Center for Asian American Studies
Center for Asian American Studies

Housing Crackdown Hits Indian Immigrants

Thu, August 16, 2007

Two of his three roommates chatted behind Mr. Dass on the porch, waiting to sit down to a dinner of chicken biryani, followed by a nighttime trip to Atlantic City.

The men — all Indian immigrants here on worker visas without their families — rent rooms month to month in this white, four-bedroom Cape Cod, where the kitchen shelves are stocked with food in bulk and the walls are decorated with reminders of home. “That’s Kerala,” said Mr. Dass, pointing to a silkscreen of a village fishing scene from his home state. “They call it God’s own country because it’s so beautiful.”

There have been up to six men sharing the house, whose owners include Suresh Kumar, president of NexAge Technologies USA, a nearby software company where the tenants work. But the unusual arrangement — and the unsightly lawn — caught the attention of local housing inspectors, and in May Woodbridge Township cited Mr. Kumar for several violations, including an unauthorized boarding house and an illegal multifamily dwelling. He has until Aug. 16 to resolve the situation, which may mean kicking his workers out.

Mr. Kumar’s were among more than 300 notices of violation that the authorities handed out from January through May to homeowners in the 10 communities that make up Woodbridge Township, part of a stepped-up inspection effort the mayor announced last year. Additional inspectors were hired and given computers for quicker access to housing records. A hot line was set up for anonymous complaints. (Officials said they did not keep records of how many citations they gave last year.)

But in a twist to the familiar tales of suburban authorities breaking up illegally subdivided homes crowded with Hispanic day laborers, the mayor’s crackdown here has hit another group of immigrants: middle-class Indians who rent rooms or parts of rooms to Indian students, technology workers and others seeking a first foothold in this country.

Homeowners with South Asian surnames have received nearly a quarter of the violations, according to records provided by the township; the 2000 census showed Indians made up about 9 percent of the population, and their numbers have almost certainly grown since.

Officials say many of their investigations begin with complaints from neighbors or contractors. The inspectors have found small houses overcrowded with people who are not related to one another, but have also questioned an extended family of seven and a couple who split their house with another family.

In another case, a house with five renters, including a few students, was cleared out by the owner after the township sent him a violation letter. A family of eight has moved in, three more people than were there before.

“You buy a house and you’re a family, you expect families to live around you,” explained John E. McCormac, the mayor of Woodbridge, a central New Jersey township of nearly 100,000 residents. “We’re a community of single-family residential streets. We should stay that way.”

Mr. McCormac said that housing inspectors were not singling out any ethnic group and that none of the inspections had prompted arrests by federal immigration authorities or the police, as they have in places with many day laborers. Indian-American community leaders said they had good relations with the mayor, and there has been no suggestion that the residents of these houses are here illegally.

But the mayor’s rationale for the crackdown — to clean up potentially dangerous living situations, like a house in Iselin found to have as many as 10 people living in a basement, and another house that was used as an unlicensed day care center — is similar to those cited by leaders in heavily Hispanic areas.

Sharmila Rudrappa, a sociology professor at the University of Texas at Austin and the author of “Ethnic Routes to Becoming American: Indian Immigrants and the Cultures of Citizenship,” said it was common for Indian families to live in joint households both in their homeland and in the United States.

“My father’s brother is married to my mother’s sister,” she said. “The two families had five kids between them. We lived together for a few years, and it was kind of a wonderful way to grow up.”

The joint family arrangements have become harder to maintain in crowded Indian cities, but in American homes the practice is alive and well.

“It’s a way to ease immigration,” Professor Rudrappa said. “You help family out. Family members coming from India might not know how to drive, and grocery stores can be unnerving.”

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