Chhaya director moves on to Asian Pacific American post

After 14 years serving as the executive director of Jackson Heights-based Chhaya Community Development Corporation, Seema Agnani announced late last month that she would step down from her position to become the director of Policy and Civic Engagement for the National Coalition for Asian Pacific Americans Community Development Jan. 15.

Chhaya CDC is a community organization that, according to its mission statement, “works with New Yorkers of South Asian origin to advocate for and build economically stable, sustainable and thriving communities.” For Chhaya, this means career development, enfranchising of local voters, tenant advocacy and foreclosure prevention assistance.

“We are very proud that we have never denied services to any person walking through our doors,” Agnani said in a statement.

In accordance with a transition plan, current Chhaya Deputy Director Tenzing Chadotsang will step in as interim executive director Nov. 14, while Agnani will remain to consult in the search for a new director.

A Chicago native, Agnani spent the past 20 years in New York, moving here after graduate school to work on affordable housing issues. Her new position at CAPACD will take her to Washington, DC.

“I moved into this community a few years ago and that changed my perspective on Jackson Heights. This neighborhood is always evolving and it’s always been a gateway for new immigrants,” Agnani noted.

Jackson Heights was primarily Indian and Pakistani when Chhaya started, but recently Bangladeshi and Tibetan arrivals have changed the scope of the community in Jackson Heights. “It’s a real community,” said Agnani. “Even though it’s diverse, there is a lot of cross communication.”

Yet, affordability remains an issue in the area.

“The commercial and rental rates are too high,” Agnani noted. “Co-ops, which used to be an affordable source of ownership opportunities, are also rising…I do worry where people are going to live.” Agnani also pointed to the prevalence of sub-prime mortgages in the neighborhood, making Jackson Heights a neighborhood deeply affected by the mortgage crisis.

“If they can’t afford to live here, what does this mean for their daily lives and commute to the city?”

Although in the works for many years, Chhaya CDC and Agnani also recently formalized a coalition to improve the safety and legality of some basement apartments.

“The new administration [as well as the City Council] seems interested in moving this forward,” she said.

Among her accomplishments, Agnani noted Chhaya’s actions after 9/11, when the organization was still its nascent stage. This included responding to the backlash against South Asian communities, as well as discrimination in receiving assistance.

“We were able to bring the South Asian groups together to respond to what was going on,” she said.

Agnani went on to say that Chhaya was able to connect hundreds of cab drivers affected by the attacks to apply for FEMA and other government assistance.

Chhaya CDC currently is rolling out a women’s program to help the new arrivals build savings, assets and understand financial management. This includes basic principles of banking, such as contributing to a savings account that they would be able to use toward educational goals and financial stability, which in turn leads to stable communities.

A longer-term goal for Chhaya is to open a community center in Jackson Heights. “It would be a one-stop shop for the South Asian community to get services as well as a base for the community to come together,” Agnani said.

National CAPACD, the organization that Agnani will serve as policy director, is comprised of more than a hundred Asian American, Pacific Islander and Native Hawaiian community development organizations that focus on housing, workforce development, small business support and youth programs.

“My job will be to advocate for our communities and bring those community voices to the national level,” she said.

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