Outside of Brooklyn, Bushwick may be best known recently for a topless and twerking Miley Cyrus, but Alexander Wang after-parties aren’t the only gatherings in the newly chic neighborhood. On Thursday, a hundred-some residents crowded into the Menahan Avenue office of community-organizing group Make the Road to seek help with the housing pressures in New York’s fastest-gentrifying community.
One local, María de la Luz, has lived in her building for three years. She stays home to care for the two children of a working single father. Only, it’s not her name on the lease; it’s her husband’s ex-wife’s name and now the ex-wife wants to cash out with the landlord.
“She has all the power,” said María. “I pay my bills, but she has all the power.”
Unthinkable as the arrangement may be, it’s a common and necessary evil. María, like most others at the meeting, is an undocumented immigrant. Bushwick has not only New York’s fastest growing home prices, up 31.2% this year according to Zillow, but also its the second-highest concentration of unauthorized residents by city estimates. According to group organizer Gladys Puglla and UT Knoxville’s Stephanie Bohon, prices like these entice landlords to target and pressure out members of this uniquely vulnerable group.
The city’s half-million undocumented residents will be slightly less vulnerable come January, when the city’s new municipal ID cards come out. New York joined the small but growing list of cites offering these cards in July. They may only solve half of María’s problems though: she’d be able to prove her identity for a lease, but wouldn’t have the credit history needed to obtain one. Right now, “active conversations” between City Hall and major banks will determine if the new cards will give undocumented New Yorkers access to bank accounts and the benefits of building credit.
The cards must require enough documentation to satisfy fraud and terrorist-financing concerns, but not so much they become inaccessible to New Yorkers who are, in a word, undocumented. If negotiations lead banks to accept them as valid identification, one in sixteen New Yorkers will suddenly be a part of the financial system. “To put money in a bank and build credit opens up all sorts of doors. It’s not just housing,” according to Professor Bohon, who researches immigrant incorporation and adaptation.
Beyond leases and mortgages, unauthorized migrants’ lack of credit closes off any kind of loan, insurance, or aid from their family. “Imagine a child is born in the United States to unauthorized immigrant parents and they fill out a financial aid form for school,” posed Bohon. “This is a person who’s eligible for financial aid, but how do you establish your parents’ income? Chances are they’re paying into the tax system, but they’re never filing tax forms.”
Bushwick residents at Thursday’s meeting understand these limits well. “If they want a new car, if they want to buy a house, if they want to get loans for their children’s education, they have to use a friend with credit,” said Gladys Puglla.
Without banking, undocumented immigrants live an essentially cash existence. “You have a whole community of people who become targets for home invasions and muggings,” said Bohon. They transact in informal financial markets instead of more transparent formal ones.
According to Professor Louis de Koker of Australia’s Deakin University, an international advisor on financial inclusion, keeping people from banking also largely doesn’t stop fraud and terrorist-financing; it supports them by supporting the black market. Banks’ reluctance towards the IDs isn’t rooted in concerns over fraud, terrorism, or even poor profits, in de Koker’s view. “Having everyone in formal financial services is a social good, but the banks carry the risk if anything goes wrong.” Massive fines for money-laundering, like HSBC’s $1.9B fine, spooked New York banks.
To satisfy both needs, de Koker recommends regulators permit a ‘risk-based approach,’ where each consumer’s level of documentation and perceived risk grants them a different level of banking access.
As talks between regulators, banks, and City Hall continue, María and other undocumented Bushwick residents face tough odds. Thursday’s meeting was a litany of landlord woe and abuse, underscored with the knowledge that, with shelters full or inaccessible without ID, eviction often means homelessness.
Gladys closed the meeting with a bittersweet recent accolade. Vogue’s September issue had just ranked Bushwick the coolest neighborhood in America and seventh coolest in the world. “Well, at least we’re well-known!” she said with a laugh.