What was the defining moment that led you to this innovation?
In 2000, as Chhaya was in the process of being created, we completed a needs assessment survey of the South Asian immigrant community around the city and found that 50 percent of people we talked to did not have a lease. Over the years, both owners and tenants have sought Chhaya out with concerns: tenants who were living in illegal units and owners who were frustrated because tenants were not paying rent. Eventually, education, advocacy and organizing around the issues of illegal dwelling units became a priority area for our organization.
Basement apartments are a legitimate source of affordable housing; the issue is that they need to be brought up to code. If they were, unsafe conditions would be improved, tenants could be guaranteed their rights, and owners could regularize their ability to collect rent and insure the protection of their property. But we found that many elected officials are afraid to touch this issue; they see it as an issue of neighborhood preservation, with a lot of the more established residents feeling that new immigrants are coming in and ruining their communities. However, the city is draining all sorts of resources. Judges in the court system are frustrated with the number of complaints, but there is nothing they can do to tackle the issue. It is also a huge drain on public resources, resulting in overcrowded schools and overstretched social service provision. However if these units and the population that resides in them could be planned for, it could be a huge boon for the city.
In 2008, therefore, Chhaya conducted a grassroots survey to document the problem and this was the defining moment for the development of our proposal.A grassroots approach enabled surveyors (who spoke more than seven languages combined) to survey both the tenants and owners of illegal basement units, as well as local business owners, real estate agents, and other community stakeholders. The survey found a mix of opinions on the issue of whether or not such units should be legalized. Many of those who were inclined to support the idea were afraid to discuss many details for fear of fines or eviction.
The survey did, however, confirm that illegal secondary basement units are often overcrowded and, at times, potentially hazardous to tenants and owners alike. The latter part of 2008 also saw Chhaya drastically ramp up its foreclosure prevention program. During foreclosure prevention counseling, we began to see a theme in which owners struggling to make mortgage payments would not report rental incomes because their rental units were illegal, hence making it harder for them to negotiate with the banks. This combination of factors: an affordable housing shortage in New York, overcrowded housing conditions in the South Asian community, and a growing foreclosure crisis, led us to launch this campaign in 2008.
An interactive piece about the campaign is available here: http://urbanomnibus.net/2010/03/bringing-basements-to-code/
Tell us about the social innovator behind this idea.
A number of individuals and institutions have been actively involved in developing this campaign and have helped to move it forward; including staff and ex-staff at the Pratt Center for Community Development, the Citizens Housing and Planning Council, as well as Chhaya CDC.
Seema Agnani, Executive Director, was one of Chhaya CDC’s initial founders and has been championing this cause for nearly 10 years. Before returning to Chhaya as Executive Director in 2007, she was the Coordinating Consultant to the Fund for New Citizens at The New York Community Trust, a donor collaborative supporting immigrant rights work. She was also the Director of Training and Technical Assistance at Citizens for NYC. In addition, she worked with Asian Americans for Equality for several years as a housing development associate while also focusing on fund-raising and development; and later served as a coordinator of the Lower Manhattan Health Care Coalition. She currently serves on the Board of Directors of the National Coalition for Asian Pacific American Community Development. She is a former recipient of The Charles H. Revson Fellowship at Columbia University, earned her Bachelors at the University of Wisconsin at Madison and a Masters of Urban Planning and Public Administration at the University of Illinois in Chicago.
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