Two years ago, Jyothi Desai and her husband decided to move from their apartment on Roosevelt Island to Queens. She called several real estate brokers, all of whom were very friendly over the phone. “You can tell I don’t really have an accent, unless it’s an upstate New York accent,” says Desai, who moved from India to the United States when she was seven. But when she arrived at the real estate brokers’ offices, she says, she was treated much differently.
“When my husband and I showed up in person, we were often shown shoddy apartments in areas we didn’t want to live in,” Desai recalls. “Also, some of the realtors would never call us back after meeting them. One even asked for a $25 cash deposit for a credit check but refused to give us a receipt.”
A friend eventually referred her to Asian Americans for Equality, a civil rights group that operates a four-year-old program fighting housing discrimination. AAFE investigated and eventually filed a case with the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development. The realtors settled. In addition to awarding the Desais a few thousand dollars, the brokers agreed to attend a training session reminding them of a basic rule of the business: Discriminating against tenants and buyers on the basis of race is illegal.
The bias Desai faced is hardly uncommon these days. On the Lower East Side, where vacant tenement apartments can fetch $2,000 a month, landlords have threatened to report Asian tenants to immigration authorities and have posted signs falsely warning residents that they must vacate. In Queens, landlords commonly force Korean and Chinese tenants to pay hundreds of dollars for “key deposits” that they will never get back..
And in cases in which Asian tenants do find themselves in demand, it’s for the worst possible reasons: Landlords trying to rent out dilapidated apartments–seeking tenants who will not complain if hot water is not running or paint is peeling–have been known to search out Chinese or Korean tenants on the belief that these renters will not fight back.
Landlords often base that assumption on stereotypes about Asian-Americans, but they are also on to an uncomfortable truth. In a city where generations of organizers have pushed black and Latino tenants to resist housing discrimination, many Asian tenants remain uninformed of their rights.
That’s finally been changing, as AAFE and other groups working with Asian-Americans, including the Committee Against Anti-Asian Violence (CAAAV), embark on campaigns to make sure the city’s Asian residents understand and act on their right to decent homes without harassment.
AAFE looms largest among them. This year, it’s getting $687,291 from HUD to educate and inform the city’s Asian tenants of their rights–nearly double the amount it received last year. “First- and second-generation Asian immigrants are finally coming forward with their cases of discrimination,” says Chris Punongbayan, who counsels tenants at AAFE’s Fair Housing Office in Flushing. “The number of complaints filed with HUD have been pretty steady, but the number of people coming to us for help is increasing.”
With the city’s Asian population expected to reach 800,000 with the next census, the potential for harassment and discrimination is only growing. Organizing groups from ACORN to Los Sures have worked for decades to educate black and Latino communities about housing discrimination. Other groups translate HUD materials into Spanish and help tenants navigate intimidating housing courts. Asian organizations, by contrast, have provided these services for just five or six years.
“I think the Asian community is not in the same place as their black and Latino counterparts,” concedes Punongbayan. “But we’ve reached a critical mass. Now we just have to start really organizing.”
Lately, Chinatown has become a particularly heated battleground. Increasingly trendy, it’s experiencing skyrocketing rents and a three percent housing vacancy rate. Although most apartments are rent-regulated–their landlords cannot evict tenants without cause and can only charge limited rent increases–changes that went into effect three years ago have left current tenants increasingly vulnerable. Now owners can raise rents on these apartments by anywhere from 18 to 30 percent or more–if they can get rid of the current tenants.
Ai Ling Chan understands the depths to which landlords will sink. Last February, her landlord told her family they had to leave so he could renovate the building. He soon began harassing Chan, her husband and their three children, cutting off their heat, then turning off the electricity. Chan, who paid $850 for a two-bedroom, says the landlord also came by every morning and pounded on her door with a hammer, demanding they move out. “Where could I go? I couldn’t find an apartment that I could afford,” says Chan through an interpreter. “We had a lease, but that didn’t matter to him.” With AAFE’s help, they found a new apartment in Chinatown.
The owner of another building, at 229 Elizabeth Street, sent a letter to his Asian tenants–but not his non-Asian renters–demanding that they supply him with birth certificates and passport photos for everyone living in their apartments. The letter also stated that anyone who refused would be reported to the Immigration and Naturalization Service–unexpected news for the many recipients who were legal immigrants. The landlord, Hanan Ofer, denies sending the letter.
The tenants brought their case to AAFE, but they were reluctant to bring a formal complaint to HUD or even confront the landlord. “There is a lot of fear in the Asian community,” says Margaret Chin, deputy executive director for AAFE. “They don’t know the laws, they’re afraid of landlords and they’re afraid of harassment. Even the tenants who received the letters didn’twant to fight it. They didn’t know if anything would get done.”
After briefing the tenants in Korean on their rights and the law, Chin says, she eventually convinced them to file a complaint with HUD’s Office of Fair Housing. HUD is still investigating.
Playing enforcer for a U.S. government agency is a long way from AAFE’s roots as a Marxist organization notorious for its protests against police brutality. Spurred into housing work by a 1985 Chinatown fire that left more than 125 tenants homeless, AAFE has since become an establishment force; with an annual budget around $2 million, it has come to own 450 low-income units and manage 25 buildings in New York City.
Since 1997, AAFE has filed seven complaints of racial discrimination with HUD. During that time, HUD’s New York regional office has received just 33 complaints of discrimination based on race or national origin–a tiny portion of the 691 discrimination cases filed.
Chin says the numbers don’t tell the whole story. “Getting people to file a complaint is different than experiencing discrimination. In many cases, people will come to us with complaints, but they won’t take it to the next step and file official complaints.” Chin says in some cases, bad experiences with police or government officials in their homelands keep tenants quiet.
AAFE also conducts its own investigations. In cases like the Desais’, involving steering by realtors to undesirable apartments, the group employs testers, non-Asian (usually white) undercover agents who ask to see apartments in the same locations and price ranges. HUD finances the testers, and their accounts often provide important evidence for investigations. AAFE also uses its HUD money to translate agency literature into Chinese, Korean, and a few Indian dialects, and to hold fair housing seminars with landlords.
But AAFE and its education efforts can only go so far. More than 25,000 Asian immigrants settle in New York each year, fresh targets for landlords–like the one in Queens whose leases relieved him of responsibility for his buildings’ water, heat or maintenance. The agreements also stated that the landlord had free access to the apartments at any time.
Says Punongbayan ruefully, “The landlord rented only to Asian tenants because he thought they wouldn’t fight back.”
In a building on East 183rd Street in East Tremont, 18-year-old Peter Bit is trying to prove the landlords wrong. With training from the Committee Against Anti-Asian Violence’s Youth Leadership Project, Bit organized his Cambodian and Vietnamese neighbors three years ago.
“I was just tired of seeing the Asian tenants getting pushed around,” says Bit, whose family is from Cambodia. Their landlord at the time was allegedly sending tenants phony letters from state officials, claiming that anyone who complained about problems–which included rodent infestations, chipping paint, broken door locks, and sporadic heat and hot water–would get evicted.
Starting with five Cambodian families, Bit eventually got all 10 Asian households in the building to form a tenants’ organization. (To his regret, the building’s 30 Latino families declined to get involved.) The tenants drew up demands and took their landlord to Housing Court, where they won an order for the problems to be fixed. The hardest part, says Bit, was convincing neighbors that he could bring a valid case in court at his young age.
Eric Tang heads the Youth Leadership Project, a coalition of young Asians involved in community activism. Besides promoting tenant organizing, the group has held workshops on police brutality and protested Governor George Pataki’s failure to provide resources for immigrants.
Tang says landlords are going to have to get used to upstarts like Bit. “There might be a common perception that Asians in general won’t organize, but I think for the most part this is manufactured,” says Tang. “If it’s 10 degrees out and you don’t have heat, you’re not going to just sit there and be servile. Saying Asians are docile is a myth.”
David Kihara is a Manhattan-based freelance writer.