Luxury high-rises spur new gentrification worries in Chinatown

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BOSTON — In January 2015, a new landlord evicted Pei Ying Yu from her Hudson Street home in Boston’s Chinatown section, ultimately relocating her to the Boston Marriott Quincy, a 20-minute walk to the nearest T station.

A homecare worker, Yu, who is 67 years old, relies on public transportation to get back and forth to her job in Waltham. Relocating made the commute much more challenging.

“After moving,” a tearful Yu said through a translator, “it was really difficult. Life was really hard because I still had to get to work every day.”

During last winter’s extreme weather, she had to cope with the often-delayed transit system, like so many commuters in the Boston area. But when trains ran late and she missed the hotel shuttle, she had to walk. Sometimes, she got lost making her way to the hotel late at night. The experience left her shaken.

“When I would get off of work I would get really scared,” Yu said. “Because I would think about the journey I would have to take to get home.”

Yu is still trying to regain her old apartment at 103 Hudson St., but for now she lives in a South End facility for older city residents. Hers is one of many experiences that have raised fears in the Chinatown community of encroaching high-end apartment and condominium buildings and how these new neighbors may push out longtime residents of the once downtrodden part of the downtown area.

“She’s one person, one story, but there are many, many people in Chinatown who are going through similar experiences, who have the same story as Ms. Yu, and people don’t ask; they don’t know that this is what is happening in Chinatown,” said Henry Yee, the co-chairman of the Chinatown Resident Association, a community group. There’s no shortage of evidence that the neighborhood is being transformed.

Over the decade ending in 2010, the white population doubled in what the Boston Redevelopment Authority defines as Chinatown. Curiously, the BRA’s demarcation excludes much of the commercial district where many Asian-themed restaurants are located but includes a swath along lower Boylston Street that once was known as Piano Row. It is now mostly occupied by Emerson College.

Crowding out a neighborhood

The red pin points show luxury apartments that surround the border of Chinatown

The red pin points show luxury apartment and condominium buildings that surround Chinatown, the unshaded are, as defined by the Boston Redevelopment Authority.

The BRA map also excludes the locations of many of the luxury high-rises that have sprung up in the area, including the initial incursion in the form of the Ritz-Carlton between Tremont and Washington Streets. Others that have been encircling the neighborhood include Millennium Place at Avenue de Lafayette and Washington, the Radian at Essex and Kingston Streets, the 660 Washington apartment tower and the Kensington tower across from it, and the One Greenway at Hudson and Kneeland.

With these new luxury buildings come luxury prices. Data from the Chinese Progressive Association show that the number of market-rate or high-end housing units built or approved in the neighborhood has jumped five-fold, to more than 3,400 units in 2014, while the number of low income or very low income units has scarcely changed, increasing just 14 percent to about 2,050.

The increase in the number of market-rate and luxury apartments is driving a wedge between long-time residents and newcomers.

“It is sort of like the very poor and the very rich now in Chinatown,” said Lydia Lowe, co-director of the association. “Those are the two big groups of people and they don’t really mix much.”

 Chinatown’s shrinking affordable housing stock

Courtesy of the CRA

Blue and yellow sections show percentage of affordable housing while purple shows the proportion of market-rate units. Courtesy of the Chinese Progressive Association.

Courtesy of the CRA

Light blue and yellow stand for low-income housing. Purple stands for high end and market apartments. Courtesy of the Chinese Progressive Association.








Although many if not all of the new buildings include units set aside as affordable, most long-time Chinatown residents are restaurant workers and homecare employees and make only about $20,000 to $25,000 a year, according to Yee. The BRA lists the “area median income” for a one-person household is almost $69,000 and close to $99,000 for a family of four.

“Even 50 percent of the medium income is on the high side for a Chinatown family and 50 percent is usually the lowest you will find in affordable subsidized housing,” Lowe said. Even so, hundreds of people line up for affordable living spaces in the area when they become available.

One Greenway has 93 affordable units out of 312 apartments, plus 51 affordable condominiums, with 4,400 residence applications that came not only from people in Boston and Chinatown but from Quincy and Malden, where former neighborhood residents like Yu’s sister have been relocated and are trying to return.

“You can see a lot of these luxury buildings are not full yet, so it’s crazy,” said Baolian Kuang, a community organizer with the association. “It’s crazy that there is this housing crisis and so many people need housing and then there’s these vacant units.”

Chinatown anchors immigrant community

Henry Yee, the co-chairman of the Chinatown Resident Association, a community group, stands in front of a Chinatown map. (Beth Treffeisen)

Henry Yee, the co-chairman of the Chinatown Resident Association, sees his neighborhood pressured by development. (NewBostonPost photo by Beth Treffeisen)

The idea of Chinatown losing its cohesiveness as a community concerns residents. They say newly arrived non-English speaking immigrants need a place where people share their language and customs, a kind of cultural refuge in a large city. Yet that status is increasingly threatened.

“As rents increase throughout Chinatown, new immigrants are finding it increasingly difficult to live in Chinatown,” said Yee, of the resident association. “It is so important for immigrants to be able to find a place in Chinatown because when they first get here a lot of new immigrants don’t speak English.”

Many social service providers with the linguistic skills needed to communicate with new arrivals are in the neighborhood. They help newcomers find housing, jobs and health care.

There are also other services available in the neighborhood that can be hard to find elsewhere, such as shuttle buses that bring workers to and from suburban restaurants that aren’t near T services or that operate when the T isn’t running. Asian grocery stores and products are also centrally located in the community,  making it easier for new immigrants to settle and find familiar household goods.

“I’m scared that one day Chinatown will be gone, that there will be no Chinese people who are able to live in Chinatown anymore because it has become too expensive and we can’t afford to stay,” Yee said. “All we will have left is this empty shell of a Chinatown.”

For Yu, the benefits of the Chinatown community became very real during her time in Quincy, as volunteers from the progressive association organized rides to and from the hotel.

“A lot of times I thought about just giving up but then when I think about the community and people who came to support me, I am very grateful,” she said.

Contact Beth Treffeisen at [email protected]