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Housing Court case offers a glimpse into displacement transforming Chinatown

YenChi Chen with his customer Barry Lei at Chen’s hair salon, A Salon, in Chinatown.
YenChi Chen with his customer Barry Lei at Chen’s hair salon, A Salon, in Chinatown.(Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff)

YenChi Chen sat nervously in the back of the Boston courtroom, his arms spread across his lap, unable to understand what the judge and the lawyers were saying – and not quite sure why he had to be there at all.

The 56-year-old, who speaks no English, was in Housing Court Thursday morning fighting eviction from the Chinatown storefront where he has run his hair salon, A Salon, over the last seven years.

The backdrop of the hearing was a larger concern for Chen and his supporters, one that has taken hold in neighborhoods across the city and has crept into Chinatown in recent years: that new landlords are looking to displace Chen and others for higher rents and profits amid a wave of gentrification.

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The hearing Thursday provided a glimpse of an argument that plays out again and again in court hearings and lease negotiations.

“Since they’ve bought the building, they’ve been trying to force me out,” Chen said afterward through a Chinese interpreter, pointing to the residential tenants who already have been forced from the row house on Tyler Street over the last year.

He added, “This is the first time they’ve brought me to court . . . but they’ve been looking for loopholes for a long time.”

Halying Ji, of Weston, who bought the property with her husband in 2017 for $3 million (it was last sold in 2005 for $900,000), denied that they were targeting Chen to make a profit. She said in an interview that they were strictly looking to enforce a clause in his lease that requires him to provide documentation of his insurance coverage.

The exterior of the A Salon in Chinatown.
The exterior of the A Salon in Chinatown.(Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff)

As a result of his failure, she contended, he has defaulted, needs to leave immediately, and owes the $68,000 due for the remainder of the lease, through 2022.

Ji acknowledged that they have sought to renegotiate the terms of Chen’s lease, which he signed with the previous owner, and increase the rent from $1,700 a month to $3,600, saying the increase in revenue would be “desirable” to help pay off tax increases. But she said the proposed rent increase was unrelated to the eviction proceedings at play in Housing Court Thursday.

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“Liability insurance, it’s very important for the landlord,” said Ji, who called herself and her husband, an optometrist, small-business owners who know what it’s like to have to pay rent and bills. She said the insurance would cover the property owners from any accident involving the two dozen people who go into the salon each day.

“I think we’re a very reasonable landlord,” she said.

The displacement of residents and small-business owners has been a constant concern among city officials and housing advocates who have proposed reforms and protections for renters. But renters have been unable able to fight off the wave of gentrification caused in large part by buyers’ speculation of the real estate market – or the belief that they can profit from Boston’s housing boom. (The real estate listing for 106 Tyler St. in 2016 suggested the property could be a “good rental income investment property. Rent could be higher.”)

The number of displacements and evictions occurring at any given time across the city can be difficult to track. The only way to count them is by the cases that end up in Housing Court, and that only happens when a renter is willing and able to challenge a case. More often, they go unnoticed.

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Mayor Martin J. Walsh’s administration has proposed its own changes to state laws that would allow the city to protect elderly residents from rent increases and would allow the city to collect more from developers who build in Boston. Sheila A. Dillon, the city’s chief of housing, said efforts to protect from displacement should equally apply to small businesses.

“There’s a lot of conversation internally about how we can create and maintain affordable commercial space in our neighborhoods,” she said.

YenChi Chen with customer Barry Lei at A Salon in Chinatown.
YenChi Chen with customer Barry Lei at A Salon in Chinatown.(Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff)

Dillon said she could not comment on Thursday’s court hearing, though she said the administration has reached out to Ji offering support to help the landlord and tenant reach a compromise.

She also stressed the importance of preserving the culture of Chinatown, home to many low-income residents who have supported local businesses over the years. A city survey last year showed that Chinatown storefronts had a 1 percent vacancy rate, an indication that the ingrained businesses were surviving, even as the neighborhood was seeing an influx of new residents.

“It’s very important to this administration that Chinatown remain Chinatown, that we keep the businesses that are so important to Chinatown, that service the Chinatown community,” Dillon said.

Karen Chen, of the Chinese Progressive Association, a neighborhood advocacy group, said that effort is growing more difficult, as new residents transform the neighborhood, and as landlords have moved to capitalize on that transformation.

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That includes the increasing use of apartments for short-term rentals through services such as Airbnb.

“This kind of land speculation really hurts a neighborhood,” said Chen, who had attended Thursday’s hearing to support YenChi Chen, the salon owner.

At the hearing, Boston Municipal Court Judge Robert McKenna Jr. refused to grant Chen’s motion to dismiss the case, allowing the eviction proceedings to go to trial on Feb. 14. Chen contends that he has had insurance under the same policy dating back to 2017, and that he has a certificate from his insurer showing there was no lapse in coverage.

Chen’s lawyer, Frank A. Flynn, of Boston, argued that Ji’s lawyers only initiated the eviction proceedings in the fall of 2018 when they knew his client was visiting China and could not immediately produce the insurance certification. Even when he produced the certificate, he said, they refused to yield, what he called their “stubbornness.”

Flynn argued that Ji’s demands that Chen pay up $68,000 and vacate the property immediately show the new landlords are simply looking to displace him for higher rents.

“My client pays the rent, has been paying the rent the entire time,” Flynn said. “This should never have been filed in the first place.”


Milton J. Valencia can be reached at MValencia@globe.com.