Census Workers Unable to Access 'Housing Underworld,' Some Say

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Mayor Bloomberg joined with other elected officials to announce the city's challenge to the census count

As the city plans to challenge what it says are low census numbers by showing that many of the thousands of vacancies – namely in Brooklyn and Queens – were in fact occupied homes, some residents in those areas spoke of an impenetrable "housing underworld" that census workers could not reach.

Officials appeared blind sided last month when Census 2010 figures placed the city’s population at 8.175 million rather than the 8.4 million count consistent with earlier estimates, which puts millions of dollars in federal funding for New York City at risk. Senator Chuck Schumer called the figure "baffling" and Mayor Michael Bloomberg said it "doesn't make sense at all."

Through the bureau's Count Question Resolution process, Bloomberg plans to challenge the census data, and a number of housing advocates and community groups -- some of which stand to lose funding from a low census count -- seem to think workers were unable to reach some residents.

Standing on 74th Street, in the heart of Queens’ Little India, Afreen Alam took note of the crowds in Jackson Heights -- bigger, she said, than anything she observed 20 years ago, when she moved to the neighborhood.

"We saw three buses pass and every bus had people standing," said Alam, who works at Chhaya Community Development Corporation, which caters mostly to South Asians in the neighborhood. "And they're going into the neighborhood where it's purely residential, not commercial. So people are getting on here, going home, standing-room only buses and the subways are just as crowded."

Census workers, said Alam, were incapable of penetrating the "housing underworld."

"People who double up, people who are afraid to talk because of the documentation status or even social stigma, even if you are,  documented but you can't afford to live in an apartment by yourself, you have three other families living with you," she said.

"I think census failed to capture that hidden population," she said. "Unfortunately they will remain hidden."

The Bloomberg administration's challenge is to show that the Census Bureau missed people and marked those apartments as vacant.

According to the census bureau, the number of vacancies in the Little India census tract went up by 114 percent, and 221 percent in the adjacent tract, near the BQE.

The census bureau said in time it will examine the various allegations of undercounts from across the country.

Tony Farthing, the head of the bureau's New York office, defended the process and said a year ago the census bureau had a great working relationship with city officials. He said there were 30,000 census workers across the five boroughs, and 12,000 partner groups.

"At least in my eyes -- and this is my third census here -- we had the strongest core of people that we've ever had to do a census here in New York," Farthing said.

Farthing said a home wasn't declared vacant until census workers had made as many as six visits and then consulted with the building super, the managing agent or neighbors.

"We're relentless on this," he said. "We're trying to determine if someone lives in an apartment, for example. We're going to try, if we have the opportunity, we try above, whoever lives above, we try who lives below, we try who lives on either side of the unit.”

Even with the increased vacancies, census figures still show that New York has a tight housing market. The vacancy rate in that Jackson Heights census tract may have doubled, but only 3.6 percent of its housing is empty -- not necessarily something that would be visible to the naked eye. Farthing also points out that a major recession just took place, and that many New Yorkers may have up and left town.

Some of them may have decamped to the suburbs. Megan Tennermann, the demographic analyst for Orange County, said her county grew by 30,000 people, nine percent over its 2000 count.

"I believe that between five and ten thousand of those people are transplants from New York City," she said.

Although some city officials have said census workers got lazy last year -- or were involved in an "operational breakdown" in the words of city planner Joe Salvo -- some community leaders say otherwise.

"I think they really made a serious, all-out effort," said Paul J.Q. Lee, a Mott Street resident and president of the Chinatown Civic Association. "They did a number of activities, they had groupings, a lot of Chinese press was involved. They did a full-court press and I was personally satisfied with it."

Lee's problem wasn't with the effort of census workers, but with the bureau's ability to win the trust of immigrants. Despite all the assurances given to immigrants in the community, he said many of them remained suspicious and weren't willing to come forward.

"People didn't believe they had the protections," said Lee. "We went in there, [said] they couldn't be deported, caught, their information was secure. Just couldn't persuade 'em. That's my feeling, that's why the count wasn't that good."

According to Glenn Magpantay, an attorney with the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, immigrants refused to come forward due to fears stemming from post-9/11 legislation.

"We sought, more than a year ago, assurances from the attorney general, that census information would be kept confidential even in light of the US Patriot Act," said Magpantay. "We never got a response to that. We got a letter from the attorney general saying he doesn't think so. That's not the same as a legal opinion."

But census officials note that once the city submits its Count Question Resolution application, they won't be sending census takers into those neighborhoods again. They will instead rely on existing census records, as well as materials submitted by the city.
But if past results are any indication, the city is in for a tough fight. After the last census, in 2000, Count Question Resolution resulted in a net addition of just 2700 people -- and that's for the entire country.