Iselin, NEW JERSEY: With the workweek behind him, Deepu Dass focused on a pesky bald spot in his front lawn here. As he sprayed the patch with water, urging the grass towards the perfection achieved by several neighbours, he said confidently: “I planted seeds.”
Two of his three roommates chatted behind Dass on the porch, waiting to sit down to a dinner of chicken biryani, followed by a night-time trip to Atlantic City. The men - all Indian immigrants here on work 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.
There have been up to six men sharing the house, whose owners include Suresh Kumar, president of NexAge Technologies USA, Inc., 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 Kumar for several violations, including an unauthorized boarding house and an illegal multifamily dwelling. He has until 16 August to resolve
the situation, which may mean kicking his workers out.
Tough regulations: Deepu Dass (above) lives in Iselin with three other Indians in a four-bedroom home that town officials consider an unauthorised boarding house.
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.
But in a twist to the familiar tales of suburban authorities breaking up illegally subdivided homes crowded with Hispanic day labourers, 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. Officials say many of their investigations begin with complaints from neighbours 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.”
McCormac said 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 labourers. 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, such as 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 centre - is similar to those cited by leaders in heavily Hispanic areas.
Sharmila Rudrappa, a sociology professor at the University of Texas at Austin, said it was common for Indian families to live in joint households both in their homeland and in the US.
“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,” Rudrappa said.
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,” Rudrappa said. “You help family out. Family members coming from India might not know how to drive, and grocery stores can be unnerving.”
The stepped-up inspections reveal the extent to which immigration is transforming suburban swaths such as Iselin, the source of almost a third of Woodbridge’s violations. Oak Tree Road, the congested artery that runs through Iselin’s downtown, is lined with Indian businesses, including supermarkets, bridal centres and jewellery shops.
Indian families started moving here in large numbers in the 1980s and early 1990s, and by the 2000 census, 17% of Iselin’s 16,700 residents identified themselves as Asian Indian.
Some moved for the affordable homes, to open businesses and for the convenience. Many have brought relatives, though the census data for the township indicates that the size of Indian households here is no larger than average.
Rakesh Patel, 34, a technology worker at a New York investment bank, said he had his three-bedroom, two-storeyed house built here seven years ago “for family and friends”. He and his wife, two children and his parents moved from a cramped apartment in Edison. Patel’s cousin’s sister has joined the household, and Patel’s sister and three family members may soon come to stay for a while. Other relatives often visit for months at a time.
“Why not?” asked Patel, noting that he also stayed with his uncle when he first came to the US from India in 1996. “I pay $9,000 (Rs3,64,500) a year in taxes.”
After an anonymous complaint, inspectors paid three separate visits to Patel’s home in May. Finally, inspectors determined that everyone living in the house belonged to one family, and found the property to be “in compliance”.
Kumar, the owner of the house where Dass lives, said he was unsure what he was supposed to do.