Undocumented Immigrants Displaced By Fire Are Banned From Receiving Housing Assistance

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Between 100 and 150 tenants of 518 W. 139th St. in Manhattan have been left to their own devices after a fire ravaged their apartment building in July.

Unlike the other 50 residents of the building, this particular group of tenants, undocumented immigrants from the Dominican Republic, Mexico, and Ecuador, are ineligible for emergency housing assistance from the city.

Because they are undocumented, the tenants’ names cannot appear on leases and thus unofficially live at the address. Therefore, they cannot receive aid from the Department of Housing Preservation’s Intake Relocation Program that would have provided them with emergency housing, according to a spokesman for New York State Sen. Adriano Espaillat, who represents the district that includes the damaged building. They also cannot stay in facilities provided by the Department of Homeless Services, where the other legal tenants are eligible to stay.

The undocumented residents received temporary assistance from the Red Cross but need more long-term support as they look for new housing. Many are currently living with relatives or renting rooms elsewhere.

There are other channels for gaining support, but Espaillat said that for the undocumented tenants, their immigration status “makes them fearful of even seeking help.”

“If we had an immigration reform, they would be legalized and would not have to be boarding at other person’s home,” Espaillat told the New York Daily News.

Undocumented immigrants faced similar difficulties in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, as their immigration status made them unable to seek FEMA aid for fear of deportation. They also sought aid from the city — immigrant advocacy groups attempted to lobby city officials to set aside funding to assist undocumented immigrants affected by the storm, but to no avail.

Even without the burden of a natural disaster, being undocumented provides numerous challenges in finding permanent housing. Undocumented immigrants in New York are ineligible for public housing from the New York City Housing Authority because the application process “requires all tenants to verify citizenship or immigration status.”

In addition, the competition in urban housing markets makes it exceedingly difficult for undocumented immigrants to secure housing. Sellers, who have many potential tenants, often turn away undocumented applicants. As a result, many undocumented immigrants are forced to find unconventional means of housing.

As Justin Skinner, a staff attorney with immigration advocacy group International Institute of the Bay Area in San Francisco, told the Huffington Post, “undocumented immigrants often end up in informal housing arrangements. A lot of times the only things they’re able to rent are single rooms inside of a house or a sublet from someone who doesn’t care about documentation.” These subletting options are temporary, which means that undocumented immigrants are forced to move frequently, he noted.

Marina Fang is an intern for ThinkProgress.