One snowy winter day, after standing at his restaurant job washing dishes, Jinlong Chen came home to the apartment that he and his wife shared with several other families on Beach Street in Boston’s Chinatown. He opened the door to their room to find water and debris everywhere. Part of the ceiling had collapsed.
Chen notified his landlord. The landlord told him to move out. “Back then, I didn’t know my rights as a tenant,” Chen, 66, says in Mandarin through an interpreter. “I avoided that part of the ceiling. I moved the bed to the other side of the room.” A few months later, with the ceiling still gaping, Chen and his wife moved.
Landlords neglecting their buildings and harassing tenants in order to get them to leave have become a common story in Chinatowns across the country as these traditionally working-class immigrant neighborhoods become gentrified.
A study of the three largest Chinatowns on the East Coast — Boston, New York, and Philadelphia — by the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund found that Chinatowns are losing their Asian residents as the white population grows. Asians now account for less than half of the population in all three Chinatowns.
As those with more means move in, immigrant residents of Chinatowns increasingly squeeze into shared quarters, like Jinlong Chen and his housemates did.
In Boston, “there’s a lot of real estate speculation,” says Lydia Lowe, a Chinatown community leader for more than 30 years.
Boston’s Chinatown, located adjacent to the Financial District, has long been affected by development, Lowe says. During urban renewal in the 1950s and ’60s, an estimated 1,200 units of housing were demolished when two major highways, I-93 and the Massachusetts Turnpike, were routed through Chinatown, the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund study says.
Then, Tufts University and the New England Medical Center, now the Tufts Medical Center, took over one-third of Chinatown’s land area.
But the pace of development has exploded in recent years. “We’ve just seen luxury tower after luxury tower being built in the area and this has led to rapid gentrification,” Lowe says.
Lowe now serves as executive director of the Chinatown Community Land Trust, founded in 2015. In a community land trust model, the trust owns land and can deed-restrict the buildings on it to be permanently affordable.
The Chinatown Community Land Trust intended to do just that, but its attempts to buy properties have failed. “That’s not looking so good right now,” Lowe says. “Because of the market we’re not able to even get our hands on buying a smaller property.”
A dilapidated three-story row house that would have gone for about $800,000 two or three years ago is now selling for $2 million to $3 million, Lowe says.
So, the land trust looks for other ways to preserve affordable housing in Chinatown. One way is to advocate for stronger tenant protections and policies. Several Chinatown organizations — including the Chinatown Community Land Trust, Chinese Progressive Association, and the Asian Community Development Corp. — are part of the Welcome Home Coalition, which is calling for stricter regulation of Airbnbs to keep residents from being displaced.
The Chinatown organizations are also pushing for stronger enforcement of zoning. “We have zoning in theory, but many times large projects get a lot of variances and zoning relief,” says Angie Liou, executive director of the Asian Community Development Corp., which builds affordable housing.
The developments obtain variances for height, for example. “Comparing Chinatown to other more upscale neighborhoods, it makes me question whether developers in those neighborhoods would have dared to propose such a thing,” Liou says.
The community is also fighting to preserve existing affordable housing. One battle is taking place at Mass Pike Towers, a 200-unit low-income development. When developer Trinity Financial purchased the towers in 2000, it did so using public funding, including low-income housing tax credits, and agreed to give tenants and the city government an opportunity to purchase the property in 15 years.
In 2016, the city agreed to buy the property and turn it over to the tenants, who would finance the purchase. The tenants plan to convey the land to the Chinatown Community Land Trust.
But the tenants and Trinity have been locked in ongoing litigation over the purchase price of the building. The tenants offered $42 million. Trinity wants $61 million, citing a city-ordered independent appraisal. The tenants argue that the appraisal is based on rental income that was not weighed in the original agreement.
Bill Oranczak, president of the Mass Pike Towers Tenants Association, has lived in the complex since 2008 and says that Trinity previously proposed to build market-rate condos on Mass Pike Towers’ parking lot, a proposal that the tenants successfully fought.
“Every time I turn around, there’s a new set of cranes,” Oranczak says. “When we see what’s going on in Chinatown with all the development, it’s important for us to try to preserve some of the property and the land to slow down gentrification. That’s a big reason why we’re doing this.”
Serene Wong, who has lived in Mass Pike Towers since 1992, says she would like to see Chinatown remain a landing spot for working-class Chinese immigrants, as it’s been for more than 100 years.
“Chinatown used to be, for us, a stepping stone to adjust to the culture, to adjust between American and Chinese,” Wong says.
When Wong immigrated to America from Hong Kong in 1987, she didn’t speak much English. Living in Chinatown, where other people spoke Cantonese like her, eased her adjustment. She enrolled in a training program offered by a community organization. Today, she serves as vice president of the tenants association, and was one of its founders.
“We’re being eaten up little by little. Chinatown is getting very small,” Wong says.
The affordability subsidies for Mass Pike Towers don’t expire until 2070, so the tenants still have time. But for residents of the many row houses in Boston’s Chinatown, the situation is more precarious.
“After all these towers being built right now, the housing stock that is most at risk are the row houses,” says Karen Chen, executive director of Chinese Progressive Association.
Jinlong Chen (no relation) lives in one of those row house. After moving out of the apartment with the collapsed ceiling in 2011, he and his wife moved a few more times and eventually settled into an apartment with another couple. Living in Chinatown is important to him, he says, because he’s not proficient in English. When he leaves Chinatown, he gets lost.
But in 2016, the landlord said he wanted to renovate the building and served them an eviction notice. This time, Chen went to Chinese Progressive Association to ask for help.
Community organizers represented the couple at housing court and won a reprieve. They can stay in the building — at least for now. But Chen worries. The landlord recently raised the rent by $100. (Chen’s monthly income is about $1,000, and his portion of the rent is $650). Will the landlord try to kick them out again? Where would they go?
“My ideal is that there will be more elderly housing in Chinatown, so that the elderly like me, who’ve worked all my life, could move there and have affordable housing,” he says.