Anatomy of an Undercount

By , and    Published May 23, 2011

QUEENS – In the shadow of the Triborough Bridge, the 14 square blocks that make up Census Tract 83 compose a quaint picture of city life. Well-kept yards host garden gnomes and statues of the Virgin Mary. Dog walkers and joggers make their way up tree-lined streets to and from Astoria Park.

The neighborhood is quiet, but thriving – a working class enclave of longtime residents and young people just starting their careers.

But that’s not the picture you get from Tract 83’s latest census numbers.

According to the 2010 Census, this corner of Queens has one of the highest vacancy rates in New York City. Of nearly 1,300 homes listed in the tract, the census counted nearly one in five as empty – hundreds of vacant apartments that conjure an image normally associated with urban blight.

“I would be pretty shocked if that were true,” said Joe Maher, who has lived in the area for two years. “My building is full, and I see people out on the streets all the time here.”

Numbers Count

The discrepancy is at the heart of the city’s objections to the federal government’s count. It could mean the city losing out on federal and state money for programs like food stamps, housing, health care and hospitals. New York City has nearly 8.2 million people, according to the official count. That’s about 170,000 more people than 10 years ago. But it’s 200,000 less than the census bureau expected to find in a 2009 projection.

“It just doesn’t make any sense at all,” Mayor Bloomberg said at a March 24 press conference, after the results came out.

Census officials said the high vacancy rate is probably because they are trying to knock on doors at many addresses provided by the city that might not exist any more. If a basement apartment is no longer a separate address, it’s still counted as vacant, according to census spokesman Tony Farthing. In other words, the figures may not represent an undercount of how many people live in the neighborhood, but an overestimation of how many dwellings exist there.

“We’re not in the business of getting rid of addresses,” said Farthing. “Even if we can’t verify it, we take those addresses through to the next phases of the census, and hopefully we get a questionnaire back from these places down the road or get to us when we knock on the door. And what that means is sometimes these vacant addresses get carried over from operation to operation.”

Residents had their own explanations for why the numbers didn’t seem to add up. Some put the high vacancy rate down to a cultural resistance from recently arrived immigrant families. Others suggested that young professionals seeking cheap rents don’t spend much time at home and are not around to respond to census takers or forms. Still others blamed a flawed count by census employees.

Wisdom of the Crowd

Residents agreed on one thing: the neighborhood is not in decline.

“This neighborhood gets more and more crowded. People aren’t moving out,” said Aldy Pandat, who has been living in the tract for 11 years.

Mike Fluellen, who delivers mail to most of the homes in Tract 83, said his job would be a lot easier if there were not so many people living there.

“These are full,” said Fluellen, who said a 20 percent vacancy rate is laughable. “There aren’t any vacancies around here.”

To area resident Donna DiPaolo, the parking situation exposes the census figures as false.

“The neighborhood is packed,” said DiPaolo, 53, who has lived in her home on 18th Street for nearly 30 years. “Before, you could always find somewhere to park, but now there are never any spaces left. People are moving to our neighborhood, not away from it. “

Many of the newcomers are young professionals who spend more time working in Manhattan than they do sleeping in their Queens homes, DiPaolo said. She said the census takers came at the wrong time of day.

“They’ve probably just been out here a couple of times and often in the night,” she said. “At that time, people don’t want to answer their doors.”

Real estate developer Kevin Hernandez, who has lived in the neighborhood since 1993, said he’s building more homes to meet the demand of a rising population.

Hernandez’s company, Globe Development, finished work on a seven-unit apartment building at 26-07 18th Street in February. The building is in the heart of Tract 83.

“We had every unit rented in the first weekend we showed it,” Hernandez bragged. He said he and his crew are already at work on another residential building down the street.

Housing Issues

Farthing said northwest Queens is a particularly difficult area to count because of the number of small-property owners. Many addresses represent single-family homes that have been carved up into multiple family dwellings. Some of these addresses may represent so-called “mother-in-law” apartments that are no longer in use. Sometimes it’s difficult just to find a door, much less figure out who lives inside, he said. Many represent quasi-legal dwellings where Farthing said residents may be wary of opening their doors to strangers.

Farthing said the agency will field questions from elected officials over the summer and do their best to resolve the dispute over the accuracy of the count. But he stood behind the process so far.

“I’ve been doing this for three decades, and this was the best census I’ve ever taken. We’ve had more tools at our disposal to go out and do the most thorough of counts, meaning we went back and knocked on even more doors than we probably should have,” said Farthing. “The bigger issue is that we’re still at the mercy of the public. At the end of the day, when we can’t get anyone to respond to these, we can’t just guess or make up something.”

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