family income

Nearly all storm’s basement deaths were Asian residents, obscured by climate injustice

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Hongsheng Leng used to sell his art in New York’s Times Square, where he would set up his works against the backdrop of neon lights and big-box stores. Some pieces he was proudest of were Chinese ink on rice paper — ones he’d name “Bamboo” and “Spring.” Leng, 82, also worked odd jobs under a visitor’s visa he was granted in 1995, when he immigrated to the U.S. from China. His friends once described him as “always optimistic.”

“He was very, very happy doing his artwork,” Norman Wong, Leng’s longtime friend and immigration lawyer said, adding that his work was driven by purpose. “It’s not like he was trying to make himself known or he thought he had any chance of success.”

His family joined him in the U.S. after he secured asylum and later a green card. Together with his wife, they cared for their daughter, who had autism and needed added home assistance. His earnings were barely enough to get by on, and as he got older, he had to slow down, and the family mostly relied on welfare. Once he retired with medical issues, he was largely confined to his home — a small, inexpensive basement apartment in Queens.

Stuck in a precarious financial situation, the family had no choice but to continue living there, his estate lawyer Jim Li said.

It was a plight that would prove fatal. After Hurricane Ida ripped through New York City, Leng was found dead in his flooded basement apartment at noon on Sept. 2. The bodies of his wife and daughter were discovered later that same day.

Nearly all of the 11 New York City basement-flooding deaths were residents of Asian descent who lived in below-ground dwellings that were particularly susceptible to storms. The victims included Leng; his wife, Aihua Shen, 65; and their daughter, Ling Leng, 31. They were in addition to: Darlene Lee, 48; Yue Lian Chen, 84; Lobsang Lama, 2, and his parents, Mingma Sherpa, 48, and Ang Sherpa, 50; and Tara Ramskriet, 43, and her son Nick Ramskriet, 22. One victim hasn’t been named.

“Realistically, a lot of these tenants would have family members, many who are clustered into very, very small rooms,” Lina Lee, a nonprofit executive, said. “When you have these natural disasters, there’s obviously going to be really a life-and-death situation.”

More than a month after the storm, communities and families are still reeling from the loss, which experts say was the result of a confluence of crises, including a lack of affordable housing, the pandemic and climate change — a hidden issue for many low-income Asian immigrants who are often forced by cultural needs, poverty and immigration status to live in unsafe conditions. In addition, many face language barriers and some of the highest rates of multigenerational living.

The average income in the Queens neighborhoods where victims died ranged from $39,763 to $50,952, and the median monthly rent for an apartment in the borough is $2,250.

People clear debris and damaged belongings from their homes, in Queens, N.Y., on Sept. 3.Mark Lennihan / AP file

“Realistically, a lot of these tenants would have family members, many who are clustered into very, very small rooms,” said Lina Lee, executive director of housing justice nonprofit organization Communities Resist. “When you have these natural disasters, there’s obviously going to be really a life-and-death situation, and when you have very limited or no access to leave your living space, these families really had no way out.”

According to the New York City Department of Buildings, five of the six properties where New Yorkers died in the flooding were illegally converted cellar and basement apartments. All six are undergoing active law enforcement investigations, including the one where the Leng family lived. The Department of Buildings received a complaint in 2007 that the property included an illegally converted apartment. Inspectors visited the property twice, but no one responded to knocks on the door, so the complaint was never investigated, according to the department’s records.

Many basements are “high-risk, dangerous” living situations in the city, Lee said. They often have low ceilings with exposed wiring and bathrooms that don’t function properly. When water floods into their space, the families often do not have a window or a direct exit from which they can flee. Lee said it’s easy to get trapped inside.

‘I couldn’t be there for her’

On Sept. 1, Darlene Lee, who lived on the sixth floor of her building, went downstairs to visit the superintendent’s cramped basement apartment. When it started to rain, water poured into the unit, crashing through a sliding glass door and pinning Lee to the metal frame of the entrance. Her screams caught the attention of two building maintenance workers, who rushed in to help. But she was stuck, and the water levels were rising.

Fighting to keep her head above water, the two men tried to free her by taking the door off its hinges, but they too struggled to stay afloat in the murky water. By the time she was freed around 10 p.m., it was too late. She was transferred to a nearby hospital, where she was pronounced dead.

Darlene Lee, 48, who died after Hurricane Ida brought heavy flooding to Queens, N.Y., on Sept. 1.Facebook

It was 1 a.m. when Dennis Hsu got a call from his sister saying Lee, his ex-wife and close friend, was at the hospital. Rain was beating down on already flooded streets, but Hsu rushed over. When he finally got there, he was asked to identify her body.

A month later, he said he can’t even bear to look at her photo — and he will always miss her.

Even after their split, she was there for him as a friend in his times of need. He described her as selfless, caring for everyone around her.

“I can’t accept mother nature had 100 percent fault in this,” Dennis Hsu, Darlene Lee’s friend and ex-husband, said.

“It’s one in a million that you find a person like her,” Hsu said. “I couldn’t be there for her.”

Others had no immediate family to turn to in the U.S. That was the case for Nepali immigrants Mingma Sherpa; her husband, Ang Lama; and their young son, Lobsang Lama, according to a GoFundMe created by their niece. Sherpa was also the sole provider for her mother in Nepal.

The role of landlords

City data shows that nearly a quarter of Asian American immigrants live in poverty, among the highest rates compared to other races. An estimated 13 percent of Asian American and Pacific Islander immigrants are undocumented, according to the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs, a share that experts have long said is likely an underestimate. The number of undocumented Asian immigrants has grown rapidly, tripling from 2000-2015, a 15-year period.

Close quarters where families pack tightly has made the impacts of Covid grave, and displacement by the flooding has only worsened its effects on the lower-income.

Johnson Ho’s basement in the days following the flood.Courtesy Johnson Ho

Given these vulnerabilities, many Asian immigrants resort to…

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