Chinatown’s housing crisis

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Luxury developments and influx of new money create hardships for longtime and elderly residents


  • An outdoor mobile projection created by Chinatown Art Brigade, an artists and activists collective. Photo: Claire Wang

  • Gentrification, ultimately, is a seismic socioeconomic phenomenon that might be slowed but not stopped, a Chinatown civil rights advocate says. Photo: Lily Haight

When Xing Zhao Ye, 87, first arrived in Manhattan’s Chinatown from Fuzhou as a seamstress in 1981, the neighborhood was a mecca for migrant hustlers: a factory-laden place where garment workers, cigar rollers and laundry cleaners came together to stitch the Chinese chapter in the city’s history. In the ensuing four decades, she has never ventured out of the neighborhood, stepped on a subway, or learned how to converse in English. “There was no need” to assimilate, she said in Cantonese, her mother tongue. Swarming with low-wage laborers from Fuzhou and Hong Kong, Chinatown in the 80s could easily have been mistaken for any southern district in mainland China.

Chinatown is no longer so friendly and accessible to low-income immigrants, even those who have lived in the neighborhood for generations. An eviction notice last fall and the subsequent court summons in January left Ye blindsided and helpless. Once a month in court, accompanied by only a cane and a translator, she has begged the judge to keep her in her Grand Street home, and to explain why a forced eviction is even legal if she could afford rent. “I don’t know how to live anywhere else,” she said. “Please help me find a place to live.”

For almost a decade now, Chinatown has been engulfed in an affordable housing crisis. To accommodate ever-increasing demand for housing at every income level, a storm of luxury development has washed onto every neighborhood in Manhattan. Skyrocketing rents in the East Village and in Chelsea have driven swaths of middle-class people into Chinatown, the longtime refuge for low-income immigrant families. Residents in Chinatown and the Lower East Side reported a median household income of $42,102 in 2015, almost $20,000 lower than the citywide average, according to Data USA.

Scraping by on an annual retirement income of $19,000, Ye cannot afford to spend more than $566 on rent each month — the amount she pays for a cubicle-sized bedroom. Sensing the growing appeal of Chinatown to the middle-class cohort — gallery owners, college students, budding business professionals — Ye’s landlord, David An, wants to renovate the formerly low-income unit and market it as a luxury complex to a much wealthier demographic. Noisy and distracting remodeling work is already underway, often seeping through plaster walls to drag Ye out of naps. Three Chinese families have caved to the landlord’s relentless demands for eviction and found dwelling elsewhere. After a nine-year tenure in the 4-unit complex, Ye is now its lone tenant.

Terrified to lose her home, Ye has been seeking legal and emotional counsel from Asian American for Equality (AAFE), a nonprofit organization that defends the housing rights of low-income residents in Chinatown. Donna Chiu, the director of housing and community services, estimates that more than two-thirds of AAFE’s clients are financially strapped seniors like Ye.

The sad truth about Ye’s case is that it isn’t winnable. AAFE could not find her pro bono representation because the building is market-rate, meaning that the owner has the legal authority to evict tenants at any time, Chiu said. Ye’s only viable strategy in court is to stall for more time to find new living quarters, a notoriously difficult endeavor for someone of her age and financial status given the dearth of affordable housing options in Chinatown. “The reality is that few landlords want to rent to the elderly or the disabled because they’re more prone to injuries and other liabilities,” Chiu said.

Inadequate progress on affordable housing preservation is not due to a lack of effort from residents and advocates. In 2015, Chinatown Working Group (CWP) crafted a comprehensive rezoning and affordability plan that would have protected the entire district from real estate development, setting height restrictions on luxury condos, preserving land for low-income housing and enforcing stricter anti-harassment laws directed at landlords. After garnering the support of scores of activists and tenants, the plan was struck down by the Department of City Planning, which called the proposal too expansive.

District 1 Councilwoman Margaret Chin supported an alternative plan that would cover only the historic parts of Chinatown, essentially giving landlords license to displace low-income families in all unprotected areas. But carving up the neighborhood into protected and unprotected parcels risks exacerbating racial and economic tensions, said Irene Shen, an organizer at People First NYC. Chin’s rejection of CWP’s 2015 proposal and support for the 2008 East Village rezoning plan — a sweeping measure that shielded a young, white, middle-class populace from displacement while neglecting low-income minority groups in Chinatown and the Lower East Side — have inspired aggressive calls for her resignation. “We’ve seen this time and time again,” Shen said. “Politicians come up with all these racist rezoning agendas that look fair but actually pits minority groups against one another.”

Whereas affordable housing and tenant-rights activists were primarily dealing with city and state politicians during the Obama years, they’ve already begun preparing for the ramifications of President Donald Trump’s signature proposals, the most alarming being his stance toward illegal immigration.

“Fear around immigration have definitely played into people’s fear around organizing,” said Melanie Wang, an organizer from Chinatown Tenants Union (CTU), a housing rights group that serves dozens of undocumented immigrants. In response to Trump’s promise to ramp up deportations, a move that has unnerved many of her clients, Wang and other CTU organizers established monthly meetings to answer legal questions and encourage tenants to form a structured coalition to directly negotiate with landlords. Just before Trump’s inauguration in January, CTU hosted a training session for its undocumented members to prepare them for surprise visits from ICE.

Already, though, Trump’s domestic policies have stretched far beyond deportations. His March proposal to slash $6 billion from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, Wang said, will translate to “hundreds of millions in cuts” to New York’s housing initiatives — to the city’s Housing Authority, to Section 8 waivers, to funding for land preservation projects. The Rent Guidelines Board, a nine-member panel comprised of tenant and landlord advocates, dealt another blow to affordable housing activists by moving to increase one-year leases in rent-stabilized apartments by up to 1.25 percent for one-year leases, and 2 percent for two-year leases. “With cuts to funding and a rent increase,” Wang said, “I really don’t see how our folks can find a way to pay for housing.”

The move to “self-advocacy and civic engagement” is also one of AAFE’s main objectives, Chiu said. Many of AAFE’s clients need assistance filing complaints, communicating with landlords and navigating legal notices. In fact, 71 percent of seniors in Chinatown have limited English proficiency, according to a Census document compiled by the Asian American Federation of New York. Because they’re “culturally and linguistically isolated,” Chiu said, senior citizens might unintentionally violate terms on their lease, fail to meet inspection standards, or misread court dates — all of which could easily get them evicted.

Gentrification, ultimately, is a seismic socioeconomic phenomenon that might be slowed but not stopped, Chiu said. Even with more generous tenant-protection laws and more ambitious rezoning policies, America’s most iconic Chinatown will continue to lose the attributes that made it a wondrous time capsule of New York’s immigrant history — family-run restaurants, senior community centers, former peddlers and cigar men and seamstresses who once led fulfilling lives knowing just a few words in English.

More damaging than the loss of a shared culture and identity, though, is the loss of influence and the breakup of a formidable political coalition. While its Asian population has remained stagnant, Chinatown’s white population has risen by 19 percent since the turn of the century, according to Census data from 2010. Chinese immigrants, old and new, are migrating in droves to outer boroughs; the unofficial Chinatowns in Sunset Park and Flushing now boast larger Chinese populations than the official one in Manhattan. Still, it may take years for the Chinese diaspora in Brooklyn and Queens to amass the power and status they’ve enjoyed in the Manhattan enclave since the mid-18th century. Bensonhurst, a bustling Brooklyn neighborhood with a burgeoning working-class Chinese population, is still an Italian stronghold unlikely to share center stage their East Asian neighbors anytime soon.

“Chinatown used to be a place where Chinese people could consolidate their political power–a place where we could vote for someone who stood for our interests,” Chiu said. “It’s sad that we will never have this power again.”

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