Study of City’s South Asian Immigrants Documents Housing and Employment Struggles


South Asians make up one of the fastest growing ethnic groups in the city — increasing by more than 150% over the last two decades — and one Queens-based nonprofit group has spent the last year-and-a-half surveying the community and documenting its housing and employment trends.

Today, Chhaya Community Development Corporation, a Jackson Heights immigration organization, is releasing the findings of that report, called, “Deepening Roots and Creating Space: Building a Better Future for New York’s South Asians.” The study outlines the ways in which the recession has hit this specific immigrant community, which is most prominent in Queens. The organization collected information on housing trends of overcrowding, evictions, and displacements, and also looked at larger barriers to employment for South Asians in the city.

The report, which is being released and discussed today at a policy forum at New York University, was based on 440 surveys and six focus groups with 66 residents in seven different languages.

The organization hopes to offer a more complete picture of this immigrant group than the data offered by the U.S. Census or the city’s Housing and Vacancy Survey.

“It’s really frustrating — there’s very little data about this community. In our own work that’s a major challenge,” Chhaya Executive Director Seema Agnani told Runnin’ Scared yesterday. “Our goal was to collect data in one place.”

Documenting struggles to find and maintain affordable housing is also important since there are often misconceptions that South Asian immigrants aren’t generally having economic difficulties, she said. “Part of our goal is to put it out there…that our community is very diverse…[and that] a very large constituent base is struggling.”

One concerning finding of the report, Agnani said, is that though half of the residents surveyed held college degrees, only 8% were working in professional or technical jobs.

“It really shows you the potential within the community if there are investments made in getting people certified in their areas of expertise. That could really help to serve more economic growth in our city,” she said, noting that South Asian immigrants need greater access to higher-level English language classes.

In terms of housing patterns, Agnani pointed us to several trends that she found alarming. Half of renters surveyed did not have leases, 41% paid rent in cash, and many reported having to borrow to pay rent — all of which make these immigrant groups particularly vulnerable to unfair evictions, she said. The survey found that 65% face overcrowded housing conditions. And in line with a common problem in immigrant-heavy Queens neighborhoods, 35% had basement apartments that could be converted safely to legal dwellings for extended family or as a source of additional income. Additionally, South Asians made up more than 50% of owners in foreclosures in a number of Queens neighborhoods.

“The rental housing that is available doesn’t really accommodate the family sizes…A lot of the affordable housing that is being built is not necessarily being built for families. We need to take into account who’s living here and what family structures look like,” she said.

With South Asian immigrants flocking to Queens, there needs to be a greater focus on bringing affordable housing for families into the borough, she added. “There just hasn’t been enough investment. Queens is the number one borough of choice…But people end up in the market, sharing units and pooling resources in order to make their day-to-day living work.”

The city also needs to fix illegal housing conversions, which would get rid of unsafe conditions — some overcrowded basements are often prone to serious fire risks — and would also benefit landlords, she said. She recommended that the city create a streamlined process to legalize those units and do it in a way that ensures they are still affordable. “It’s acknowledging units that are already there and making them safe, so we dont have more fires where people get killed,” she said.

In general, she added, these kinds of reports are important because they encourage the city and the country to consider race and immigration patterns in more meaningful, nuanced ways — not just black, white, Hispanic, and Asian.

“There’s so much diversity, particularly in New York City,” Agnani said. “We need to be looking more closely.”

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