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NEWS TO US: DEFENDING BOSTON’S RAPIDLY SHRINKING CHINATOWN

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Photo via cpasf.org

Residents of Chinatown are screwed. They have been for years.

But while a downtown development boom is shrinking Chinatown and pushing out low-income folks, they’re not going down silently. Last Saturday, the Chinese Progressive Association (CPA) and the Chinatown Resident Association marched throughout their sacred slice of downtown, airing grievances aloud. Days before that, the groups held a joint summit so residents could share stories of their hardships. The family of Yan Fang Liang, for example, is facing eviction from their $800 a month apartment so that landlords can renovate and hike the rent to $3,000.

Mayor Marty Walsh attended last week’s meeting along with Sheila Dillon, his head of the Department of Neighborhood Development, and Alejandra St. Guillen, a community advocate with the Latino-focused group Oiste and the interim head of the Mayor’s Office of New Bostonians. In their turn, the new administration delegates pledged to find ways to redirect funds developers now pay to avoid having to include low-income housing in their upscale buildings. The mayor also pledged to re-examine the 2010 Chinatown Master Plan, a guide that set certain zoning limits around neighborhood growth.

“We’re going to dust it off and see what we can make happen,” said Walsh.

A current city ordinance mandates that developers set aside roughly 13 percent of their proposed units for affordable housing, and presumably for individuals of low to moderate income. If Walsh does get around to “dusting off” the old plans, he’s likely to see that while affordable opportunities were promised, most were brushed off through convenient donations to the city’s Inclusionary Development Fund. Such a move allows builders to skirt the required 13 percent minimum, and instead pay $200,000 per unit into a fund–even though typical cost estimates for actually building those units is closer to $360,000, according to CPA organizer Karen Chen. In other words: by linking into the inclusionary fund, developers can build their own market-rate or luxury projects while giving lip service to those clamoring for affordable resources.

To ostensibly correct any oversights, the Boston Redevelopment Authority has helped guide major subsidized housing projects in Chinatown, some of which have now been underway for years. There’s the Hong Lok House expansion on Essex Street, which added 74 units for seniors, and the Oxford Ping On, which is set to include 48 units of housing. Both were born from deals that allowed developers to offset requirements for nearby luxury additions at 120 Kingston Street and One Greenway, the latter a 312-unit apartment building with 95 affordable units. One Greenway is slated to include a second building with 50 subsidized condominiums, but developers have yet to secure financing for the annex.

After more than a decade of seemingly nonstop high-end development, luxury units in Chinatown now outnumber low-income ones by a count of 1,683 to 1,654. The luxury to low-income ratio is expected to shift dramatically soon, though, with nearly 1,500 additional luxury units already either approved or in construction, according to the CPA.

As with most public or affordable housing, financing often comes from the federal, state, and local levels along with whatever cash-flow developers will dedicate. But relying on so many different sources of revenue means wheels turn slower, if at all, for the kind of housing that’s most needed. Low-income additions are coming to Chinatown, but the question is, “When?”  Right now, those dreams are being outpaced by swanky, high-end pads, and by greedy landlords booting tenants via rent hikes.

Li Jun Liu is facing such a situation. After living happily in her Oak Street apartment for eight years, her new landlord (as of 2013) chose to cash-in on the boom, and is evicting tenants so apartments can be renovated and re-rented at substantially higher rates. The threat of eviction has since forced Liu down the same path as other residents who have found it too expensive to remain in one of the few parts of Boston with decent employment opportunities and goods and services catered for individuals who primarily speak Chinese. “I really would love to continue to live in Chinatown,” Liu told the mayor.

On the campaign trail, then-state Rep. Walsh pledged to go beyond inclusionary requirements for housing projects and to urge developers to build stand-alone affordable housing throughout the city. Although there are less costly places to do that outside the downtown perimeter, residents still need access to important outlets like English classes and essential social services that are mostly available in and around Chinatown. Much of the native work force, for one, rides early-morning work vans to restaurants out in the suburbs. If they’re made to move into other areas, they’ll have to commute into Chinatown just to catch wheels to their places of employment.

Temporarily, Walsh said his transition committee on housing is preparing a report that will emphasize the needs of Chinatown. If the resulting analysis resembles what local groups like the CPA have said for years, the new mayor will see a clear scenario in which long-time residents are lost at sea, with hungry developers chomping at the last remaining scraps of their community’s existence.

In the meantime, neighborhood housing activists will keep protesting, like they did on Saturday by picketing Millennium Place, for which a $5.9 million payment to the Inclusionary Development Fund was avoided. Needless to say, as the weather warms up, you can expect a lot more protest activity.

Henry Yee of the Chinatown Resident Association, speaking through a translator, set the expectation. “We hope that this year of the horse,” he said, “will bring many victories.”

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