Despite Successes, Problems Remain Organizing Queens' Immigrant Tenants

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

For years, advocacy groups in New York City have worked to organize renters against landlords that try to price out, harass or blackmail tenants out of their buildings.

One of the most difficult areas to mobilize has been Queens, where even with subtler forms of landlord intimidation many immigrants are unaware of their rights and are hesitant to appeal to authorities.

Advocates say that while they have convinced many newcomers to organize, others still shy away from fighting back.

"There are very real difficulties with these immigrants," said Shirhad Meah, a tenant recruiter at the offices of CHHAYA, a South Asian immigrant council in Jackson Heights. "This is new to them. Back home landlords can say, 'I'm not renewing your lease, get out next month.' There is no such thing as tenant's rights."

The financial difficulties the foreign-born face making rent in New York City, and the lengths they go to not to get evicted, create some intractable situations, he said.

In October, Meah tried to convince a group of non-English speaking Bangladeshis living in a badly dilapidated apartment building in Astoria to file an HP actions -- a legally binding demand filed in housing court that would force their landlord to make repairs. The apartments had a slew of Class C housing violations, the most serious kind. But as the residents had more than the allotted number of renters living in the apartments, they decided against taking action.

"I said, 'Here's the thing. You have too many people living here. But at the same time the landlord has to fix these problems,'" Meah said. "After a back and forth they decided that it would be safer to stay with their problem."

To be sure, many immigrants in Queens have gone to battle with landlords and won.

Such was the case with the Queens Vantage Tenants Council (QVTC), which claims to have won a series of concessions from Vantage Properties, a firm that owns upwards of 80 buildings in Queens.

On Oct. 13, the QVTC met with Vantage's president, Neil Rubler, and issued a list of 19 demands, which broadly sought better communication between Vantage and its tenants.

On Nov. 2, Vantage issued a letter with a list of policy changes shortly before a press conference the QVTC held. One of the changes read: "We understand that we serve a diverse customer base, and that some of our residents want to communicate in languages other than English. By the end of the year, we will ensure virtually all written communication with residents is both in English and Spanish."

Nonetheless, advocates say that serious problems remain. Because Queens is constantly taking in new foreigners, they say, there is a persistent struggle to develop a solid foothold in the communities.

"Tenants' lack of knowledge about their rights, especially recent immigrant tenants, has been a hurdle in regard to organizing a tenant's union to stand up to the landlords," said John Klukas, a QVTC board member, in an email. "Fear of reprisal is frequently mentioned as a reason not to get involved."

Ironically, diversity itself sometimes complicates organizing efforts.

"What we're often confronted with in the buildings in [Jackson Heights] is that there's a mix of different immigrant groups in one building," said Seema Agnani, Executive Director of CHHAYA. "When building meetings are held, do you hold them in Bengali? Do you hold them in Spanish?"

"You usually end up with predominantly one ethnic group, unfortunately," she said.

Julio Ortiz, an organizer with Woodside on the Move, has been working with a group living in four buildings in Queens, owned by the real estate management firm Urban American, to improve understanding of major capital improvement policy.

Currently, the firm must issue a letter to occupants explaining improvements it intends to make to the building, such as bettering common areas. They would also raise rent. If half of the residents voice disagreement to the proposed changes, Urban American must cease plans to implement them. But the renters, who mostly come from Central and South America, often don't know how to respond.

"It's a highly technical process," Ortiz said. "Ninety to 95 percent of the tenants, no matter what language they speak, will not know what to answer to these applications. They're working class. They don't know the law."

Robert McCreanor, a lawyer at the Catholic Migration Office, who is also helping with the effort, says that so long as successive waves of immigrants arrive in Queens, advocates will face challenges defending them.

"It's very possible that an owner who wants to get people out could do that much easier in a place like Queens," he said. "As opposed to Washington Heights, where you have an immigrant community that's been around for 35 or 40 years and has much deeper roots in the community, it's more likely that you'll be able to shake the buildings and rattle them out."