David Tang couldn't wait to show his mother their newly restored apartment. At this time last year, debris filled the air and plaster fell from the ceiling onto her pillow. They had been displaced from their lifelong home in New York City's Chinatown until recently.
“She will be so happy. I hope she will like it,” he told me in May, standing in the newly renovated living room.
The renovation is a victory for Tang and his neighbors after a bitter legal battle with their landlord against construction harassment, a tactic predatory property owners use to drive out longtime residents for higher-paying tenants, according to Kayan Chiu, a housing counselor at advocacy group Asian Americans for Equality.
“There is a system that basically encourages landlords to kick out people for higher rates and rents,” says Wai Yee Poon, a tenant organizer at CAAAV Organizing Asian Communities. The organization was created in the 1980s as a response to racist violence against Asian Americans but has since shifted focus. Now one of its challenges is holding onto the dwindling affordable housing for low-income Asian immigrants in the city.
Priced out by skyrocketing rents, Asian Americans have left Chinatowns across the country, including those in Boston, Chicago, and Philadelphia. Many once tight-knit communities of working immigrant families have succumbed to the forces of real estate and turned into mere tourist destinations. In Washington D.C., only about 300 Chinese Americans residents remain, according to the Washington Post.
New York’s Chinatown has been an exception. It has put up a good fight against the trend, partly because of the state’s rent regulation policy that protects low-income tenants from sharp rent increases and grants them the right to renew their leases. Currently, about 1 million apartments in the city are covered by rent stabilization, according to the New York City Rent Guidelines Board.
90 Elizabeth Street, where Tang and his mother lived, is one of those rent-stabilized buildings. A first-generation immigrant from Hong Kong, Tang was raised in the six-story rent-regulated tenement building in Chinatown. In the decades after Tang and his family first moved here in 1980, the surrounding areas have become some of the most coveted of New York City's real estate market. While the average monthly rent for one-bedroom apartments in New York was $2,848 as of June, Tang pays just $300 per month for the one bedroom apartment, according to SingTao Daily.
Tang's landlord, James Fong of Asia Inc., began construction in the empty units soon after he took over the property. Material blocked the hallways and pipes stopped working. After propping up a falling ceiling with a wood board, Tang convinced his mother to move temporarily to Queens.
"The ceiling fell twice," Tang said. "My mother almost got hit…. She was lucky that she wasn't here."
Had the tenants remained silent, the story could have ended like this: building violations could have piled up, city inspectors could have deemed the building beyond repairs and issued a vacate order, and tenants could have been evacuated and the property leveled. This is the ending the tenants, mostly low-income immigrants, feared because they had seen it happen to another tenement building not too far away.
In 2009, the construction of a Chinatown hotel destabilized 128 Hester Street, a tenement building next door. Tenants say the owner, who also owned the hotel, intentionally let the damages accumulate. Soon walls started to crack and pieces of the ceiling began falling down. When the New York Department of Building came to inspect it that year, it had to issue a vacate order because the building was no longer safe, reported the New York Times. The tenement was demolished three months later. As a result, 30 longtime residents permanently lost their homes, and Chinatown lost a small business that was on the first floor of the building.
To avoid a similar fate for their homes, Tang and several other tenants decided to work with housing activists to sue the new landlord for repairs. In September of last year, tenants filed a lawsuit in Manhattan Housing Court against Fong. They held press conferences, demonstrated loudly and publicly—chanting slogans in Chinese, English, and Spanish—and marched to City Hall. Council Member Margaret Chin and State Senator Daniel Squadron said at the demonstration that they would work with city officials to hold landlords like Fong accountable. The court ruled in December that Fong must make structural renovations to make the units feel new, stop harassment, and follow safe building procedures. Fong declined Fusion's requests for comment.
To community organizers like Poon, this recent victory is about something much bigger than a tenement building.
“The reason why New York City’s Chinatown hasn’t turned into an ‘ethnic theme park’ like the ones in the rest of the country is because we have organizing efforts here,” says Poon. Many who are occupying the pre-war buildings are elderly, low-income immigrants with limited English language abilities. Chinatown has always been their home and will continue to be one of the few places in the city where they can feel at home, she says.
Everyday on her way to work, Poon walks past a park where elderly Chinese people chat, play poker and Chinese chess, and exercise. This is their "living room," and along with the schools and food markets, they make Chinatown feel like the tight-knit community Poon remembers it to be 10 years ago.
"This used to be a Chinese theater here and I remember coming here to watch Stephen Chow movies," she says, pointing at the gleaming glass and steel hotel next to the empty lot that used to be 128 Hester Street. Seven years have passed since its demolition and the lot is still empty. It's a daily reminder of why Poon's doing the work she does.
Isabelle Niu is a digital video producer at Fusion.