The last shreds of Boston’s historically awful Combat Zone can still be seen on the streets of Chinatown. From strip clubs and porno shops on the western fringe, to the scratch ticket junkie gatherings on the east flank, the small neighborhood is home to a population that is largely Chinese, immigrant, and poor. Those who do not work at local restaurants ride one of the many work vans that cruise through the neighborhood each morning, picking up workers for restaurants in Quincy, Malden, and other suburbs.
Those workers need homes. But it’s unlikely they’ll be able to afford what’s being built.
Between The Kensington to the west, the Millennium Tower and 120 Kensington Street on the north, and the Ink Block from the south, Chinatown is being enclosed by top-dollar real estate that offers no place for low-wage workers.
A magnet for Chinese immigrants for decades, the neighborhood has served its own residents and the greater Boston Chinese population at large with educational services, restaurant jobs, and a community for a group that might otherwise be cloistered by language and poverty barriers.
“Chinatown has always been the center of the Chinese population in Massachusetts,” said Tunney Lee, a former MIT professor who grew up in the neighborhood and has worked for the City of Boston as an urban planner.
“If you don’t have continuous immigration, the neighborhood will fade away.”
Gentrification was kept at bay by the working class homogeneity of the population and the presence of the so-called “Combat Zone”—Boston’s former hub of prostitution and drug dealing—to the immediate north and west. With much of the serious crime wiped out, salivating, development greed heads began working their way toward the neighborhood.
The population of Chinatown grew dramatically between 2000 and 2010, according to the U.S. Census, jumping about 25 percent from 3,559 to 4,444 people. Asians still account for about for 77 percent of the total population in the neighborhood, but considering that almost two-thirds of Chinatown’s new residents over the last decade were white, who knows how long that will last.
“In the last 10 years, the face of Chinatown has changed dramatically, especially now with the rebound and recovery from recession,”
said Angie Liou, director of real estate at the Asian Community Development Corporation. “We’re seeing a lot of market rate and luxury housing.”
Construction of The Kensington and 120 Kingston Street are bringing a combined 635 units of the aforementioned market rate and luxury homes to Chinatown. Instead of including affordable-rate units onsite, as they are legally obligated to do, both developments have taken advantage of a city rule that allows developers to buy their way out of creating affordable housing by contributing to the Inclusionary Development program.
In the case of The Kensington, this means that the developer chipped in less than a fourth of the $33 million it will cost to complete the 75-unit Hong Lok House—a bargain when compared to the 52 affordable housing units the developers would have otherwise had to construct under the city’s mixed housing guidelines for new construction.
Similarly, the developers of 120 Kingston were able to avoid including onsite affordable units by funding the construction of the Oxford Ping On housing project, which will have 48 affordable units. The developers broke ground last fall.
“Something we ask ourselves is ‘Is there going to be a tipping point when one day Chinatown is just going to be a show?’” said Liou.
“Are people just going to come here for restaurants or food, but there will be no actual immigrants because they’ve all been priced out?”
On the other hand, Lee believes that there is a limit to how far gentrification is likely to go in the neighborhood.
“Chinatown is ugly and dirty,” he puts it. “It’s not very attractive to the gentrifiers.”
Comparatively, there are more appealing communities for high-end housing in the South End, Bay Village, and Downtown. But how long until development in those border neighborhoods close in on the working class heart of Chinatown?
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