Activists Say Chinatown Should Get Special Zoning

Development in Chinatown

Development in Chinatown. (Photo: Larry Tung)

For Fu Ko Poon, a longtime Chinatown resident living on Madison Street, the harassment started five years ago. His landlord stopped cashing his rent checks and sued him for not paying rent. According to Poon, his landlord’s goal was to evict him so he could bring in new tenants and charge them market-rate rent.

“He hasn’t cashed my checks for the last five years,” said Poon, who immigrated from Hong Kong in 1983 and is now 73. “The paint on the walls is peeling and the floor has not been repaired. The apartment is infested with mice.”

Poon is one of the many low-income Chinatown residents in rent-stabilized housing who are facing eviction by their landlords to make way for wealthier tenants, according to a report released by CAAAV (Committee Against Anti-Asian Violence) a local community organizing group, and the Community Development Project of the Urban Justice Center. The report recommends the creation of a special zoning area for Chinatown that will allow new housing development with at least half of the units reserved for low-income residents.

“Zoning is integral to how a community is shaped and formed,” said Helena Wong, CAAAV’s executive director.  “It is really important that community members who are most impacted by development have a say in what kind of community we are going to live in,” she added. There are currently dozens of special zoning districts through out the city for various purposes, including the special Little Italy District and 125th Street District, both created to preserve and enhance the historic and commercial characters of neighborhoods.

Chinatown was one of the areas of the city hardest-hit by the 9/11 attacks. The neighborhood was blocked off for weeks and many restaurants and gift shops went out of business. But the economic bounce-back has been problematic as well: In the last few years, major development projects can be seen everywhere in Chinatown and its immediate area, ranging from clothing boutiques, bars and restaurants to luxury condos and hotels. This trend has raised concerns in the Chinatown community.

On top of that, the successful passage of the Lower East Side’s 197-C plan, a community-initiated plan to limit new development, also made zoning an urgent matter for Chinatown. Many residents now fear being pushed out by hungry developers, who as a result of the LES plan, may go south and tap into their neighborhood.

Esther Wang, director of CAAAV’s Chinatown Justice Project, said that while the Department of City Planning does have an inclusionary zoning program in place to ensure that affordable housing is available, it is not enough for Chinatown. The current program allows developers to build extra floors if they agree to reserve 20 percent of the development for low-income housing. The CAAAV report calls for 50 percent of the units in new housing developments to be set aside for low-income tenants.

The report also asks that low-income housing eligibility be based on the median income in Chinatown’s Zip Code instead of the city-wide median income.  The average income for a family of four in New York City is $78,300, significantly higher than Chinatown’s average income of $41,254, and advocates fear that the rent-stabilized housing won’t necessarily go to those who need it the most.

In addition, the report recommends that, in an effort to preserve the physical characteristics of Chinatown, special zoning provisions should prohibit demolition of structurally-sound buildings. To prevent landlord harassment, the report authors say city agencies should not issue construction permits to buildings where tenant harassment is documented.

To protect small business owners, the report proposes limiting big-box and chain stores by requiring businesses with 10 or more locations in New York City to get special permission to open storefronts in Chinatown. The advocates also want a cap on the number of new hotels that can receive building permits each year.

For Poon, a longtime resident, the most important thing is that the community keep its character.

“I want to see a Chinatown that is lively and viable. I don’t want to see another Wall Street. It seems lifeless with all these tall buildings around,” said Poon. “I want to see families, children, and I want to see people who get fair pay for their work.”

Feet in Two Worlds is supported by the New York Community Trust and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation with additional support from the Mertz Gilmore Foundation. 

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