Feeling the squeeze in New England’s last old Chinatown
Gloria Chin climbs up a tight stairwell inside of 49 Beach St., a Chinatown apartment building with stained white walls, narrow hallways, and pink doors leading to 40 units crowded with families. The most vibrant pink door in the building — freshly painted — is hers.
Chin, 24, stops to point out the new sprinkler pipes, a costly repair made after they froze and burst in the winter. The building has new pipes, sprinklers, and a $44,000 fire alarm system. “The money has to come from somewhere,” she says. “Boston is really cracking down on building regulations.”
In the last three years, the Chins spent at least $260,000 on 49 Beach. “We’re put at a crossroad with our tenants because, out of necessity, we need to raise the rent,” says Gloria’s sister, Emily. “I’m battling with this — this is a neighborhood I’ve called home for so long.”
The costs of code compliance and routine maintenance don’t raise public ire like skyrocketing rents that push out longtime residents. Yet in Boston’s Chinatown — and other swiftly gentrifying neighborhoods across the country — it is one of the root causes of displacement. Of course, there are greedy landlords, too, and some who defer upkeep to make a buck, but there are also plenty of honest landlords who have little choice but to pass along their increased costs to tenants.
Chinatowns nationwide are depopulating rapidly — at least depopulating of many of the residents who have long called them home. In Boston — home to one of the country’s oldest such ethnic enclaves — Chinatown’s Asian population fell from 70 percent in 1990 to 46 percent in 2010, according to a report from the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund. In Manhattan’s Chinatown, there was a 9 percent decrease in the Asian population between 2000 and 2010. In Washington, D.C., the number of Chinese-Americans decreased from 3,000 in 1970 to 300 in 2008.
The changes in these neighborhoods have been long in coming. Urban renewal in Boston from the 1950s to 1970s destroyed more than half of Chinatown’s land supply and a third of its housing, according to a joint report by the Chinese Progressive Association and Tuft University’s Department of Housing and Environmental Policy Planning. Today, luxury developments and expensive repairs made to the downtown neighborhood’s existing housing stock have rendered much of it unaffordable.
“You can say we’ve been unsuccessful in fighting,” says Karen Chen, director of the Chinese Progressive Association. “The ironic thing is that, 150 years ago, Chinatown started because of exclusion acts and discriminatory policy. People moved here because they didn’t have a choice.”
Even in cities where the percentage of Asians living in Chinatown is not dramatically declining, luxury housing is still gentrifying neighborhoods. In Philadelphia’s Chinatown, family households decreased from 61 percent in 1990 to 46 percent in 2010, according to the AALDEF. Meanwhile, the white population doubled — likely because of the neighborhood’s growth in luxury housing, which also caters to a wealthy Asian-American clientele.
Gloria Chin grew up behind the counter of Boston’s Chinese restaurants and took over the family businesses after her mother’s death in 2014. In addition to the apartment building, she also owns three restaurants — Bubor Cha Cha, Double Chin, and Bao Bao Bakery.
“We want to keep the families and the older generations in Chinatown and not have to force them to the ’burbs,” she says.
Last January, more than a dozen residents living at 49 Beach signed a petition protesting a 4 percent increase in rent — around $60 to $100 more a month, depending on the apartment. Though housing activist Chen acknowledges that the rent increases were reasonable, she says that reasonable is often out of reach for Chinese families. Boston’s Department of Neighborhood Development reported that residents earn an average income of $14,000 a year.
But landlords are on a budget, too. In 2014, the city of Boston enacted mandatory apartment sanitary code inspections — a push to keep up the existing housing stock. At the time, the Small Property Owner’s Association warned that the new regulations would further gentrify lower-income neighborhoods by ringing up additional bills on top of hefty maintenance costs.
“We argued that if you’re going to do rental inspections, don’t bother with the cracks and the minor cosmetic, nonserious defects that don’t affect health or safety,” says Skip Schloming, SPOA’s founder. “But the city didn’t go along with that.”
Crammed inside a stuffy apartment on the third floor of 49 Beach, three mothers and one elderly woman rock babies on their knees and wipe sweat from their foreheads. Eight people live there — including five adults who split the rent. Their possessions fill every spare nook — umbrellas hang from the staircase rail, while toys and diapers and 24-packs of bottled water are stacked underneath the steps. The stairs themselves lead to a loft, filled with electric fans, storage boxes, suitcases, playthings — and a bed, too. The ceiling is so low that one has to crawl or bend 90 degrees to move around.
“We can’t even afford having one less person pay the rent,” says 53-year-old Mok Yingsin, through an interpreter. “The burden on each person is huge.”
Working as restaurant dishwashers and custodians, the family pays $1,735 a month and was among those who confronted the Chins’ rent increase last January, when they were asked to pay an additional $70 per month. A compromise cut the increase in half, but Pang Yanyan, a 28-year-old tenant, says that they are looking for another place nonetheless. “There’s a lot of people living in this house, and it’s really packed,” she says, through an interpreter. “If we find a place that’s more suitable, we’ll move. It would be better for the kids.”
Although the Chins are trying, gentrification is more powerful than any one landlord’s decisions. Greater Boston will need as many as 350,000 new units by 2040 to stabilize the market, according to political economist Barry Bluestone, who says more housing capacity is “the only true answer.”
“The government should come up with a program to acquire more land or more buildings and convert it into affordable housing,” says Jason Pan, founder of the Boston Asian Landlord Association. “Business people are not interested in investing money with low returns, and every landlord buys properties for investment.”
Chin agrees. “What’s the incentive to keep rents affordable right now other than being a good person?” she says. “Landlords shouldn’t be doing this out of goodheartedness.”
Owned by the Chin family for more than 50 years, the Beach Street apartment is torn between two possible clienteles — the wealthy and the working class. “At some point, we just need to renovate the apartments and start charging others — whoever is willing to pay,” Chin says. “That is not something I really want to do. If I’m a building owner that can provide for the community — the original community — I’d rather do that.”
Tenants occasionally visit Chin in tears and ask for extensions on their rent, which she usually allows. Once, a resident invited her into a unit, and Chin saw that it was empty — without furniture and with hardly any food. A mother lives there with her children and battles to pay rent each month.
“It’s scary because there’s nothing I can do about this,” Chin says. “I have no choice but to be a part of it.”
Kelly Kasulis is the deputy digital editor at The GroundTruth Project.
Correction: Due to a reporting error, an earlier version of this story misstated the estimated number of housing units needed in Boston.