Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Africans Feel Brunt of Bronx’s Affordable Housing Crisis

Africans Feel Brunt of Bronx’s
Affordable Housing Crisis–AAC
Forum on Housing Reveals

By Pamela Appea
The African Advisory Council (AAC) and the Office of the Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr. hosted a housing forum at the Bronx Museum of the Arts the evening of January 14th. Assemblywoman Vanessa L. Gibson, District 77 co-sponsored the
event, and representatives from NYCHA, HPD and Legal Aid spoke.

A wide variety of prominent local politicians and community associations were in attendance, including Deputy Borough President Aurelia Greene and state Senator Ruth Thompson.

Over 100 individuals attended the forum including “Fatima” mother to
three young children. Fatima is undocumented and cannot work because she lacks legal papers.

Originally from Burkina Faso, “Fatima” has lived in New York for eight years and takes care of her three young children as a stay-at-home mother, while her husband works. “Fatima,” her husband
and their three children live in a one bedroom
apartment in the Bronx.

She felt the forum was useful in learning “you don’t have to be quiet” if you have problems with your apartment. Event organizers particularly want to reach individuals likes “Fatima” who may not otherwise be knowledgeable of their tenant rights.

“It was an easy project to agree upon when decided our next community forum,” said Assemblywoman (77th District) Vanessa L. Gibson. “Having access to affordable and safe housing strengthens our communities and our
families,” she said.
The Bronx’s African Immigrant population has exploded over the past 20 years, and accordingly the demand for affordable and adequate housing has also significantly increased during this same time period.

According to recent U.S. census statistics, the number of African immigrants has quintupled from 12,000 in 1990 to 61, 487
Africans living in the Bronx today. Unofficial numbers put the actual
African population well past 100,000 Africans and growing.

Many new African immigrants come from Francophone West Africa including Senegal, Mali and the Ivory Coast, and there are numerous Ghanaians, Nigerians, Kenyans and other Africans who
call the Bronx their home.

The majority of the newest African immigrant population in the Bronx is working women and men with children and they’re finding the search for affording housing to be challenging, particularly if they’re undocumented and/or they’re not qualified to apply for public housing.

Anecdotal stories indicate many immigrant families live together with other families and/or share cramped apartments with apartment
mates, friends or relatives for years. And some larger African families
have reportedly been told they have too many children or too many
family members to qualify for public housing.

Katie Bukofzer Director of Neighborhood and Preservation for Manhattan and the Bronx at Housing and Preservation
Development (HPD) acknowledged the Bronx has many buildings
that need extensive repairs. Bukofzer said unfortunately some landlords do not adhere to the city’s maintenance code, just a “fancy way of saying something is broken and needs to be fixed.”

“If your ceiling falls in, if you have no heat, if there is a leak in your bathroom, if you have rats, bed bugs,If you have peeling lead paint, mold or another issue, notify your landlord directly in writing—don’t just notify your superintendent. And if nothing is done then notify us. If HPD doesn’t know about the violation, we cannot help you, so please contact us,” she said.

Bukofzer said there is power in numbers, particularly if a group of tenants have a deadbeat landlord who does not do repairs for anyone in the building. She advised forum attendees to document everything, write letters and keep copies of the letters with the dates and
other documentation. “Talk to others in your apartment building about problems they might be having,” she said.

At the same time Bukofzer acknowledged with a small staff of 17 individuals at HPD, the enforcement of apartment repairs may not happen immediately, but she promised that an HPD inspector will assess if a situation is hazardous particularly if there are young children in the apartment.

Marshal Greene, a Legal Aid lawyer outlined the role of legal representation for housing and other issues for the audience in both English and in French.

“We are here to provide assistance to poor people who need help
with housing cases and/or are facing eviction proceedings. Our services are free and 100%confidential.”

“You know that big building a block away from here, The Housing Court?” he asked the audience. Don’t go there without a lawyer. Do not assume that the landlord’s lawyer is there to help you,” he said noting many of his clients have not been fully clear on the American legal system. Indeed, many mistakenly believe the landlord’s lawyer represents them both and/or the housing court judge will be sympathetic to their case and allow them time to speak about their personal circumstances.

“Immigrants are scared to go to court. The housing court does not ask your immigration status. We at Legal Aid do not care about your immigration status. These questions are not important to your case,” Greene asserted, noting personal information on immigration status should not be volunteered or discussed during housing court proceedings.

“You do not want to go to housing court by yourself; you should have a lawyer, a friend, someone there to help you. Do not be afraid to assert your rights. Never sign something if you feel pressured, if you do not understand or if you do not agree with it.” Greene said, noting a Legal Aid lawyer will do the best they can to help you win your case.

One forum attendee “Maryam” is a Bronx resident from Senegal.
“Maryam” has lived in the Bronx for 12 years. “Maryam” said she wished the forum was more helpful on addressing individual housing issues, but she admitted to Amanda after the event she fully understood a little more than 50% of the remarks at the forum due to
the fact that English is not her first language and people spoke very quickly.

“The thing I want to know is that I applied for housing in 2003 and they told me I wasn’t qualified. In 2006, I applied again. I applied for Section 8 and New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA.) They sent me a letter and they told me again that I’m not qualified.

My rent is getting higher and I have three kids. It is too high,” she
said. “Maryam” currently pays $1,095 for a two-bedroom apartment.
“Maryam” said she needs help understanding why her application was denied two times since she is low-income, but employed as an HHA.

She told Amandla friends have told her NYCHA often gives individuals who have experienced domestic violence
housing within three months. “Maryam” said she wished there was a rent subsidy to help her with rent in her current apartment, but acknowledged she would move anywhere in the Bronx or Manhattan if she could get a NYCHA or Section 8 apartment.

In reality on average NYCHA housing applications can take anywhere from two to three years to process. And no Section 8 apartments are currently available in New York for new applicants. The AAC forum representative for NYCHA gave the audience general information about applying for NYCHA apartments.

Some 40,000 NYCHA apartments are located in the Bronx, but the citywide waiting list for NYCHA apartments currently has 130,000 individuals or families. Moreover the citywide turnover for available
NYCHA apartments is low, at only 3% per year.

While audience participants were urged to take advantage of their rights, many, if not most of the individuals are like “Fatima” who although they have lived in New York City for years are not documented and not yet on track to get legal status. While the local Bronx politicians understand their constituency
group of resident African residents is growing, Africans in the Bronx do not currently have real political clout until more individuals have
legal status, vote and get actively involved in civic matters.

During the forum, audience members were asked how many people were registered to vote and only a handful of hands in the
crowded room went up.

Bukofzer mentioned HPD’s role in recommending the construction of new housing developments—something that is drastically needed in the Bronx. She said the city’s process of planning the future of Bronx’s housing development—a joint effort between the NYC Mayor, HPD, city urban planners and other city agencies and politicians--has
a long way to go.

The forum served as a clearinghouse for written brochures and pamphlets for a myriad of other issues pertinent to housing, landlord’s responsibilities and immigrants’ rights. Topics included heating complaints, preventing lead poisoning in young children, what to do if your apartment has bed bugs, the importance of having window
guards in apartments ensuring an apartment’s fire alarm and carbon
monoxide detectors are in working order.

African Advisory Council organizers including Famod Konneh, Chair and Lacrown Oliomade, Co-Chair and Secretary Stephanie Arthur. Sheikh Moussa Drama served as Master of Ceremony and Mohammed Mardah served as moderator for the Q & A session. AAC Liaison Bourema Niambele translated portions of the forum discussion to French.

The Council committee has a broad scope but five committees covering: Arts & Culture,Economics, Social Issues, Interfaith
and Civic duties and issues and is planning future events on housing and other rights pertinent to immigrants
and families.

African Advisory Council (AAC),Office of the Borough President
851 Grand Concourse, Suite 301 Bronx, New York 10451
(718) 590-3500 Housing and Preservation Development
(HPD) 718-579-2930 1932 Arthur Avenue (off of Tremont
Avenue), Third Floor Bronx, New York

NYCHA-New York City Housing Authority
(This location services new NYCHA
applications and in-person application
status requests; you may be asked to
make an appointment.)

478 Fordham Road, 2nd Floor
Bronx, New York
(718) 329-7859
((To Apply for NYCHA)

Bronx Housing Court
(718) 466-3000

Legal Aid
Marshal Greene

Assemblywoman Vanessa L. Gibson’s-
District Office
930 Grand Concourse, Suite 1E
Bronx, New York 10451
(718) 538-2000

For a booklet on New York City
Tenants Rights, call the office of Attorney
General for the Tenant’s Rights
Guide or go to www.oag.state.ny.us to download