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Immigrants Drawn by Jobs Face Substandard, Illegal Housing


The New York Times, May 21, 1999

In a dark, musty garage in the Long Island city of Glen Cove, a child sleeps under rags and old clothes. Rain drips down into an electric light socket. The ceiling is caving in. The five people who live there bathe from buckets and pay $1,000 a month in rent. "What can I do?" says Rosa Benitez, the child's mother, a 31-year-old immigrant from El Salvador. "I ask the landlord to fix it. He says if I complain I will be on the street."

In Farmingville, Guadeloupe Crespo Alvarez, a middle-aged Mexican, lingers in bed. The tip of his foot, crushed by a truck a few weeks ago while he was hauling bricks on a day job, looks like a tree root, swelling black and blue out of a plaster cast. The boss sent him home with a pill, but no pay, he says, and the hospital refuses to operate to repair his bones because he has no insurance. Now he cannot make the $200 rent that he pays for his bunk in a ranch house crammed with 16 strangers. "Please, Mother," he says as he lights a candle to the Virgin Mary. "Send help."

In Hempstead, a woman named Gloria fries pork chops in a kitchen that reeks of excrement. She pays $300 a month for a small bedroom in a wood-frame house whose toilets have not flushed in over a week. Gloria hopes for something better, but she is not optimistic. "I keep looking, but no one wants a woman with three daughters," she said, her 10-year-old translating and quietly grasping her mother's meaning. Behind louvered shutters, vinyl siding and drawn curtains in nearly every town and village on Long Island, tens of thousands of legal and illegal immigrants from Central America and Mexico are jammed into subdivided houses and partitioned apartments, biding their time in invisible suburban slums that local officials say they have little hope of controlling.

By day, these men and women perform some of the lowest jobs on the Island's booming economic ladder, cleaning the floors or pruning the shrubbery of affluent suburbanites, hauling construction materials for home builders, picking spinach in Riverhead. By night they count up earnings far greater than anything they could have hoped for back home -- up to $10 an hour.

With unemployment at 2.8 percent in Nassau and 3.7 percent in Suffolk, experts and local officials say many of these jobs would not get done without immigrant labor. "If we didn't have this population, the dishes and silverware in our diners probably wouldn't be clean," said Frank P. Petrone, the Supervisor of the Town of Huntington.

But the same booming economy that has drawn so many immigrants to Long Island has also created an extraordinary shortage of affordable housing and enabled some landlords to charge thousands of dollars a month to groups of men who then split the rent as many as 10 or 20 ways.

While similar overcrowding can be found in many immigrant neighborhoods in Queens and other parts of New York City, experts say the housing plight of immigrants in the suburbs is particularly acute, in part because there are far fewer social services and homeless shelters available. As a result, many political leaders are reluctant to crack down on bad living conditions, fearing that such an effort would make homeless people of those who now have roofs over their heads. No one knows exactly how many immigrants live on Long Island. The Immigration and Naturalization Service has not even estimated the number, a spokeswoman said. But some experts point to the growth of the Salvadoran population as a indication of the extent of the surge.

In 1979, before civil war broke out in El Salvador, there were as few as 5,000 Salvadorans living on the Island. Today, according to immigrant groups and outreach workers, the number is well over 100,000. Hondurans, Guatemalans, Mexicans and others have followed a similar path, bypassing the comparatively tight job market in New York City and moving directly to the suburbs, where apartment complexes are scarce but where three-bedroom homes can provide space for a lot more than three beds. "They've found it almost impossible to find anything but substandard housing," said Pearl M. Kamer, chief economist for the Long Island Association, an economic development group. "So they're doubling, tripling, quadrupling up. And therefore you have disasters."

Outreach workers point to a series of deaths that have periodically drawn attention to the housing problems of the immigrants. In 1996, a 5-year-old girl, Melissa Castillo, died with her grandmother, Blanca Saravia, in a fire in a cramped Port Washington house; 11 others were left homeless. Jose Santos Fuentes died of exposure in 1997 after falling into a creek next to his bed under a Glen Cove overpass. The same year, Clementino Morales, a Guatemalan immigrant, was killed in a Riverhead fire that left his nine housemates homeless.

On May 1, in Huntington Station, a converted commercial building teeming with 34 Salvadorans erupted in flames, killing a woman, her 5-year-old daughter and a man who had arrived to find work just four days earlier. Another resident has been charged with murder and arson. When deaths occur like that and overcrowded housing conditions are exposed, local officials usually resolve to do more. Now, it is the Town of Huntington's turn, but officials say they have neither the money nor the support of voters to create housing for poor immigrants or enforce building codes more vigorously.

Surviving in Suburbia No Cheap Housing and No Welcomes

Long Island's lack of low-cost housing can be traced to the postwar boom that drew hundreds of thousands of new homeowners to Nassau and Suffolk. The sprawling new subdivisions that sprouted on Long Island's potato and corn fields featured winding lanes, cookie-cutter houses and a family car in every driveway.

Apartment buildings, row houses or rental units of any kind were never particularly welcome among the split level homes, picket fences and spacious lawns of the suburbs and that attitude prevails to this day. "Some of it is racism," said Jim Morgo, president of the Long Island Housing Partnership, a not-for-profit developer of low-cost housing. "But I've seen many instances of blacks and Hispanics opposing affordable housing. It has an awful lot to do with the fact that Long Island, and their home, is people's most significant financial investment. They have this myth that affordable housing in their neighborhood is somehow going to devalue their homes." But even though some subsidized houses have been built -- Islip, with 900 homes built over the last 25 years, has produced the most -- they cannot, of course, be bought or rented by undocumented immigrants, who are ineligible for government subsidies. "It's a trickle-down effect, if anything," Morgo said. "Somebody who's a citizen or a resident alien leaves a unit to buy one, opening up another apartment." Lax enforcement of housing codes also leaves undocumented immigrants vulnerable to exploitation by landlords, experts say.

Across the Island, most municipalities have laws limiting the number of unrelated people sharing a home, said Stefan H. Krieger, director of Hofstra Law School's Housing Right Clinic. In Smithtown, for instance, the limit is two; in Huntington, the limit is five. But to enforce such laws, inspectors first must obtain search warrants and then prove that the people are unrelated. But more critically, town and village officials say they do not have enough inspectors to handle even a fraction of the hundreds of thousands of illegal apartments that are believed to exist on Long Island. Even when inspections are made and citations are issued, there is no guarantee that living conditions will improve for anyone.

Huntington's public safety director, Bruce Richard, tells the story of a single-family house in Huntington Station, a few blocks from the site of the recent fatal fire. In 1994, he said, inspectors found men living in two outdoor sheds on the property, and more people living in two apartments carved illegally out of the garage. The sheds were removed, and the owner, Estella Martinez, paid $375 in fines. In 1997, Richard, then an inspector, checked out a report of an overflowing cesspool and discovered at least 15 people -- all of them, apparently undocumented immigrants, living on the property: in a camper parked next to the garage; in four rooms in the cellar, two of which he likened to a crawl space; and in an upstairs attic. The house was declared unfit for occupancy, he said, and Ms. Martinez received 20 summonses, eventually paying $1,100 in fines. But last January inspectors returned to investigate another complaint, and found people again occupying illegal apartments in the cellar of her home, he said. She was given five more summonses and is due in court today. She could not be reached for comment, and her lawyer, Kenneth Butterfield, declined to discuss her case. "This is not unusual, by the way," Richard said. "It's really frustrating, when people play the system to the point where the fines that are imposed constitute the cost of doing business."

Housing Quandary Exploitation or Homelessness?

Early on a rainy morning, men slowly begin their daily trek to the Glen Cove train station, the meeting place for contractors. Usually the jobs are in construction or landscaping: $80 for 10 hours' work.

As executives in tailored suits await the 7:30 to Manhattan, about 50 laborers, sleep still in their eyes, huddle under an overhang at the other end of the station, hoping the sky will clear so there will be work. A police officer arrives. "You people cannot stand here," he tells the workers. "You have to be over there." He points through the rain to a trailer that was placed there to serve as something like a hiring booth. The scene was evidence of Glen Cove's dueling impulses. Notorious in the early 1990's for a local law meant to rid its street corners of undocumented workers, Glen Cove eventually became the first community on Long Island to provide a hiring area. But tensions persist, and officials say they sometimes have to police the workers.

"We've gotten a lot of complaints about these guys from citizens," said Detective John Nagel of the Glen Cove Police Department. "Technically it's railroad property, but if they are creating a nuisance or blocking pedestrian traffic, there are laws to make them move along." But the working men see themselves as victims of harassment. For example, they say, the public bathrooms next to the parking lot are always locked, so they are forced to urinate in the open -- a complaint that city officials promised to address when told of it. "They want us for the dirtiest things," said

David Antonio Molina, 29, who came to the United States three years ago from a small farming village in El Salvador. "But we don't have many rights. And after 6 o'clock, they don't want to see you. You don't exist." Molina lives in a basement with five other men. Upstairs are four crowded rooms, two with doors freshly carved out of the walls. In the attic, Virgilio Yanes and four other men live in one small, sloping warren with plywood walls and broken windows. Five more live in another. All the men in the attic share a single toilet and shower. Their kitchen is a hot plate on a piece of lumber. But Yanes, who with his roommates pays $1,175 a month in rent, considers himself lucky. "My dream is to stay," he says. "The situation in Salvador is critical. Here, I've got a place to stay, I work, and that's all that matters." What he does not know is that his home is going to be raided soon by Glen Cove housing inspectors. The city has begun issuing search warrants, subpoenaing phone records and getting the names of residents from the Post Office.

A list of homes with too many occupants is being drafted and Yanes's home is on it. Mayor Thomas R. Suozzi said the crackdown on overcrowding was meant to protect immigrants from exploitative landlords -- and from themselves. "We will not allow landlords to take advantage of people of any race and put them in dangerous conditions," he said. "On the other hand, if you come to Glen Cove, you must obey the laws." But other officials on Long Island and the directors of advocacy groups say they realize the risks involved in taking a hard line against substandard housing.

Patrick Young, legal director of the Central American Refugee Center, which is based in Hempstead, worried aloud about what would happen if, as a result of the Huntington fire, officials started cracking down on overcrowded conditions. "We consider that house to be better than living in a drainpipe," he said of the Huntington building. "That's the heartbreaking thing: Shutting down overcrowded, rundown houses only increases overcrowding. You can either become homeless, or go to live with someone who's already in crowded circumstances."

Petrone, the Huntington Supervisor, suggested what he called a "Band-Aid" solution: focusing code enforcement on finding and shutting down the most dilapidated and overcrowded firetraps, while working with social service groups to insure that their inhabitants find new homes.

He and other municipal officials on Long Island say that real solutions must involve cooperation among Federal, state, county and local agencies. In particular, they say, national immigration policy should be changed to allow working immigrants to obtain legal residency faster. That way people would come out of hiding, get services they are entitled to, and qualify for what little subsidized housing there is. And Federal officials, they say, must help local governments provide more low-cost housing. Otherwise, Petrone said, the problems will fester. "We have to come to a decision one day," he said. "Is this population fish or fowl?"

Community Frictions

Fearing a Drop in Property Values Welcome to Farmingville," reads the sign at the corner of North Ocean Avenue and Horse Block Road, "Cultural Heart of Brookhaven." Next to it is a 7-Eleven -- and nearly 100 Latino men. The area, 70 miles east of Manhattan, has become a hub for cheap labor for the home builders who are rapidly developing eastern Suffolk County. Every truck that pulls up sets off a stampede of ever-hopeful day laborers. But the growing numbers of immigrants have also produced growing tensions.

Some longtime residents have videotaped day laborers and the contractors who hire them, and have given the tapes to county legislators and the police. Last July, when the day laborers at the 7-Eleven numbered as many as 300, officials sent housing inspectors and fire marshals to six rental homes, where they cited the landlords for code violations, kicked out dozens of tenants and padlocked the houses. Forty-four men pitched tents on the lawn of the Church of the Resurrection. The raids drew national attention, but the day jobs did not disappear, and neither did the workers. The landlords, who can get as much as $5,000 a month renting a house to a group of men, quickly made repairs. Their tenants moved back in.

Employing undocumented workers is illegal, but the risk to employers who do so is minimal. According to the I.N.S., there are 40 agents who focus on employer sanctions in Suffolk and Nassau Counties, but they are also responsible for 12 other counties, including all of New York City. Now, Joseph Caracappa, Farmingville's representative in the county legislature, wants to make it illegal for contractors to pick up day workers on the streets. Caracappa did not return several calls to his office seeking comment.

The frictions are all too apparent in Farmingville, a working-class hamlet of 15,000. "There are bad feelings here," said Mario Ugalde, 38, who, like many of the other day workers, came from Hidalgo in western Mexico. "There is racism. They say we look at the white women. It's not true. We just want to work." But some longtime residents say the workers are nothing more than law-breakers, stealing jobs and destroying neighborhoods.

Anything like an outdoor hiring hall, they say, would only condone an illegal economy and invite more immigrants. "These people aren't citizens, so why do they have more rights than me?" said Vincent Bullock, 75, who lives next door to two homes overflowing with men and rubbish. "There are 20 guys to a place, people in the attic, garage and basement. And more keep coming. Where is the I.R.S.? The I.N.S.? Where's the Board of Health? "Long and the short of it, they're knocking down my property values," he said. "And I'll be damned if I'm paying a dime to help them do it."

Out in the Open at Work Camps, Lower Salaries

If there is any irony to the living conditions of Long Island's immigrants it can be found in the old potato fields of Riverhead, where Edward R. Murrow chronicled the "Harvest of Shame" in 1960, shocking the nation with depictions of migrant workers living in shacks and chicken coops. Today's work camps are an improvement: they are clean and inspected. But today's workers have a new reason for shunning them: the jobs just don't pay. "Landscapers are paying 8, 10, 12 dollars an hour," said Joseph M. Gergela 3d, executive director of the Long Island Farm Bureau. "A farmer just can't afford to pay his men that. A vegetable farmer can't pass the labor cost on to the consumer. And it's hard to find an immigrant, much less an American, to do the job for $5 an hour."

To augment the low wages, farmers supply their field workers with free housing and, usually, a bonus at harvest's end. The county provides free medical care and transportation to and from its clinics. Those who are content to take the jobs cite those benefits and the dignity of the work. On the farm of Philip A. Schmitt, a dozen Mexican men labor on their knees, cutting fresh spinach. The smell of eggs and rice wafts out from the barracks, a clean, freshly painted cement house where the men live two to a room. Salsa music plays from somewhere. Out in the fields, near the road, Juan Rubio, 31, is picking. The boss is a decent man, Rubio said. Workers are given coffee and doughnuts at break time. And there is always Sunday off. He is not treated like a cheap tool made in Mexico. "I make $5.15, which is not as much as some other jobs," he said. "But this one is steady, every week. And when I get sick, the doctor comes. And the rent is free. "America," he adds, "is a decent place." But there are inescapable indignities.

From up the road, a pickup truck barrels past. Two young white men are inside, baseball caps pulled down over their eyebrows. One sticks his head out the window and yells. "Qué pasa, frijoles!"