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A Failure to Communicate

If you’re reading this article, you probably have a decent command of English. But sooner or later, someone in your property won’t. That was apparently the case at the Seward Park Housing Corporation, a 1,728-unit, four-building co-op that got bad press when Rudd Realty, its management company, ordered all of its employees to speak only English in public spaces. A letter, sent by the manager to an employee who broke the rule, cited the policy – “You were instructed that all dialogue in public spaces was to be held in English” – and added: “After lengthy discussion, management recommends [that] you enroll yourself in ‘English as a second language’ classes as a condition of your employment.”

When it became public knowledge, the policy created controversy. “We’re being harassed,” an employee told the New York Post, who claimed that he had been threatened with firing after being caught speaking Spanish with a co-worker in a hallway. A former porter filed a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).

Justified policy or harassment? It depends.

During the last two decades of the twentieth century, immigration boosted New York City’s population, which had been in decline. Asians, Latin Americans, and Eastern Europeans were among the top groups that poured into the labor pool. Many of these newcomers took entry-level jobs as porters and janitors – and that created language hurdles.

“One of the primary problems is that you won’t have a good line of communication with a tenant-shareholder,” observes Dan Wurtzel, chief operating officer of Cooper Square Realty, which manages co-ops, condos, and rental properties. In the worst-case scenario, people can be endangered when they or their neighbors fail to grasp standard operating procedures. “When emergencies arise, do these people know to dial 911?” asks Wanla Cheng, president of Asia Link Consulting Group, a Manhattan-based multicultural market research and consulting firm.

Language issues are not new to multi-unit housing. In the decade after World War I, Finnish immigrants residing in heavily Scandinavian Sunset Park, Brooklyn, founded some of the city’s first cooperative buildings and conducted meetings in their native tongue, which is linguistically closer to Hungarian than to Swedish, Norwegian, or Danish. One co-op even split up over the issue of admitting Swedish-speaking people who were born in Finland. As overall Scandinavian influence in the area waned, the debate became moot.

In more recent times, what has changed is the belief that everyone must adopt English. No more. Nowadays, people expect to be accommodated. School-age children who were born overseas may be enrolled in bilingual classes; subway system changes are posted in several languages; and, depending on the neighborhood, ATMs may be conversant with Spanish, Russian, Greek, or Korean.

That might be why Rudd Realty got the bad press over its actions at Seward Park. Although Fred Rudd, president of the management firm, did not respond to calls for comment, Stanley Friedland, the co-op’s president (who also did not return calls), explained the board’s position to the New York Post in September: “The management sustained the right to have the workers speak English on the radio and in public places.” He also noted that the rule has “nothing to do” with discrimination and that the staff’s union, Local 32B-32J, had been notified of the policy months before.

Rudd isn’t the only company to announce an English-only policy. In January, Clarendon Management distributed a memo at London Terrace Gardens, a rental property, telling its staffers to speak English while engaged in building business. The notice said that failure to comply could result in disciplinary action, including termination. In reference to both sites, Matt Nerzig, spokesman for Local 32A-32J, says, “We find this approach outrageous. EEOC [Equal Employment Opportunity Commission] rules seem to be clear that a blanket, all-English, no-Spanish policy is unacceptable.”

Other managers avoid conflict – and negative publicity – by making ad hoc arrangements for linguistically challenged staffers. “Most of our staff can speak some English, but some have limited skills,” reports Joseph Bulfamante, director of management at Lawrence Properties, a residential management and brokerage company. “When more in-depth explanations are needed, we have folks who speak [their] languages and can interpret things.”

Boards may need to be equally flexible when dealing with tenant-shareholders who can’t function in English. “A co-op is not charged with the responsibility of making sure shareholders understand all the rules and regulations,” explains Manhattan real estate lawyer Douglas Wasser. “It’s the shareholder’s job to make sure he or she understands the rules by which they live.” Although the New York City Commission of Human Rights prohibits housing discrimination on the basis of certain categories, such as race, creed, color, nationality, or cultural identity, a person’s failure to comprehend English is not accorded this protection.

But, because a failure to understand English is a result of a person’s nationality, in practice, language-based decisions can be closely linked to most of those protected categories. “Try to convince a jury or adjudicator that your decision had nothing to do with race, nationality, or cultural identity,” notes Wasser. “As a practical matter, that becomes a tenuous position to defend.”

Greg Carlson, president of Carlson Realty and executive director of the Federation of New York Housing Cooperatives & Condominiums, points out that in federally subsidized housing projects, people with limited English proficiency are entitled to a wide range of support. Managers of these properties have to translate documents into foreign languages and provide interpreters for tenants during eviction proceedings. “The theory is, if the federal government is going in that direction, it’s only a matter of time before these rules trickle [down] into the private market,” he says.

Larger buildings and management firms can afford to put formal communication systems in place. “We manage some buildings in Chinatown with a very diverse ethnic mix,” reports Cooper Square’s Wurtzel. “If something important is going on, we’ll have memos issued in Chinese and circulated to people in the building.” Translations may be handled in-house or outsourced, depending on the situation. “For example, we have a few people in the office who speak Russian. We’re in the service business. If there are language barriers, it’s our job to overcome them.”

Indeed, failure to address those barriers may conceal other problems. When the 74-unit Greenhouse Condominium in Queens was about to lose water and utility service in 2002 for nonpayment of bills, many owners remained surprisingly passive. That’s because the majority were recent immigrants who couldn’t read building memos. After a few activists turned to their neighbors’ adult children to get those papers translated into several languages, people became much more animated. The board was ousted and a new multiethnic slate – including people from Korea, China, India, the Philippines, and Poland – was elected in its place.

Like the insurgents at Greenhouse, smaller buildings tend to rely on the time-honored American solution: involving the family’s kids. “That’s how immigrant populations get assimilated to the culture of the United States – through their children,” says Cynthia Featherson, director of Ivy Planning Group, a Rockville, Maryland, firm that specializes in diversity issues. But house meetings may run too late on school nights, or cover topics – like refinancing or tax abatement – that are beyond the grasp of the savviest teen.

For these reasons, it’s better to turn to experts outside the building. “For every community, there are nonprofit advocacy groups that support the assimilation of the group into mainstream society,” notes Featherson. Getting their input will make life easier for all shareholders, whatever their primary language.

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