struggles in a very concrete way, like housing.”

Banerjee agrees: “One mistake we South Asians often make is that we try to work out of our own little box and it’s not helping us at all.” Nor is there much South Asian participation in civic matters. He points out that there is only one South Asian assembly member from the whole state of New Jersey, which has the largest South Asian population proportion of any state in the country. Recently there was a mayoral election in Edison, which has one of the largest proportion of Indians in any city and the mayor who was elected is a Korean American.

He says, “South Asian immigrants, especially the privileged class, are not really trying to understand the problems of today’s America. They are still living in a fantasy world, believing that this is still the dream world it used to be. When you talk to them about these problems, they do not want to hear about them, because they think these are unpleasant things. This is something that makes them uncomfortable and they do not want to feel uncomfortable.”

Advocacy groups like Chhaya, Project Voice and New Jersey Immigration Policy Network are working to promote legislation to regulate low income housing. Says Banerjee, “One long term solution is to do something at the national or state level to bring these people from the shadow economy they are living in, from the shadow society into the light, by legalizing them so they don’t form a permanent underclass in society and that unscrupulous employers, or the system itself, cannot take advantage of them.”

In the meantime, people like Prem-With-No-Last-Name just have to hang in there. Ask him if he feels the future will be brighter for him and whether he plans to stick it out, and he says, “I think I shouldn’t have come to this country — the living is very tough. You could make some money working very hard and living like this, but it’s totally against your humanity and you will lose everything for money. For me personally it’s not good enough, but I have no choice.”

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