New York’s Nooks Are a Challenge to Census Takers
One River Place blends easily into the dense forest of Manhattan skyscrapers, its vanity address camouflaging its precise location. Still, even in New York City, a 40-story tower containing 900 apartments should be difficult to miss.
But the Census Bureau did.
The apartment building at 500 12th Avenue, between 41st and 42nd Streets, was one of the first residential developments on the western fringes of Hell’s Kitchen when it opened in 2000. It was so far west, in fact, that it never showed up on the residential property map the bureau prepared for the 2010 census.
New York City planners discovered the oversight and alerted the bureau. Likewise, the city told the bureau about two nearby 60-story buildings with a total of 1,400 apartments that opened last spring after the bureau had finished compiling addresses for this census.
As the federal Census Bureau starts its most ambitious effort ever to count the country, no other city presents a bigger challenge than New York, with its huge immigrant population crammed into easily missed and often illegal nooks and crannies.
In all, the city has provided Census officials the addresses of at least 127,000 apartments or homes — nearly 4 percent of all the housing in the city — that the bureau did not have. Most of the addresses are in one-, two- and three-family homes that had been subdivided, legally and illegally.
A decade ago, 55 percent of the census forms in New York were sent back, compared with the national rate of 67 percent. In some city neighborhoods, the response rate was less than 40 percent.
“As a place of unparalleled population diversity and an eclectic mix of housing types, New York City has always been hard to count,” said Joseph J. Salvo, director of the population division of New York’s Department of City Planning. “This is especially true in the last decade, when the city experienced voluminous housing growth.”
The 2010 count of New York has not officially begun, but city demographers have already discovered about 300,000 people, including the tenants of those three Manhattan buildings, whom the bureau might have missed because it did not have their addresses.
They have also highlighted neighborhoods — including Washington Heights in Manhattan, Astoria in Queens and Bay Ridge in Brooklyn — where roughly 600,000 immigrants who arrived over the last decade have settled and how to find them.
Dozens of city workers have fanned out across the city, tallying mailboxes and doorbells on hundreds of homes where multiple families might be living or where tenants might be squirreled away in illegally converted attics and basements. The Census Bureau needs to “see behind the door,” Dr. Salvo said.
The decennial census is about a lot more than counting heads. The count is vital in reapportioning Congressional and state legislative districts, and in the distribution of billions of dollars in federal aid. This year, everyone will get the same form with just 10 questions, including the names and the number of household residents, their age, sex and race and if they are of Hispanic origin.
The questionnaires will be mailed to more than three million New York households in about two weeks and are due back by April 1. Filling out such a short form and returning it in a prepaid envelope might seem simple enough (and takes less time, the bureau says, than hard-boiling an egg).
But mindful of the obstacles, the Census Bureau and New York City officials have embarked on an unprecedented cooperative campaign to increase compliance.
The bureau’s New York regional office has hired 70 workers to reach out to ethnic groups, clergy members and civic groups to help promote the count. It has rolled out a media blitz that includes billboards and vans that have traveled throughout the city. And the bureau is coordinating closely with Dr. Salvo and Stacey Cumberbatch, who is the city’s full-time census coordinator.
Beginning in late March, the Census Bureau will provide Ms. Cumberbatch with real-time questionnaire return rates by neighborhood so she can dispatch follow-up teams.
“It is essential that New York City receive an accurate census count, because the census is statistical reality — a reality that will define us for the next 10 years,” Dr. Salvo said. “If you’re missed in the census enumeration, it’s like you don’t exist.”
The city and the Census Bureau hope to avoid a repeat of the 1990 census, when the city challenged the count and the bureau acknowledged that it had missed more than 240,000 New Yorkers.
Because the bureau relies, in part, on the previous census in compiling its list of residential addresses, its records are often outdated. In some cases, people are living at street addresses, like Riverside Boulevard in Manhattan over former railyards in the West 60s and 70s, that did not even exist in 2000.
This time the bureau is aiming for a questionnaire return rate in New York of 70 percent.
“There are some census tracts that could easily meet that, like the Upper East Side, where there are homeowners, English speakers,” said Lester A. Farthing, the bureau’s New York regional director. “Our biggest challenge is working on tracts where the mail response was low. You need to saturate New York to get the word out.”
The bureau will open sites throughout the city to help people fill out the questionnaires and to provide forms in various languages — the mailed forms are in English or, in predominantly Hispanic neighborhoods, in English and Spanish. One key message: None of the information is shared with any other government agencies.
“Our greatest challenge is trying to convince the majority of the foreign-born population that the census is safe, that you’re not going to be hurt or harmed,” Mr. Farthing said.
The bureau is concentrating on neighborhoods that are considered hard to count because residents are disproportionately poor, unemployed, live in apartment buildings, have no telephones, have moved there recently or are single parents.
People who do not respond to the survey will get a follow-up form, and if they ignore that, they will get a visit from an enumerator or census taker; 40,000 were hired in New York in 2000.
“If you’re worried about someone coming to your door,” Mr. Farthing said, “the answer is, mail it back.”
The City Planning Department has been so aggressive in pursuing people the census might miss that demographers have dubbed it “the Salvo effect.” Acting as human bloodhounds, 60 agency workers have spent part of the past three years combing through records and conducting on-site inspections.
“It’s amazing how many cable TV lines go into a house where one family supposedly lives,” Dr. Salvo said.
In 2000, the city’s population officially topped eight million for the first time, thanks largely to the Salvo effect. In 2008, the population stood at 8,363,710, according to the bureau’s annual American Community Survey. Dr. Salvo expects the 2010 census to record 8.4 million residents.
To find overlooked New Yorkers, researchers even considered using water bills to estimate how many times toilets were flushed and gauge population based on average human needs. But, Dr. Salvo said, “That is too unreliable, from an empirical standpoint.”