Three years ago, a private developer’s planned expansion of the aging brick row house at 9 Johnny Court galvanized Chinatown — old and young, longtime residents and newcomers, rich and poor — and served as a rallying call to preserve remnants of the neighborhood’s cultural fabric.
But since then, despite promises from city officials to protect the affordability and character of Chinatown’s row houses, not much has changed. A neighbor successfully challenged the development in court. And yet the developer is barreling ahead, asking an appeals court to allow his project to continue.
The Johnny Court row house is just one dwelling among a sea of apartment buildings in the densely populated neighborhood. But if officials can’t save that dwelling and others like it, community members fear Boston could lose “the heart and soul of the city,” where Asian immigrants and Asian Americans have settled through multiple generations, crafted an irreplaceable cultural scene, and kept the economic engine of the city humming through even COVID-19′s darkest days.
“We need our elected leaders to take a strong stance,” said Karen Chen, executive director of the Chinese Progressive Association, a grass-roots advocacy organization for Boston’s Chinese community. “When elected leaders say, ‘We need Chinatown to stay Chinatown,’ that’s really important.”
Community members also wonder if the lack of progress toward protecting and preserving buildings that represent the neighborhood’s essence is part of a historical disinvestment in communities like Chinatown, where low-income, working-class immigrants constitute the majority. Low-income and modest housing, like the row houses on Johnny Court, are what allowed immigrants to stay there and thrive.
“There’s always a question of what communities hold power, and whether or not low-income immigrant neighborhoods like Chinatown hold power in the same way that corporations do,” said Bethany Li, legal director of the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund and the lawyer representing Wendy and John Lee, the developer’s abutters who initially challenged the project in court.
Sheila Dillon, Boston’s chief of housing, assured the city “is working hard to make sure Chinatown remains a neighborhood.”
The work has seen successes, she said. Last month, the Boston Planning and Development Agency approved a proposal for 110 income-restricted units there, as well as a Chinatown public library branch. And last year, the city helped fund the Asian Community Development Corporation’s purchase of a privately owned building to preserve it as affordable housing.
The work to protect the historic row houses has several challenges, though, Dillon said. The city has tried to help nonprofits buy properties and keep them out of developers’ hands, but it’s tough and expensive to compete in Chinatown’s real estate market. Regardless, “we’ve made the determination that the investment is worthwhile,” she said.
The ongoing battle to protect 9 Johnny Court specifically has been years in the making. In 2019, the developer, Tao Cai, received approval from the Zoning Board of Appeal to add two stories on top of the existing row house. The Lees successfully sued over concerns that the construction would damage their home, which shares a fire escape, sewage system, and backyard with the site. Cai appealed the decision shortly after.
Last month, lawyers for both parties argued over the legality of the ruling in an appeals court hearing.
Lane Goldberg, the developer’s lawyer, said in an interview that Cai isn’t barred from building more units under the specific code at issue, “and no questions should be asked,” he said.
“The [city zoning] code doesn’t speak to those effects [the Lees] are concerned about,” Goldberg said.
He declined to comment on the broader issues of displacement and gentrification that opponents attach to the development, which will be priced at market rates that the low-income residents in the neighborhood now cannot afford.
Since Cai purchased the property in 2016, 9 Johnny Court has remained unoccupied. Graffiti mars one side, and its front door is open, revealing a dark void. A metal gate and lock bar entry, but neighbors allege squatters and rodents have come and gone.
Supporters of the Lee family’s efforts to challenge the development say they worry about the fate of a once close-knit Chinatown, as projects like 9 Johnny Court continue to displace immigrant communities.
Their worries are backed by data. Though income-restricted housing made up half of Chinatown’s housing stock in 2021 (Boston’s second highest percentage behind Roxbury), community advocates say the current supply of affordable housing still doesn’t meet the demand; 55 percent of households in the neighborhood made less than $35,000 a year between 2013 and 2017, according to census data analyzed in the 2020 Chinatown Master Plan.
As of Jan. 7, the average rent price for a one-bedroom apartment in Boston’s Chinatown/Leather District was $3,775, according to real estate website Zumper.
And meanwhile, between 2010 and 2019, far more new housing units were built at market rate than with deed restrictions — at a 9 to 1 ratio, according to data from the Chinatown Land Trust.
Meiqun Huang, 46, lived in one of the row houses on Johnny Court from 2008 until 2017. But in 2017, her landlord sold the building to an owner who converted it into an Airbnb rental, she explained in Cantonese with English interpretation from Yu Sin Mok, a senior paralegal at Greater Boston Legal Services.
As a one-parent working family, “it was really, really challenging” to find a new place, said Huang, who now lives in Charlestown with her two children.
Huang said she remembers forming meaningful friendships with neighbors, who shared a mutual lingual and cultural understanding.
“When new immigrants come here and need to familiarize themselves with a new life here outside of Chinatown, it’s really hard for working-class families to find that same sense of community,” Huang said.
But if redevelopment continues — which has already caused Asian population in Chinatown and downtown to drop from 57 to 45 percent between 2001 and 2017, according to census data — Huang fears “the whole landscape would change.”
Since the late 1800s, Chinatown has been home to Chinese immigrant communities, but before then it was home to Syrian, Lebanese, Chinese, and many European immigrant communities too, said Lydia Lowe, director of the Chinatown Community Land Trust.
Lowe said Chinatown deserves the same protection from development that other neighborhoods such as Back Bay and the South End receive. That’s why Lowe and Chinatown advocates are pressing the city to establish a row house protection area, which would safeguard the row houses’ architectural integrity with smaller-scale zoning requirements.
The threat of redevelopment to Chinatown’s historic row houses prompted city officials to include this area in an upcoming downtown planning process that will propose ways to protect and revitalize the district.
In 2019, at the onset of the controversy about the 9 Johnny Court development, City Councilors Michael Flaherty and Ed Flynn said they’d proposed designating Chinatown as an Interim Planning Overlay District to give temporary protections to the historic row houses. Yet it’s unclear whether the city will adopt such a district in its ongoing downtown planning process.
Chen, of the Chinese Progressive Association, said she has a story of displacement for every corridor in Chinatown and feels that advocates are always making the same request of city leaders.
Still, she remains hopeful that someone will address the row houses on Johnny Court.
“Sometimes fighting the same battles over and over again … will help change the game,” she said.
Tiana Woodard is a Report for America corps member covering Black neighborhoods. She can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her @tianarochon. Katie Mogg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on twitter @j0urnalistkatie