Lai Chun Chu has a crisp, bold voice when she talks in her native Cantonese, but as one of a handful of Chinese immigrants in a housing complex full of English and Spanish speakers, it’s hard for her find the right words sometimes. When her kitchen sink overflowed with dirty water, Chu, whose sprightliness defies her 70-something years, walked through the halls knocking on strangers’ doors to trace the leak, her plea distilled into just one word: “water.”
“Because they don’t speak any Chinese and I speak very little English, we have a hard time communicating,” recalls Chu, speaking through a translator at her spartan one-bedroom apartment at the New York City–owned Queensbridge Houses. “So I’d just say, ‘Water, water’ and then [the neighbors] would come down, they’d look and then they’d know what’s going on, but they still can’t really do anything about it.”
Chu says she’s tried to request repairs with NYCHA, but the maintenance service has never fully fixed the issue; her kitchen floods regularly. Activists say that tenants like Chu suffer with shoddy housing conditions because the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) fails to provide language services they need for communicating about maintenance issues.
The advocacy group CAAAV, which campaigns on behalf of working-class Asian American communities across the city, argues in a new report that the city has neglected the many Asian immigrant households residing in sprawling public housing projects, leaving them without comprehensive translation and interpretation services they need to interact with NYCHA staff and participate in the day-to-day functions in their communities.
According to a survey conducted by CAAAV and Urban Justice Center of more than 220 NYCHA tenants in 14 projects, NYCHA is failing to provide essential language access services to “most Limited English Proficiency (LEP) Asian tenants who need them.” The survey found that among the surveyed tenants who needed verbal interpretation services at some point in the past three years, about six in ten were unable to make a service request with NYCHA. Of LEP tenants who called NYCHA’s service center to request a repair, “more than 70 percent had not been able to talk to someone who spoke their language.” (Disclosure: The author once contributed volunteer assistance to these organizations’ tenants’-rights campaigns.)
Resorting to the traditional “translation service” used by immigrants, nearly three in four respondents with unmet language needs “asked someone who did not work for NYCHA for help with interpretation”—in most instances, a relative; sometimes, a friend.
The city’s call center is already supposed to provide over-the-phone translations whenever needed, but the barriers work in subtler ways. The automated phone menu that greets callers, according to CAAAV, is confusing because options are in English, including the option to select a non-English language for the call, so residents may give up out of confusion. “I never tried it because I don’t know any English,” Chu says, laughing. “I’m scared to do it, so I just go to the neighbor who has a bilingual son.”