Affordable housing remains a matter of survival


By Christopher Kui

In many ways, the Chinatown of 2007 hardly resembles the community that was here in 2001. Today, if you walk along Grand St., for instance, you might see tourists going into the SoLita Hotel, come across young people gathering at a trendy new restaurant or look up to see a sign advertising luxury loft apartments.

Chinatown was a very different place in the months after 9/11. Shortly after the attacks, streets were closed to vehicular traffic, phone lines were down, and economic life ground to a halt. Many garment factories, where thousands of Asian immigrants worked, closed. Retailers and restaurants languished because visitors were scared to travel into Lower Manhattan. Without jobs, many workers faced the distinct possibility of losing their homes.

But in the face of the tragedy, Chinatown showed an unprecedented surge of community pride and resolve. Institutions, local leaders and public officials determined to work together to help the community get back on its feet. One outcome was the Rebuild Chinatown Initiative (R.C.I.), launched in 2002. This community-planning initiative included members of the residential, business, political and other communities with a stake in the neighborhood’s revitalization. It was a first for a neighborhood that historically has been divided over turf and influence. It was also the first time such a broad cross-section of interests had come together. At our community forums and workshops, participants expressed their views and hopes for the future. Chinatown residents, traditionally reluctant to engage with local authorities, nevertheless offered personal testimony at town hall meetings, responded to one-on-one interviews and participated in visioning workshops organized to plot a course for the future.

The two-year R.C.I. process resulted in a blueprint for the revitalization of Chinatown. The proposal laid out short- and long-term initiatives to jump-start economic life and to address long-standing problems, such as sanitation, transportation and most notably, affordable housing.

A number of projects have resulted from the work of R.C.I. The United Neighborhoods to Revitalize Allen & Pike Streets (UNRAP) worked to bring life back to the main corridor between Chinatown and the Lower East Side, now called “Avenue of the Immigrants.” The Chinatown Partnership Local Development Corporation works to support area businesses, beautify the neighborhood and keep the sidewalks clean, no small feat. In 2006, Chinatown and the Lower East Side were designated a New York State Empire Zone, which conveys tax incentives for area businesses to promote job creation. Over the last six years, AAFE’s Renaissance Economic Development Corporation has provided more than $15 million in loans to small businesses to help them sustain growth. Most recently, Chinatown Connects, a nonprofit tourism project, was launched to help local businesses upgrade their services and attract tourists worldwide.

After 9/11, the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation’s Residential Grant Program helped area residents stay in place during a period of deep economic stress. In 2006, AAFE successfully advocated for L.M.D.C. to create a program to preserve the stock of existing buildings for low-income residents. In 2006, the Lower East Side and Chinatown became part of an ambitious rezoning initiative led by the Department of City Planning and spearheaded by Community Board 3 to address balanced growth while preserving the communities’ historic character. At issue is identifying areas that might accommodate growth and relieve pressure on the low-rise historic blocks. In spite of intense dialogue, the plan is moving forward and may go a long way to addressing local problems.

Despite these promising starts, Chinatown struggles with a critical problem: how to preserve and build on its stock of affordable housing.

Affordable housing has always been critical to sustain Chinatown’s largely immigrant and low-income population, a large and important pool of labor for the city’s economy. Since 2001, many local apartment complexes have waged long fights to retain government-subsidy or tax-incentive programs. Some, such as 210 Stanton St., have successfully negotiated contract extensions. Others, such as Knickerbocker Village, continue to fight to preserve their affordability. A few have lost the fight and tenants are in danger of being priced out of the neighborhood.

Chinatown has always been home to recent immigrants from Asia looking for a better life. These new New Yorkers settled here because housing was affordable and work was available. But as the community changes, and low-income housing is turned into luxury housing, where will Chinatown’s traditional population live? And, for those who remain, will they be able to find work or afford the goods and services they need? Will this newly found success now threaten to overcome Chinatown?

As we head into the spring of 2007, one thing is clear. We learned from the experiences of 9/11 that we had to confront the unknown with a vision of the collective good. We should not waste the lessons of the past six years. Instead, we should continue the often rancorous, but necessary, process of working toward a shared vision for Chinatown in 2010, or 2020, or beyond. In so doing, we should also remember that as New Yorkers, we are a part of a collection of communities much like Chinatown. I believe we must take up the challenge of New York’s distinct heritage of a mixed-income, mixed-use, multiethnic family of communities with diverse cultures and history. This will require work by all of us.

Kui is executive director, Asian Americans for Equality