Luxury building, housing demand create significant problem for Chinatown community

Tufts School of Medicine student Raghav Seth explained that Chinatown was not suggested to him as a place to live during his search to find housing because it might be too expensive. Ray Bernoff / The Tufts Daily

This is part two of a two-part series on gentrification in Boston’s Chinatown. Part one focused on the history of the power struggle over the land and can be accessed here. Part two will focus on the situation as it stands today.

Tufts Medical Center’s influence on housing in Chinatown

Tufts Medical Center’s presence in the community only adds to the demand for housing and resulting displacement of Chinatown’s lowest income residents.

Raghav Seth, LA ’12 and a first-year Tufts Medical student, told the Daily that he didn’t remember anyone suggesting he live in Chinatown during his search for housing. In fact, he said that there was a push for him to live elsewhere.

“I vaguely have this idea of being cautioned that Chinatown is expensive,” Seth said. “Seeking places in JP [Jamaica Plain] on the Orange line, [or] maybe somewhere in Cambridge or Davis — that was highly recommended.”

Seth told the Daily about the Tyler Street complex in Chinatown, where he resides.

“[There are] a few students in that complex,” he said. “There are white collar young professionals mostly. There are not a lot of people who belong to the community in Chinatown. But on the opposite side of the street those seem to be people who live in the community.”

Seth mentioned that several Tufts students also live in The Metropolitan — the same building that represents the major win over Parcel C (a plot of land in Chinatown the former New England Medical Center bid on three separate times in order to build a parking garage) for Chinatown community interests.

The Chinese Progressive Association (CPA), whose office is in the same building, declined to interview with the Daily. As part of his time at the CPA this summer, junior Wayne Yeh went door to door with a team of inspectors from the City of Boston and CPA employees to collect information on the kinds of residents living in the housing units in Chinatown and the kinds of rental agreements residents have with their landlords.

There are more and more young, business class, single occupancy white residents,” Yeh said. “They’re coming in and taking those housing [units] … Presently the Asian American population is on a decline — Asian American families are on a decline.”

Asians represented 70 percent of Chinatown’s residents 25 years ago, and this number dropped to 46 percent by 2010, according to WGBH News.

Yeh said this summer he saw some influx from the school and shared a conversation he had with a Tufts Medical School student about her reasons for living in a building that housed primarily Chinese immigrants.

“Her responses were like, ‘oh the rent is so affordable for me, it’s close to classes, I used to live in Allston, but the price got too expensive for me so I moved to Chinatown,’” Yeh said. “Juxtaposing the necessity of … people trying to survive in a community … whereas for some people it’s their option.”

According to Yeh, the group surveying heard a lot of similar stories from many immigrant residents.

“In Chinatown there’s a problem where a lot of people are being evicted … because the landlords would rather evict the immigrants and then restructure and refurbish the entire apartment and sell it or rent it out for much higher rates to Tufts Medical students,” Yeh said.

Tufts Medical Center, which is the main teaching hospital for Tufts Medical students, certainly plays a role in the demand for housing in Chinatown. According to metrics from the Tufts Medical School, of all the neighborhoods in the surrounding Boston area, 14 percent of students ultimately reside in Chinatown — the same neighborhood in Boston that, according to Tufts’ Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning Department (UEP) and Harvard Political Review, is most at risk for gentrification.

Director of Media Relations and Publications for Tufts Medical Center Julie Jette did not provide comment on whether there are any efforts underway to avoid adding to Chinatown’s gentrification, or if there are ways that students can help.

Seth told the Daily that he got in touch with the Office of Student Affairs in his search for housing.

“They gave me information on a couple of realtors and they basically get us in touch with realtors,” Seth said.

Seth found his two-bedroom unit through Craigslist with Newbury Associates, Inc./Hadco Management, however, and he told the Daily that Craigslist is a portal through which a lot of students find housing. He added that the medical school itself provides 94 rooms of on-campus housing in Posner Hall.

“That’s a great option,” he said. “That’s one big way the school helps us out.”

While Tufts Medical Center itself does not publicly provide tips on finding housing for its employees, Tufts University Medical School, which is affiliated with the medical center, and its Student Services and Campus Life web site provide some resources to aid in the housing process. Of the resources, only one mentions Chinatown as a residence option, completely omitting it as an option in the others.

Tufts Public Health and Professional Degrees Programs Office of Student Services housing documents follow a similar trend — only one of its documents mentions Chinatown as a housing option. Chinatown, however, is not listed among the neighborhoods it recommends, and no average prices for apartments and studio apartments are given for Chinatown — the neighborhood that some would argue is the most affordable for students and the closest in proximity to the Medical Center.

Just as Seth was told residing in Chinatown would be expensive, students enrolling in Tufts schools associated with Tufts Medical Center are being steered away from living in Chinatown. Jette did not comment on these reports or their intentions, but the pattern suggests a move toward avoiding any contributions to Chinatown’s gentrification.

Affordable housing: Can Chinese residents remain in Chinatown?

Director of the master in public policy program and community practice in UEP at Tufts Penn Loh said there are some remedies that could make it possible for lower income residents to remain in Chinatown despite increased demand.

“The defense against that is to have housing properties that are not subject to real estate market forces,” Loh said. “So public housing is in that category — it’s publicly owned, it’s protected, it doesn’t have to increase its rents with the market … If it weren’t for the stock of publicly owned and public subsidized affordable housing, the community would not have been able to remain.”

Some affordable housing units, however, have limits on the duration of time during which they can evade market pressures.

“There are categories of publicly subsidized but privately owned housing which also fall into that category but often times those often have windows [where] a private developer … builds a private building and promise[s] to keep it affordable for a [window of] 30 years,” Loh said.

Those windows of affordability run out, and prices can rise again, so although there are affordable housing options available to Chinese immigrant residents in Chinatown, the low prices are not a guarantee.

According to the the UEP Department, nearly eight percent of Chinatown’s housing units were at risk of losing a subsidy by 2012. Couple these limits on affordable housing with the construction of luxury apartments nearby, and conditions ideal for gentrification arise.

Yeh pointed out that even units labeled as “affordable housing” may not be affordable enough.

“‘Affordable housing’ means different things for different communities,” he said. “Developers are creating ‘affordable units’ in their housing buildings, but ‘affordable’ is so subjective without context … ‘Affordable’ in the City of Boston takes into account the median income of Central Boston — which is somewhere near $40,000-$50,000. But the median income in Chinatown is around $12,000-$15,000. So even ‘affordable’ isn’t affordable to the community.”

“The real question to ask … is whether the state and the city will allow more community housing and development that will actually strengthen the low and middle-income working class historic character of Boston Chinatown,” the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF) wrote in its 2013 publication, “Chinatown: Then and Now.”

The city and state are unlikely to push for further affordable housing developments as evidenced by plans put forth to build South Bay Tower, which would occupy 10 acres of Chinatown’s 43 acres, and stand at 800 feet, according to the AALDEF. It would surpass the tallest skyscraper in Boston, but it would be located in one of Boston’s most at-risk neighborhoods for gentrification.

It is these kinds of approvals, which date back to the 1990s, that show the city’s willingness to approve proposals that are out of touch with the needs of the Chinese immigrant community, according to Loh.

When Mayor Marty Walsh began his term this January, he initiated an independent audit into the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) to expose its weak management and incompetent financial oversight. According to a June 2014 article in Boston Magazine, Walsh has inherited a broken City Hall, and for decades the BRA has ignored and made exception after exception to zoning regulations that limit the height and mass of development projects.

“Therefore, any zoning regulation or master planning process became practically meaningless,” the AALDEF wrote.

Tufts Medical Center Expansion, 2012-2022

Loh believes Tufts community relations have improved drastically over the years.

“I guess from my understanding, the relationship between Tufts New England Medical Center and the Chinatown community has evolved a lot,” he said. “There’s a lot more active relationships … they aren’t doing this kind of thing all the time the same way it happened in the 90s.”

As Tufts Medical Center moves forward with its Institutional Master Plan (IMP), the City of Boston will come to play a role in the coming years.

Although the master plan proposes expansion by 2022, Jette said that the medical center’s master plan is not slated for completion for another 15 or 20 years.

“Tufts Medical Center proposes facility updates and expansion in inpatient and outpatient settings as well as updated research facilities in the coming 15 to 20 years, but no specific projects are planned at this time,” Jette told the Daily in an email.

Jette said that the plan was developed with the input and guidance of a Chinatown community task force. Jette also said that the master plan recognizes the land and space needs of the community by committing to a future development plan within the existing footprint of the campus. The IMP states, however, that it plans to use new buildings for inpatient and outpatient care.

In other words, Boston’s Chinatown is not in the clear. Loh warned that Chinatowns across the United States are seeing immigrant communities completely disintegrate as they relocate out of Chinatowns because they are being displaced and out-priced.

“I’ve often heard that about Washington D.C.’s Chinatown,” Loh said. “There’s still a commercial center to it in terms of you can go there to go to a Chinese restaurant but there’s no Chinese immigrant community that actually lives there.”

While grassroots organizations like the CPA can coordinate community efforts to preserve the integrity of the land that Boston’s Chinatown maintains, there is only so much that grassroots organizing can do in the face of strong private interests.

“Developers are looking hungrily at Chinatown and eyeing parcels of land that they can buy from the community to develop into luxury buildings — even if that means displacing community members,” Yeh told the Daily in an email.

There is a lot that the community is up against: There are bureaucratic city efforts to build luxury towers, there are looming market pressures on the remaining affordable housing units in the area, Tufts Medical Center has projected institutional expansion over the next eight years and there is a concurrent increased demand for housing in the area. The success Chinatown community members had in preserving Parcel C for community use is fast becoming a relic of the past.

“We cannot forget that people call Chinatown home and continuously fight to remain in and reclaim their community,” Yeh told the Daily in an email. “Chinatown has a lot of bustling businesses and hundreds of visitors each day, but above all it’s a home to an immigrant community and this space has a history of being created by racism in the United States.”

Loh warned that this will have a deep and long-lasting impact on the Boston Chinese immigrant community.

“The Chinese Asian immigrant communities that relied on places like Chinatown as part of their immigration pathway into the U.S. [can’t] continue to go there because they [are] unable to afford it,” Loh said. “And there are Chinatowns across the country where that’s happened … Some have really ceased to be a place where new immigrants come.”


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