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Four years ago, when she was 14, FenZhen Nie lived with her family in a three-and-a-half-story home they had built in Canton province, China. The house was big enough for Nie to have her own bedroom, but, giggling as she recalls her childhood, Nie says she was afraid of the dark, so she shared with her sister.
Now Nie lives on Mulberry Street,where five people—Nie, her two siblings, and her parents—cram into a one-bedroom apartment. “It’s a very small bedroom, so I try to keep a different schedule,” says Nie, 18, who this spring graduated from Seward Park High School. “When others go to work, I sleep. When they sleep, I do my work. My father says to me, ‘What are you doing up so late?’ But I felt I had to be up to get my work done.”
Nie’s living situation is common in Chinatown, and she is working to change that. On July 27, she joined members of the Committee Against Asian American Violence (CAAAV) at a press conference to announce news that, sadly, is not startling, given the permanent nature of the city’s housing crisis: A CAAAV survey of 100 Chinatown residents found that tenants pay 40 percent to 70 percent of their income for bad housing owned by landlords who at best ignore their requests for services and at worst try to drive them out. On top of that, some paid as much as $6000 in key money.
While the message is not new—poor New Yorkers and especially immigrants suffer the brunt of the housing shortage—what is remarkable is the messenger, a group of a dozen Chinese, aged 17 to 20, who conducted the survey. While tenant activists are among the city’s best organized, youth is not their hallmark. For example, three of the four tenants arrested at last month’s rent board meetings are over 61 years old.
The CAAAV surveyors found that, along with long working hours and poor health care, housing is a top Chinatown concern. Gentrification is not only forcing people out of northern Chinatown (a/k/a Nolita), where businesses like Rice restaurant and Jade boutique rely on Asian aesthetics to sell merchandise that most Chinese immigrants can’t afford, it is also threatening Chinatown’s borders east of the Bowery and south of Canal Street, where new buildings are charging $2000 and more for one-bedroom apartments.
“It looks so nice, but it’s really not for us,” says Nie. “There’s a lot of development, and everyone is saying that is so good. But when development is happening, people are being displaced. It’s very connected. There are so many nice stores and places to hang out, but you have to go beneath the surface to see it’s just terrible.”
Hidden behind the trendy facades, for instance, is a discovery that startled Sauling Chau, who will be a senior at Seward Park this fall. “There are buildings on Mott and Mulberry owned by the same landlord, but they’re very, very different,” says the teen. “On Mulberry, where there are mostly white tenants, the building is very nice and tenants say they don’t have much problem with their landlord. But on Mott Street, I was very surprised to see the building is so bad. The stairs are broken, there’s holes in the ceilings and floors, it’s dirty and dark in the hallways. We say the landlord has a different face for a different race.”
That is true even if a landlord is Asian (although the one referred to above is not), which was the case for most tenants surveyed. “The point is not the race of the landlord but the tenant,” says Nie. “Even a Chinese landlord wants to gentrify and bring in white people who make more money. They treat tenants differently based on race.”
Or wealth. In one Ludlow Street building, for instance, new tenants pay $1800 for a now renovated apartment for which Chinese tenants had paid $730; on Mott, Mulberry, and Orchard streets, similar examples abound. With rents among Chinese tenants ranging from $600 to $1000, class is clearly as much a factor as race, if not more.
The CAAAV survey introduced the activists to basics of landlord-tenant relations; their vocabulary now includes “buyout,” “milking a building,” and “displacement”; they are beginning to suss out the lines of race and class that shape the city. They also have learned about equity and its absence.
“People blame immigrants for overcrowding,” says Erin Guo, whose family shares a two-bedroom apartment with two other families that come and go in sometimes months-long shifts, depending on where they find work. Low wages and high rents give them no other choice. Citing federal housing data, the CAAAV surveyors conclude that there are enough apartments in Chinatown to accommodate everyone reasonably, provided the wealthy don’t hog all the units. “Now that we’re here,” says Nie, “it’s a question of being fair.”