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Uncertainty for displaced Chinatown tenants

Code violations in Chinatown building

Walking through the dilapidated hallways of 25 Harrison Ave., a five-story apartment building in the heart of Chinatown, Boston Fire Department spokesman Steve MacDonald made note of the dwelling’s problems.

Residents on each floor shared a single toilet. The kitchens, also one per floor, had no ovens and no refrigerators. Electrical closets doubled as storage space. Emergency exits were inaccessible.

But those were not the reasons the building was evacuated, MacDonald said: Structural beams are missing from the building’s basement, meaning that it could collapse at any time.

“You can see why we’re concerned,’’ said MacDonald, as he ducked through the building’s main entryway. “How can we in good conscience let people back into conditions like this?’’


That assessment has left between 40 and 50 tenants, who were evacuated from the building Wednesday, scrambling to find a place to stay, while they wait to learn whether their landlord will make the required repairs and bring the building up to code. Most are Chinese immigrants who speak little or no English, with few other options for housing.

Whether the residents will be able to move back in will depend on the landlord’s response, said Fire Commissioner Roderick Fraser.

“We have multiple fire and building code violations in this building that we feel make it unsafe for people to live in the building at this time,’’ Fraser said. “It’s incumbent upon the building owner to make repairs and make the building safe before people can come back in.’’

Firefighters first entered the building Wednesday afternoon in response to a false alarm. After noticing the missing support beams, they evacuated all the apartments. The landlord paid to house residents in a hotel on Wednesday night.

The shabby white building has five stories. The bottom two floors are mostly empty, save for rat traps, and the top three floors each have 11 one-room units. Residents said they pay between $550 and $650 per month for a room.


Lisa Timberlake, spokeswoman for Boston’s Inspectional Services Department, said she was not aware of any previous inspection violations for the building.

The landlord will be cited for letting the certificate of inspections expire, though she said she did not know how long it had been lapsed. Before the building can be opened back up to residents, the landlord will have to apply for a new certificate of inspections and a new rooming house license.

Yesterday, about 30 tenants lined up outside the building, where yellow “hazardous materials’’ tape cordoned off the sidewalk. They waited for police to allow them to retrieve belongings. Firefighters had already posted a red sign with a white “X,’’ indicating that the building is vacant and should not be entered in case of fire.

Near the end of the queue, Jade Huang, 31, waited with her mother-in-law, who lives in the building.

“This place is just so bad,’’ Huang said. “These people, they need another place to live.’’

She recited a list of problems with the building: No functioning heat or air-conditioning. Poor ventilation, which causes the rooms and hallways to smell. Vermin. Too few bathrooms for the residents.

But the building was one of a few places to find affordable apartments in Chinatown, she said. Most residents cannot move out of the neighborhood because they do not speak English and work in nearby restaurants.


“No one wants to live in a bad place, a dangerous place,’’ Huang said. “They want to get proper housing.’’

Tannu Qint, who has lived in the building for six years, said she has often been awakened in the middle of the night by bugs nibbling at the tips of her fingers. She has seen dozens of mice scurry in and out of her room.

In a meeting yesterday which was closed to reporters, officials from Inspectional Services, the Fire Department, and Pine Street Inn homeless shelter met with the tenants and a lawyer representing the building’s landlord. The Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association of New England agreed to house displaced residents for four nights, Huang said.

The building’s landlord could not be reached yesterday, though Fraser said officials from the Fire Department had been in contact with the landlord’s attorney.

A woman who answered the phone number listed on a V & E Realty ‘For Rent’ sign on the building’s facade said she did not know anything about a property at 25 Harrison Ave.

Martine Powers can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @martinepowers.