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Chinatown’s dilemma – the loss for affordable housing

The gateway to Chinatown – the dragon gate – is located on Broadway. The light on the gate turns on during nighttime, making Chinatown a seemingly sleepless and bustling town.

But people who really know Chinatown – aside from the tourist aspect – should look away from the dragon: on the dragon’s left is a luxury housing with a $2000 monthly rent, and on its right is affordable housing.

“On this side is what we don’t want, (on) that side is what we want,” said Craig Wong, a Chinatown resident.

The tension between these two types of buildings magnifies the loss of affordable housing in Chinatown, which comes as a result of the waves of gentrification that has been pouring in for about ten years.

“Landlords are realizing that they can make more money and they can push residents out,” said Tiffany Do, a member from Chinatown Community for Equitable Development (CCED), an organization builds grassroots power with low-income and immigrant. She said that on Cleveland Street, the landlord was able to pay and push out residents in four of the six units in the housing complex. Their home was turned into Airbnbs. Residents from the other two units stayed and fight for themselves after they are aware of their rights.

95% of housing in Chinatown is renter-occupied, CCED’s report shows. However, “there are not enough affordable housings being built to offset what people lost in the market,” Do said.

CCED has been tracking all the new developments and housing units in Chinatown for years. Their data collection shows that out of 42 new housing developments in Chinatown, only seven of them contains affordable housing.

“In Chinatown, there’s not a single ‘all-affordable’ housing development being built from my knowledge,” said Do, “most of what is being built is luxury market-rate housing and only a tiny, tiny, tiny percent of that is affordable housing.”

In 2014, Jia Apartments, the one on the left side of the dragon gate, opened with a price of $1,915 per month for a studio. Jia contains 280 luxury apartments and cost $93 million. It further accelerates the interest in market-rate development in Chinatown.

Similarly, Blossom Plaza, a 237-unit building with 18,500 square feet of commercial space opened in 2016. Studios start at $1,925 per month.

Properties in Chinatown built before 1978 are protected by the government under Rental Stabilization Ordinance, or RSO. For this type of housing, landlords are only allowed to raise the rent for three percent each year.

But landlord figured out another way to keep profiting. “What is happening is that landlords are pushing residents out of those buildings so that they can convert those that affordable housing essentially into luxury market-rate housing,” said Do.

Other types of housing in Chinatown is experiencing more vulnerability than RSO. For instance, tax credit housing, whose developers take money from the government to build affordable housing, has another dilemma: expiration. The government subsidized buildings often have a time limit of 15 to 30 years. After the expiration date, the rent control disappears and the landlord can raise the price to three times of the original.

The government subsidies for Hillside Villa, a tax credit building on the southwest of Chinatown, has expired last year. The landlord noticed all the residents that the rent is going up – a lot.

Shao Yao, a resident from Hillside Villa, organized the tenants to form an association to fight against the rent increase. She said the rent went from 70 percent to 300 percent higher than the current price. “We were able to have a meeting with the landlord last week, and hopefully we will keep fighting back,” she said.

“I remember when I was young, gentrification was only a concept that I read in the book,” Yao said, “and when I was witnessing the gentrification in Ktown and Little Tokyo, I never expected it to come to us that quickly.”

However, the rent increase is not a nightmare for everyone. There are always wealthy outsiders who would like to pay the high rent and take over the place — for example, the buyers of Chinatown galleries. Eastern Projects Gallery, a gallery near Blossom Plaza, pays $10,000 a month for rent.

Members from CCED found that there are more than 40 galleries in Chinatown, and nearly 20 of them gather together on Chung King Road. However, they never open. If you walk down the road, you will be disappointed by the iron gates and bars around each store. And there are no opening hours posted on the door. Each gallery was bought by rich artists who sleeps on the second floor at night and devote a whole year to their creations.

The desolateness of art galleries contrasts sharply with the noise in other parts of Chinatown. Only two stores here still open here. One of the owners is Alex Cheung, the only local resident left on the Chung King Road. He runs a shop called Alex Cheung Antique. But Cheung said that he decides to close the store and move back to home after the clearance sale. “They sold the shops to rich people who can pay higher rents,” said Cheung, “it used to be a warm community packed with people. Now it’s nothing. You don’t see people here. Time to go home.”

Chinatown is at a crossroad. But there are still hopes. With the help from community organizations like CCED, many tenants were able to delay the rent increase or received more compensation for eviction. Six years ago, when Walmart tried to move into Chinatown, the activists’ protest delayed Walmart’s plan. We see more and more scooters and Airbnbs in Chinatown, but we also see teenagers playing basketball while seniors playing Mahjong in the park.

Chinatown residents would argue that gentrification is not unstoppable. “I think both the landlord and the tenant can do something to push it back a little bit,” Yao said, “we have our own autonomy.”

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