The tenant protest on 11 Allen Street is not an isolated incident

Rachel Ishikawa of social justice organization CAAAV in New York City alerted me to a protest that has been going on on 11 Allen Street in Manhattan’s Chinatown. The new landlord of the building is trying to evict the residents, all of whom are working-class Chinese immigrants. Many of them have lived in the building for decades.

Chinatown is located in a prime location in downtown Manhattan, and wealthy landlords have been trying to capitalize on that for many years. In her book Contemporary Chinese America: Immigration, Ethnicity, and Community Transformation, sociologist Min Zhou wrote that, in the 1980s, real estate in Chinatown became extremely expensive as investors from Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Southeast Asia began to buy up property in the neighborhood.

According to a study by the Real Estate Board of New York in 1986, the annual rent per square foot for commercial space in the core of Chinatown ($275) was far higher than that on Wall Street ($175); it was also higher than the most desirable commercial location in Manhattan’s central business district-for example, on Madison Avenue above 42nd Street ($255). (p. 67)

Landlords began using illegal tactics to extract more money from tenants, such as forcing them to pay “key money” when they first move in. Like what is happening at 11 Allen Street today, some landlords would also harass tenants and try to evict them, in order to rezone the property as commercial. This had disastrous effects on the low-income residents of the community:

I found, in short, that the cost of property, particularly renovated space, in the core Chinatown area became so high that little affordable housing remained on the fringes. This was not simply caused by a gentrification trend that created greater demand for space throughout Manhattan; there had also been a specific change in Chinatown. Chinatown used to be a residential enclave based on a social structure of sojourning; now, it was increasingly a hotbed for investment and real estate speculation by more affluent coethnics from abroad. (p. 69)

Some tenants would fight back against unscrupulous landlords, but they were largely unsuccessful. Zhou interviewed an activist who told her about some residents’ attempts to take legal action. An excerpt from what the activist told her:

For example, in 1984, 22 tenants of two tenements on Henry Street in Chinatown filed a legal complaint against their landlords for excessive rent increases. Most of these tenants were longtime residents who had been working in Chinatown. They suspected that the increases were a prelude to getting them out and getting in those with more money to spend on rent. […] After making some improvements-new storm windows, light fixtures, an intercom system, and a coat of paint-the landlord received an approval for rent increases of up to 30 percent. But the actual rent increase was much higher than what was legally allowed. For example, the new rent for 88-year-old Mr. Yuen, another longtime resident, who lived alone in one room there, was $200.68, from $77.44. Mr. Yuen’s Social Security check could barely cover the increased rent. The tenants decided to pay the old rents while they challenged the increases. However, the landlord, Mr. Sung, simply put the building up for sale. The tenants did not win the case. (p. 68)

Ishikawa believes that the residents of 11 Allen Street are having better luck. After a year of protests, the landlord is finally willing to discuss letting the residents stay and keeping their rents affordable. But will what happened on Henry Street in 1984 happen again on Allen Street in 2012? Will the landlord renege on his promises or find other ways to kick the tenants out? The fight is far from over.