A City Council bill intended to improve access to the city’s housing services among New Yorkers who are not fluent in English reveals a chasm in perspective, with supporters considering the city’s current practices discriminatory, while the administration maintains it already achieves the goals of the bill in a more flexible and efficient way.

Immigrant advocates make the case that limited English proficiency (LEP) New Yorkers are unlawfully denied access to the range of Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) services—including housing code enforcement and assistance for subsidy applications—because of language barriers. Intro. 596, the Equal Access to Housing Services Act, is meant to improve access to HPD services by making interpreters available in HPD housing inspections, meetings and phone communications, and by translating important notifications, forms and direct correspondence in a number of covered languages. Council’s Committee on Housing and Buildings held a hearing on the legislation March 27; 35 members of Council presently support it.

The bill provides specific requirements that build on the more general guidelines set forth in Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the federal law that prohibits discrimination by any entity receiving federal funds—including local governments. (In 2000, the White House included non-English speakers as a protected group under Title VI.) HPD’s opposition to the bill is based on its belief that it is already fully compliant with Title VI. Standing up for the 8,600 Queens residents who speak Tagalog, the 22,000 Brooklynites who speak Yiddish, and the 4,600 Bronxites who speak Kru, Ibu or Yoruba – among others – supporters of the bill argue otherwise.

“Our perspective is informed by our members’ experiences with HPD,” said Andrew Friedman, Co-Executive Director of Make the Road New York. “The reality is that all too frequently people with limited English can’t understand written materials, can’t communicate with inspectors, and don’t know what their options are. Whether HPD is compliant with [Title VI] guidelines or not, the fact is the system isn’t working, since the agency isn’t able to communicate with millions of people.”

City officials say they already have the machinery in place to continue to improve language access without the legislation. “We feel that our current language access programs are fairly robust, and flexible enough to allow us to change as community needs change and as our needs change. We don’t feel that legislation is needed,” said HPD spokesperson Seth Donlin. He added, “But that’s not to say that what we do for language access can’t be improved.”

Advocates say they realized the importance of a legislative response to ensure language access through their experiences taking on other city agencies. Nearly a decade ago, many of the same groups saw that LEP residents were denied access to the city’s welfare system because of language barriers. Filing both a lawsuit and a Title VI discrimination complaint, advocates learned that litigation-centered processes were arduous and ineffective.

“From an advocate’s perspective, these complaints often take years to come to resolution and we’ve not had much success with them under the current [federal] administration,” said Amy Taylor, coordinator of the Language Access Project at Legal Services for New York City.

So advocacy groups initiated legislation, which became Local Law 73, the Equal Access to Human Services Act, introducing tools for city welfare workers to screen individuals’ primary languages and refer them to translators. As written, the law became the basis for the administration’s efforts to promote language access programs in other city agencies. Several years later, City Council considered Intro. 464, the Education Equity Act, which sought to require the Department of Education to provide interpretation and translation services for LEP parents. Though Mayor Bloomberg vetoed that bill on the grounds that it infringed on the mayor’s authority to oversee the school system, the administration worked with advocates to adopt their recommendations into regulations promulgated by the schools chancellor.

Both administration officials and Councilmembers agree that the welfare- and education-related regulations reflect progress (though compliance is still contested: See City Limits Weekly #618, Dec. 17, 2007, If You Don’t ‘Get It,’ You Might Not Get Benefits). Bloomberg spokeswoman Evelyn Erskine notes that the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs—an office that didn’t even exist when advocates first started pushing for increased language access in the city’s welfare system—operates an inter-agency task force on language access issues. Around 15 city agencies have contracts with phone translation services.

“While Local Law 73 is still being implemented, many other agencies are moving forward with this on their own. The mayor is committed to provide all New Yorkers with the best possible access to city services, and encourages all agencies to do this to the extent possible,” Erskine said.

But they disagree about how to move forward. Whereas the administration sees its current work as sufficient, Councilmembers and advocates consider new language access bills important ways to institutionalize progress.

“Under Commissioner [Shaun] Donovan, HPD has demonstrated a great interest in language access,” said Councilwoman Rosie Mendez, a Lower East Side Democrat and one of the bill’s authors. “My reason for introducing this is that I don’t know how long we’ll have Commissioner Donovan at HPD. It’s important to codify language access so we’ll have a guide for future commissioners to follow.”

The legislation would require HPD to translate or interpret in each of the nine most-spoken languages per borough—a number derived from socioeconomic and linguistic data. (Since the prevalence of foreign languages differs by borough, the Independent Budget Office calculates that the bill will require coverage for 17 languages in total.)

In their testimony, supporters of the bill sought to prove the extent to which LEP tenants have been denied HPD services because of language barriers. They pointed to two studies by the Communities for Housing Equity, an umbrella advocacy group supporting the legislation. In a 2005-2006 survey of nearly 700 immigrant and LEP households, only 18 percent of the families had ever reported a housing problem to HPD, even though 60 percent lived with one or more critical housing violations in the past 12 months. Many didn’t even know that a city agency that responded to housing complaints existed: 62 percent of survey respondents had never heard of HPD. John Mollenkopf, director of the CUNY Center for Urban Research and co-author of the other study, said the data “indicates that immigrant neighborhoods are generating fewer complaints to HPD, relative to the bad housing conditions our research tells us exists.”

HPD responded that the legislation amounts to a mandate that would tie the agency’s hands. In his testimony, HPD First Deputy Commissioner John Warren emphasized that the bill calls for HPD to hire translators in languages for which the agency has seen no need to date. He testified that last year the agency received only 13,000 calls requiring translation out of a total of 300,000 handled by the agency.

Supporters of the bill dispute the legitimacy of HPD’s numbers. Mendez observed that HPD’s estimates for translation needs were based only on calls that go through 311, and don’t include walk-in traffic, callers whose language needs aren’t accurately identified, and, most importantly, all those who don’t know about HPD in the first place.

Much of the disagreement has to do with the presumed cost of implementing the bill. The IBO estimates that it would cost HPD over $7 million a year, along with $375,000 in one-time costs to meet the requirements of the legislation—including filling nearly 120 new bilingual inspector and in-office translator as well as support positions. Amy Taylor from Legal Services for New York City thinks it would cost significantly less, since IBO based its estimates on the cost of hiring full-time staff even though the legislation allows for contracting out for some of the lesser-spoken languages.

The two sides also disputed the effectiveness of HPD’s current language access efforts. The agency contracts with a translation call-in service, the “language line.” When an inspector responds in person to a call for service, he or she is supposed to prompt the tenant to identify his or her native language—inspectors carry “language cards” for such a purpose—and then connect the tenant by phone to a translator. Translators are also available when foreign language speakers contact HPD through 311. HPD also currently employs over 180 bilingual and multilingual inspectors who collectively speak 26 languages, and maintains a pool of volunteer translators. It sends out important brochures and notices for translation into the most common foreign languages, which are determined based on the volume of requests HPD receives for such services through the language line and inspectors’ observations. (Currently the agency makes translations available in Spanish, Mandarin, Cantonese, Korean, Haitian Creole, and Russian.)

The bill’s sponsors counter that each of HPD’s language access strategies is fatally flawed. They argue that the language card, frequently cited by HPD, is rarely used. “The language card has been around for a couple years, and inspectors still neglect to use it frequently,” said Greg Geller, deputy chief of staff to Mendez. “Since those resources aren’t being used well enough, we believe inspectors who can speak the top nine languages are going to be necessary.”

Advocates similarly argue that the high number of current HPD bilingual and multilingual inspectors is misleading. According to Ericka Stallings, housing advocacy coordinator for the New York Immigration Coalition, HPD doesn’t record a household’s language needs. Therefore, the agency has no system in place to ensure that bilingual inspectors are accurately dispatched to an LEP tenant who speaks the inspectors’ language. She reported instances of Mandarin-speaking inspectors showing up at Spanish-speaking households. Ramona Marines, a long-time Bushwick resident, testified at the hearing that she has called HPD three times in the past year; only once did her inspector speak Spanish (in spite of her requesting a Spanish speaker to 311), and the other times she was not shown the language card.

From sponsors on the Council down to LEP tenants, supporters of the bill feel a sense of urgency because of current housing market pressures. “Landowners are quick to convert affordable housing units into market-rate units, and have been harassing and neglecting residents in order to force the families out,” said Margaret Chin, deputy executive director of Asian Americans for Equality. “Tenants have been forced to endure hazardous, over-crowded and deplorable conditions as landlords refuse and neglect repairs.”

Supporters of the legislation are prepared for long negotiations ahead. “We need to look at this bill again and look at the testimony. It’s obvious the administration wasn’t thrilled with the bill. We want to keep the crux of bill in place but try to see if there’s a middle ground,” said Geller.

Advocates hope that the process prompts government officials to think more globally about addressing city residents’ language needs: Issuing an executive order listing cross-agency requirements and streamlined contracts bringing all language access services under one roof, for example.

“Every agency in New York City faces the same needs in terms of providing interpretation and translation services for two million people they’re supposed to be working with,” said Friedman of Make the Road New York. “The reality is that every agency should have comprehensive language access services, but many simply don’t.”

– Matt Schwarzfeld