May, 10, 2016 – WGBH (with audio)
Just a few blocks away from Millennium Tower, Boston’s most expensive luxury development, very low income workers—living two to three families per unit in historic row houses in Chinatown — are being kicked out by developers. And for them finding a place to live has become nearly impossible.
On a cold wet day—perfect for a hot latte at one of the new upscale downtown cafés —social activist Leveret Wing literally opened the doors into his community and the crises being faced by Chinatown residents.
This Washington Street café is one of many signs of Chinatown’s drastic and continuing alteration in recent years. Wing took me on a tour of a community increasingly dotted with symbols of wealth like the nearby Ritz luxury condos.
“Chinatown is prime real estate and an incredible location for businesses. That’s why it’s become so valuable and property values have shot up, and that’s why it’s become so difficult for a lot of residents to be able to afford to live here.”
And those residents most impacted, said Wing, are living behind the pulled shades of crumbling buildings like one we passed by on Harrison; buildings that are much in demand by developers:
“The folks who live here may not have the highest level of education. They may even be undocumented. Day laborers, restaurant workers, construction jobs.”
Few speak English. Their plight was highlighted in the winter of 2012 when it was discovered that structural beams were missing from a five-story Chinatown residence at 25 Harrison Avenue.
Wing tugged at a rusted chain and padlock. Even though a “For Rent” sign sat out front, the place is still shuttered. Sixty residents were kicked out of the unheated, dilapidated rat-infested building with one toilet per floor. The kitchens were devoid of ovens and refrigerators, but for the low wage workers living there it was the only home they had.
Many in Chinatown believe that if not for the Chinese Progressive Association or CPA “a lot more people would be homeless.”
Lydia Lowe, co-director of the CPA, finished the sentence for me.
“We’re not talking about the majority of Chinatown residents because Chinatown is lucky to have a fair amount of subsidized housing, but for the poorest residents and the most vulnerable residents in the community, we’re facing a real crisis.”
Few are as vulnerable as recent immigrant, Pei Ying Yu, a 67-year old home-health aide who last year was sharing a tiny one-bedroom apartment at 103 Hudson Street. She, her sister and a third person split the $700 dollar rent three ways. The structure owned by longtime Chinatown residents, Elizabeth Wing and Youn “Harry” Chung, was sold to First Suffolk LLC for $480,000. The agent representing the firm wanted the building—an historic row house—cleared out immediately, says Pei Ying Yu, who resisted moving.
“He used a lot of ways to make life unbearable. He said he had to make repairs and made the building unlivable. He said he had to replace the stove, so he took away the stove, so we couldn’t cook. He said I have to repair the bathroom and made the bathroom unusable. And so we came to CPA to look for help. One of the staff at CPA even slept over one night to help make sure that the tenants would not be intimidated into having to move.”
But the agent insisted. He eventually cleared them out of their apartment and drove them to a low-income hotel in Quincy and promised to move them back as soon as repairs were made. But a year later they were still at the hotel, until recently, away from their home health care clients in Chinatown and far from a subway stop.
Yu eventually qualified for senior housing, but her sister, who is younger, did not. She is homeless and living with friends in Chinatown.
Block by block, traditional housing for the poorest of the poor in Chinatown is quickly shrinking, Lowe says.
“Hudson Street, Tyler Street, Harvard Street, Oak Street, Johnny Court; You know there are only a small number of streets left that have those older brick row houses,” she said.
At a park on Hudson Street, in the shadow of Chinatown’s historic arch, groups of men played Chinese checkers. Some were retirees. Some were unemployed. Some were day laborers and restaurant workers. With $700-a-month apartments a thing of the past, Wing, at the end of our tour of Chinatown, wondered aloud where these men now live.
“There still are some places where folks who are the lowest of the lowest paid can still live,” he said. “But there really aren’t that many.”