A few months ago, a strange thing happened at Desh Priyo, a Bangladeshi restaurant and sweets store on 36th Avenue in Long Island City. The owners of the restaurant happened to overhear Seema Agnani describe Chhaya Community Development Corporation, the organization she founded, over lunch. When it came time to pay the bill, they energetically declined to accept payment-and even urged Agnani to explore the restaurant’s lower-level seating space, offering it free of charge for Chhaya to hold workshops and ESL classes.
The offer of free lunch was successfully resisted, but as a finger-in-the-wind test of Chhaya’s community development paradigm, the restaurateurs’ spontaneity was hard to beat. An employee of Asian Americans For Equality (AAFE) until October 2000, Agnani dreamed up Chhaya as a community development organization that would serve New York’s South Asian community, while simultaneously tapping into South Asian resources.
Most CDCs address the housing and social service needs of a locality or neighborhood. “The mission of a CDC is to improve the quality of life of a target neighborhood,” says Eric Jacob, executive director of the Jackson Heights CDC for the last 10 years. Even AAFE, the Asian-specific CDC of which Chhaya is an offshoot, defines itself by neighborhood: Rooted historically in its home base of Chinatown, AAFE had no South Asian clients-or employees-for most of its existence.
In effect, Chhaya’s neighborhood is New York City itself, encompassing the city’s entire community of South Asians from the Indian subcontinent’s countries of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Bhutan, wherever they may live. “While most CDCs have a neighborhood focus,” says Christine Roland, a 20-year tenants rights veteran, now a member of Chhaya’s advisory board, “Chhaya’s program is especially appealing because of its citywide focus.”
The South Asian presence in the city has steadily increased over the last ten years. In 2000, the top 10 neighborhoods of settlement were all located in Queens, with Flushing and Elmhurst the top two destinations (Brooklyn is the next most popular borough). Richmond Hill and Ozone Park in southern Queens also have a very large Indo-Caribbean population, mostly from Guyana. So far, Chhaya has targeted its operations to clearly demarcated community concentrations in specific neighborhoods: Astoria, Long Island City, Jackson Heights and Flushing, with more to be added later.
Although South Asians don’t tend to live in ethnic enclaves as much as some other immigrant groups, they do have common (and pretty severe) housing needs.
Often living in poor and unsafe conditions, South Asians usually have more members per household and more occupants per room than the average New Yorker. According to Chhaya’s citywide needs assessment survey, only 8.2 percent of city renters have more than one person per room, while the comparable figure for South Asian renters is 25.4 percent.
And they pay dearly to live in these crowded conditions. According to a study conducted by NYU real estate professor Michael Schill, 17 percent of South Asian-born owners in the city pay more than 60 percent of their income for housing costs versus 7 percent of U.S. born owners. Often, South Asians live in dangerous, illegal and improper basement and cellar rentals.
In the Chhaya survey, over half the respondents did not have a lease. Of the more than three-quarters of the survey respondents who rent, 23 percent live in unregulated apartments, but more than one-third of the renters reported not knowing what type of apartment they live in. Of the renters surveyed, 41 percent reported facing some kind of problem with their current living arrangement.
One of the first things Agnani did was to begin a monthly workshop covering many of the major housing issues confronting the community, as well as one-on-one counseling. Agnani viewed tenant rights as key. “In revitalized neighborhoods like Astoria, the large Bangladeshi community is now being pushed out,” she says. “But if you’ve been living in a rent-stabilized unit, you really have nowhere else to go.”
With its name meaning “shelter” in several South Asian languages, Chhaya’s main focus was supposed to be increasing access to housing opportunities for the South Asian community. But having defined its constituency by ethnicity rather than by a neighborhood area, Chhaya now has to deliver programs that stretch its resources over a wide geography-and an increasingly wide range of services that has only gotten wider since September 11.
At a Chhaya forum in March, A.N.M. Shah Amran worried that he might not qualify for a housing loan because he had lost his hot dog stand near the World Trade Center and had not received assistance from the federal government. Mr. Mohammed Ali, a Muslim who had lost his job in a downtown restaurant, bemoaned that his landlord, who previously overlooked rent delays, had inexplicably served him with an eviction notice.
“We are now beginning to see more secondary levels of harassment,” says Agnani. “Not verbal or physical like in the early days, but more in terms of employment, workplace and housing discrimination, evictions, and veiled threats to call the INS.”
Those new problems are not going away; in fact, more 9/11-related cases came up in February than in the previous five months combined. As word goes out about Chhaya’s services, Agnani expects that trend to continue.
When you define your constituency by ethnicity, providing multiple services goes with the territory, says Parag Khandhar, assistant director of policy and planning at the Asian American Federation of New York. “If someone has multiple concerns, they have no one place to go to,” says Khandhar of the South Asian community. “A logical step is to develop a more coordinated multi-service agency.”
Khandhar’s point was proven in the aftermath of September 11. As a first reaction, Chhaya disseminated a statement that was printed in three South Asian newspapers; Agnani went on South Asian TV, providing information on how to obtain emergency assistance, report hate crimes, and support the relief efforts. Later, Chhaya developed a “Know Your Rights” flyer, translating it into Bengali, Urdu, Hindi and Arabic. Chhaya now disseminates this flyer daily to its clients in the office and at community events.
Meanwhile, Chhaya’s workshops have a new emphasis. In April, Chhaya’s monthly housing forum offered its usual fare-a presentation on fair housing legislation by Robert Tilley of the city Commission on Human Rights-but also present was labor attorney Chaumtoli Huq, for questions about employment discrimination. And Debanuj DasGupta, a consultant with the New York City Coalition Against Hunger, took questions on public benefits, food stamps, WIC, school and senior meals, emergency food and the Earned Income Tax Credit.
“We were building slowly, and things were going really well,” Agnani says stoically. “But after 9/11, everything had to be done at the same time. All at once I had to learn about FEMA, the Red Cross programs, Disaster Unemployment Insurance and so on.”
Chhaya has the challenge of defining a pan-South Asian identity for its constituents. But if South Asians have endured increasing and discrimination since 9/11, the harassment has served to strengthen bonds. Despite a common history and many cultural similarities, South Asians from different countries don’t often work together on projects. So it’s a promising sign that, to date, the Council on American Islamic Relations, the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, CabWatch and South Asian Youth Action have all sent representatives to Chhaya’s forums.
“Chhaya’s conference was a good place for numerous community groups to come together for the first time after September 11,” says Girish Shah, program director of Nav Nirmaan, a substance abuse counseling
organization serving South Asians in Queens, “and also for Chhaya to let people know that they exist.”
Arun Aguiar is a Bronx-based freelance writer.