community organizing

Bangladeshi New Yorkers Form Their First Tenant Union

A member of the new Bangladeshi Tenant Union is part of a movement to harassment, as well as language barriers.
A member of the new Bangladeshi Tenant Union is part of a movement to harassment, as well as language barriers. Photo: Christine Chung/THE CITY

Sign up for “THE CITY Scoop,” our daily newsletter where we send you stories like this first thing in the morning.

Queens renters have launched the city’s first Bangladeshi tenant union, prompted by what they describe as a need for greater language access and a united front against landlord harassment.

The tenant union, which is being guided by Chhaya, a Queens-based social services organization that advocates for South Asians, currently counts roughly 30 members across five buildings in Queens.

Some of the residents say they’ve experienced woes including harassment of rent-stabilized tenants, inconsistent heat and hot water, and exorbitant broker’s fees.

Organizers said the union would promote better awareness of tenants’ rights and guidance for the Bangladeshi community, one of the largest Asian groups in the city. According to a 2013 report from the Asian American Federation, more than half of the city’s 48,000-strong Bangladeshi community resides in Queens.

“The unity is strength. To protect our rights, to keep the landlords from wrong practices, we have to be united,” said Mirbahar Hossain, a 51-year-old Jamaica resident and tenant leader. “A lot of people like me, they have language barriers. That’s why they cannot move. They are scared to go to the courts, they are afraid to talk the landlord.”

‘Well-Educated Soldiers’

The union is intended to cultivate leaders and foster partnerships across buildings, and eventually boroughs.

Members will act as “well-educated soldiers on the ground” to support the Bangladeshi community, translate and spread renters’ rights information — and ultimately push the city and state on issues like language access, said Rima Begum, a Chhaya organizer.

If and when tenants do manage to file a 311 complaint, the city’s inspectors do not speak the language, Begum said.

Bangladeshi residents of this Jamaica building have formed a tenant union.
Bangladeshi residents of this Jamaica building have formed a tenant union. Photo: Christine Chung/THE CITY

Multiple tenant leaders told THE CITY that a lack of government literature in Bengali presents a formidable challenge for many Bangladeshis.

The state Division of Housing and Community Renewal website has limited material on renting available in languages other than English, with the fewest amount of documents translated into Bengali. The agency’s “language accessibility” page doesn’t even mention Bengali — or Hindi or Arabic.

“As part of the recently enacted Housing Stability and Tenant Protection Act of 2019, our agency is working diligently to ensure all necessary resources are available to assist New Yorkers with Limited English Proficiency,” a HCR spokesperson said.

The state Office of Rent Administration is reviewing and updating documents as needed to comply with the new rent laws, the spokesperson added.

Malika Cooper, a senior organizer at the Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development, called tenant unions a “really powerful space for tenants to come together and really build their collective power.”

She said that language access issues put immigrants at greater risk of landlord exploitation.

Landlord Being Sued

Three of the five buildings currently represented by the new Bangladeshi Tenant Union are owned by Zara Realty, a Jamaica-based landlord with about 40 rent-stabilized buildings in the area.

The company is currently being sued by state Attorney General Letitia James for allegedly harassing tenants and violating rent stabilization laws. The suit, filed in March 2019, contends Zara Realty used tactics such as coercion to sign leases and charged illegal fees — such as $200 for a pair of apartment keys.

A flyer at a building in Jamaica, Queens advertises the Bangladeshi Tenant Union, on Oct 4., 2019
A flyer at a building in Jamaica, Queens advertises the Bangladeshi Tenant Union, on Oct 4., 2019 Photo: Christine Chung/THE CITY

A spokesperson for the AG’s office said the lawsuit is still in progress.

Jason Fink, a spokesperson for Zara Realty defended the company, calling it a family-run firm founded by immigrants that creates “quality affordable housing that forms the backbone of our neighborhoods.

“We pride ourselves on being responsive to our tenants and in fact, our properties are within or below the citywide average rate of turnover for rent regulated apartments,” Fink said. “We invite any organization that is genuinely interested in advocating for tenants to work with us as we continue to improve the quality of life for thousands of Queens residents.”

A Bangladeshi tenant leader who lives in one of Zara’s properties in Jamaica told THE CITY she had to learn how to fight for her housing rights the hard way.

She said she’s experienced many difficulties over the two decades she’s lived in her apartment, from getting basic repairs addressed to even obtaining a signed copy of her lease. She said that the building’s management forces tenants to attend meetings solo, barring family or friends from entering the room.

“They are very tricky,” said the woman who didn’t want her name published because she is in a legal fight with her landlord. “They try to create fear in you.”

Now she hopes to be a part of a coalition against landlord intimidation, noting that some tenants are not aware “they have the opportunity to fight back.”

“We can guide each other,” she added. “We can hold each other’s hands.”

Want to republish this story? See our republication guidelines.