Inside the front door of Viktor Bash’s apartment at the Arlene and David Schlang Pavilion in Brownsville, Brooklyn, are two pages of detailed safety instructions to be used in the event of an emergency.
In the fifth-floor hall hangs a notice that a Dec. 4 tenants’ meeting has been canceled. The federally subsidized housing project’s management recently distributed detailed instructions about the city’s new recycling laws.
But those notices are virtually meaningless to Bash and his wife, Dina, because the elderly couple (born in Odessa, Ukraine) speak almost no English. Theirs is one of 23 units at the complex, run by Brookdale Hospital, that are rented to Russian-speaking immigrants.
That’s more than half the independent-living units at the 5-year-old complex with immaculate hallways and modern, generous-sized apartments, where monthly rent can be as low as $120, depending on income.
In all, there are 34 Russian-speaking tenants and one Russian-born patient in the assisted-living program at the pavilion on Rockaway Parkway.
Since the layoff of a Russian-speaking employee earlier this year, however, those residents say they face increased difficulty dealing with the building management, seeking repairs, providing necessary information about their income, participating in tenants’ meetings and in other daily situations.
"Last week there was no hot water in the bathroom," said Bash through a translator provided by The Jewish Week. "I complained, but it was off for three days because they didn’t understand or didn’t care."
Claiming the language barrier amounts to unequal access to services and programs for the residents, a public interest lawyer has filed complaints on behalf of 16 tenants with the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Office of Civil Rights at the federal Department of Health and Human Services, and the Department of Justice.
The lawyer, Rose Cuison-Villazor, is also preparing for a lawsuit against the hospital, if necessary.
"City and state laws hold that if a person of limited English proficiency does not have access to services provided at a place of public accommodation, it constitutes national-origin discrimination," said Cuison-Villazor of New York Lawyers for the Public Interest, a nonprofit group. "Every tenant has a right to attend meetings of the Tenants Association. But for the last six months these tenants have stopped going" because of the language barrier.
Calls to numerous officials at Brookdale Hospital were not returned as of Tuesday.
Cuison-Villazor said the only reply to her inquiries was a message from the hospital’s legal affairs office stating that a response to her complaint had been sent to the state’s Division of Human Rights, which investigates complaints on behalf of HUD.
The complaint was filed on behalf of Ida Vapne, 90, the only Russian-speaking patient in the Schlang Pavilion’s assisted living program. Vapne’s son, Genrikh, said he has already received word that the division recommended no action be taken in the matter.
Vapne, a native of St. Petersburg, said he has contacted numerous Jewish organizations that deal with emigres but none has taken an interest.
The pavilion currently has several security guards who speak Russian and an occasional volunteer translator. But residents say that’s not enough because no one is available full-time to deal with health emergencies and act as a permanent liaison.
One resident, Yakov Sokolov, said he moved from an apartment in Midwood to the pavilion because of an ad in a Russian paper that said a full-time translator would be available and that a large number of Russian-speaking residents would live there.
Bash said he was led to believe during the application process that 50 to 60 percent of the residents would be Russian-speaking Jews.
But Sokolov, who has lived in the building since 1998, said he has seen the number of immigrants from the former Soviet Union dwindle in recent years as vacancies occur, and that he feels increasingly isolated from the Russian-speaking community.
"Had I known it would be like this, I would rather pay $700 or $800 to stay in a Russian neighborhood," he told a translator.
The Bashes, who immigrated eight years ago, showed a visitor an official letter from the management they believe had been translated by a computer and made little sense to them.
Another letter, untranslated, informed them that they were under review for a rent increase and had to provide a list of documents before a deadline. If they did not meet the deadline, the rent would automatically increase.
In a thick blue folder, Bash presented papers that were translated to him in detail during the application process.
The Bashes, whose bookshelves were lined with medical dictionaries, grammar books and copies of Roget’s Thesaurus, have taken a basic English course to qualify for citizenship, which they have attained. But the course focused on helping them pass the citizenship exam, not on basic colloquial dialogue.
Vapne said he was told the Russian-speaking former employee, Ella Zaltsman, was fired for budgetary reasons.
But he said Zaltsman, who performed other administrative tasks in addition to translating, was replaced by an employee who did the same administrative work but does not speak Russian.
The Daily News on Sunday quoted hospital administrators as saying that Zaltsman was fired because she was functioning as a personal secretary to Vapne’s mother. Genrikh Vapne called that a "humiliating" explanation.
The director of the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty, which manages some 1,100 units of subsidized housing at a dozen facilities, said his organization routinely provides regular on-site translation services for a high concentration of Russian-speaking residents.
William Rapfogel said: "We make sure there is ample staff who understand Russian and can work to empower the tenants to play a role in our residences."