Chinatown#039;s long-time residents forced to leave homes

by Beacon Staff • January 25, 2006

According to Karen Chen, the lead organizer of the Chinese Progressive Association (CPA), The Hamilton Company, a private real estate company that owns more than 60 apartment buildings and commercial properties in the Greater Boston area, including two in Chinatown, is responsible for the loss of these families' apartments.,In April of 2005, five Chinese immigrant families were living in an apartment complex at 81 Essex St. in Chinatown. Now, ten months later, only one of those families remains.

According to Karen Chen, the lead organizer of the Chinese Progressive Association (CPA), The Hamilton Company, a private real estate company that owns more than 60 apartment buildings and commercial properties in the Greater Boston area, including two in Chinatown, is responsible for the loss of these families' apartments.

Chen, who helps head the grassroots Chinese community organization, said the families were forced to leave their homes when The Hamilton Company bought the building from its previous owners and introduced a rent hike.

"The immigrant families living in this building were low-income families," Chen said. "They just couldn't afford to pay any more than they were."

The Hamilton Company did not return numerous phone calls.

To Chen, the hike is yet another example of the ongoing gentrification of Chinatown, where some residents feel their community is being threatened by the encroachment of luxury housing favoring high-income citizens.

Chen said that 81 Essex St. is the fifth apartment building to have a rent increase in Chinatown within the past year.

"There seems to be more students from Emerson, Tufts and UMass, along with wealthy professionals than any Asian families in the building now," said Tiffany Tran, a junior TV/video major and resident of 81 Essex St.

While this may be financially beneficial to developers, Chen said she feels the changes are robbing Chinatown of its heritage.

"The Asian residents need the culture offered by a Chinatown," Chen said. "There is a trend of gentrification going on, and it's affecting the community. If groups like The Hamilton Company are going to come into our community, they need to respect it."

Mary Fuller, communications and development director at the Asian Community Development Corporation (ACDC), a non-profit company that assists in developing Chinatown, agreed that gentrification is indeed changing the face of the neighborhood.

"A classic example of the changes taking place can be seen in a walk down Washington Street," Fuller said. "In the past two or three years, small businesses there have been closing to make room for luxury rental units geared towards the upper class."

While Fuller said she does not blame anyone for the situation, she does feel the new interest in Chinatown from local college students and professionals seeking to live downtown is connected to the changes occurring there.

"The new interest in Chinatown by wealthier students and people who work at the nearby hospital or in the Theatre District is having an affect on the community, which has generally been low-income," she said.

The Boston Globe reported in October 2004 that, according to the Boston Redevelopment Authority, the median household income for residents of Chinatown in 2000 was $14,829, less than half the city-wide median of $39,629.

While there are no official statistics on the number of Emerson students living in Chinatown alone, Off Campus Student Services Coordinator Christy Letizia said about 146 graduate and undergraduate students live in the region encompassing Back Bay, Chinatown and the Theatre District.

"The new developments and apartments are certainly going to put some pressure on rent," Letizia said. "However, the majority of Emerson students actually live further away from the school in local neighborhoods, where they can stick more within their budget."

Nicole Orne, a junior journalism major and resident of 81 Essex St., said she sometimes senses that she is unwanted in Chinatown.

"Walking around and going to the grocery store, I occasionally feel as though I'm being seen as an outsider," Orne said.

Chinatown, once predominantly Asian, has seen its demographics change.

"Chinatown has now become a diverse community," Fuller said. "Mixed-income buildings provide housing in the forms of penthouse suites at the top for the wealthier residents and smaller units available for rent and purchase in the rest of the building for the lower-income residents."

Aside from housing, ACDC offers rental training sessions for low-income citizens, like "Homebuying 101," and is active in ventures like the Chinatown Heritage Project, which is aimed at creating a visitor's center and walking tour in order to preserve the culture of the community.

Despite the efforts of community organizations like ACDC, Chen said she thinks many long-time residents in Chinatown are still in financial trouble. Chen said many low-income families, especially immigrants, are struggling because private real estate companies in Chinatown are causing rent and property taxes to increase.

Jin Han Li and his family are among those affected.

In December, the second-to-last Asian immigrant family left 81 Essex St., with only the Li family remaining. The Lis issued a personal letter in July to The Hamilton Company in hopes of saving their apartment.

The letter describes how father Jin Han Li works in New Hampshire and returns to his apartment in Boston daily to visit his wife and high school-aged son, who are recent immigrants.

He writes that the family was "shocked and distressed" to find a notice detailing the rent increase and an ultimatum to sign the new lease or move out.

Several tenants wrote letters about the issue, as did City Council President Michael Flaherty. In addition to the letters, the issue drew brief media coverage on CBS4 and support from the Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr law firm to open a dialogue between the tenants and The Hamilton Company.

"All we wanted was to make the rent more affordable to these families," Chen said. "We had asked for no more than a 3 percent annual rent increase for five years, and for The Hamilton Company to set aside four units in the building to be affordable housing for low-income tenants, as an investment in the community."

The CPA and the 81 Essex Street Tenant Association brought this proposal to lower the rent and add affordable housing to The Hamilton Company on July 27, and a meeting was tentatively scheduled to discuss the proposal on Aug. 10.

Chen said that when the tenants called The Hamilton Company about the meeting, they refused to meet. Since then, there have been no more negotiations between the two groups.

"It's unfortunate The Hamilton Company won't back down for the one last family," Chen commented. "Mr. Li used to pay $850 a month, and now with Hamilton owning the building he pays almost $900. While $50 may not seem like a lot to a major company like Hamilton that owns so much throughout Boston, it is a lot for a family who spend more than half of their income on rent."

As for students living in Chinatown, Chen encourages them to take part in campaigning to help keep rent in thei

r buildings affordable.

"If you think the rent is unfair, call the company to let them know," she said. "The situation at 81 Essex St. was not the last, and we would appreciate the future support of the students who now call Chinatown home."