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Officials look to break the city’s language barrier

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Ramona Marina has had inspectors from the city Department of Housing and Preservation Development come to her home three times regarding needed repairs to her bathroom ceiling. Each time they came, Marina, a native Spanish speaker, could not communicate with them because the inspectors did not bring language cards to help in translating her complaints. “As a tenant in this city, I pay my taxes and rent on time, and I deserve to have services like any New Yorker,” said Marina, a Bushwick resident and member of Make the Road New York, a Brooklyn-based advocacy group that focuses on Hispanic immigrants, speaking in Spanish with a translator at a recent City Council hearing on the Equal Access to Housing Services Act. The act, introduced by Councilmember Rosie Mendez, is designed to require HPD to provide language assistance services such as interpreter services, the translation of documents, and bilingual housing inspectors. “It is a waste of money for city inspectors to come twice or three times to the same apartment,” said Gladys Puglla, a Bushwick resident and Make the Road New York member. “When an inspector comes multiple times, they only see what the problem is and the tenant is unable to explain why it happened.” According to HPD, about 13,000 out of 300,000 calls were made this past year to 311, the city’s information hotline. The vast majority of those 13,000 calls, just under 10,000, were in Spanish, followed by 1963 in Russian, 1084 in Mandarin, 778 in Cantonese, 247 in Polish, 119 in Korean, 69 in Bengali, and 59 in Haitian-Creole, representing the nine major language groups in the city. “What we’re seeing in the city is that immigrants do not know about 311 or HPD,” said Mendez. “The numbers of phone calls HPD receives do not reflect the hidden population of those who need translation services. My legislation addresses that issue.” Housing advocates, including Dagan Bayliss of the Sunset Park-based Neighbors Helping Neighbors, point to the uncomfortable position bilingual children of their Spanish or Chinese-speaking parents are put in when inspectors arrive to examine their home. “Frequently what happens is that the child ends up translating,” said Bayliss. “For a young child, it is completely age-inappropriate and puts the child in a high pressure situation that undermines the parent. Even if they have bilingual language skills, the child might not know the specific terminology of buildings or housing maintenance.” HPD Deputy Commissioner John Warren’s agency opposes the bill as it is currently written, pointing to excessive resources being devoted to translating documents of languages with few native-speakers and routing bilingual housing inspectors to houses with limited English speakers. 183 of the HPD’s 400 housing inspectors are fluent in more than one language and HPD requires all of its inspectors to attend training in basic Spanish vocabulary concerning housing terms. “We’re cognizant of the need to have bilingual inspectors and we have had programs to expand Mandarin translation, but we are never going to be in a position to match a bilingual staff with a client of limited English proficiency,” said Warren. At the core of the debate is the issue of funding for document translation and bilingual training programs. HPD concluded that the cost of the translation services proposed in Intro 596 were approximately $10.7 million, with $2.5 million in one time costs and $8.1 million in ongoing costs. The city’s Independent Budget Office estimates that the bill would cost approximately $7 million, a discrepancy that Warren attributes to a lower estimation of one-time start-up costs and lower estimations for hiring bilingual translators. Despite the budgetary discrepancies and other disagreements, the bill retains several co-sponsors in city council. Mendez is confident that the bill will pass this session. City Council will now vote on whether or not to fund the act’s programs. “The reason I am introducing this bill is that I don’t know how long Commissioner Shawn Donovan will be the head of HPD,” said Mendez. “It’s important to codify this legislation so we have a guideline for future commissioners to follow and this helps limited English speakers in this city.”

Updated 6:57 pm, October 10, 2011
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