‘Fighting the same battles’: Three years later, Chinatown’s historic rowhouses are still under threat

“We need our elected leaders to take a strong stand,” said Karen Chen, executive director of the Chinese Progressive Association, a Boston Chinese community advocacy organization. “When elected leaders say, ‘We need Chinatown to stay Chinatown,’ that really matters.”

Community members also wonder if the lack of progress towards the protection and preservation representative buildings of the district essence is part of a historic divestment in communities like Chinatown, where low-income, working-class immigrants make up the majority. Low-income and modest housing, like Johnny Court’s townhouses, is what allowed immigrants to stay and thrive.

.A view of some townhouses on Johnny Court in Chinatown with a new style residence in the background.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

“There is always a question of which communities hold the power, and whether or notimmigrant-income neighborhoods like Chinatown hold power the same way corporations do,” said Bethany Li, legal director of the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund and attorney representing Wendy and John Lee, the promoter’s scorers. who initially challenged the project in court. .

Sheila Dillon, Boston’s housing chief, assured the city is “working hard to ensure Chinatown remains a neighborhood”.

The work has been successful, she says. Last month, the Boston Planning and Development Agency approved a proposal for 110 low-income housing units there, as well as a branch of the Chinatown Public Library. And last year, the city helped fund the Asian Community Development Corporation’s purchase of a private building to preserve it as affordable housing.

The work to protect the historic townhouses present several challenges, however, Dillon said. The city has tried to help nonprofits buy properties and keep them out of the reach of developers, but it’s difficult and expensive to compete in Chinatown’s real estate market. Either way, “we determined the investment was worth it,” she said.

The ongoing battle to specifically protect 9 Johnny Court has been going on for years. In 2019, the developer, Tao Cai, received approval from the Zoning Appeal Board to add two stories above the existing townhouse. The lees successfully sued over fears construction would damage their home, which shares a fire escape, sewage system and backyard with the site. Cai appealed the decision soon after.

Community members sat down in support of John and Wendy Lee at the John Adams Courthouse last month. Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Team

Last month, lawyers for both sides argued over the legality of the decision during an appeals court hearing.

Lane Goldberg, the developer’s attorney, said in an interview that Cai was not prohibited from building more units under the specific code at issue, “and no questions should be asked,” he said.

“The [city zoning] the code does not talk about these effects [the Lees] are concerned,” Goldberg said.

He declined to comment on broader issues of displacement and gentrification that opponents attach to the development, which will be priced at market rates that low-income residents of the neighborhood can now not afford.

Since Cai purchased the property in 2016, 9 Johnny Court has remained unoccupied. Graffiti marks one side and its front door is open, revealing a dark void. A metal door and a locking bar, but neighbors allege squatters and rodents have come and gone.

Supporters of the Lee family’s efforts to challenge development say they worry about the fate of a once tight-knit Chinatown, as projects like 9 Johnny Court continue to displace immigrant communities.

Their concerns are supported by data. Although income-tested housing constituted half of Chinatown’s housing stock in 2021 (the second highest percentage in Boston behind Roxbury), community advocates say the current supply of affordable housing still does not meet demand; 55% of households in the neighborhood earned less than $35,000 per year between 2013 and 2017, according to census data analyzed in Chinatown Master Plan 2020.

As of January 7, the average rental price for a one-bedroom apartment in Boston’s Chinatown/Leather District was $3,775, according to the real estate site Zumper.

And meanwhile, between 2010 and 2019, far more new housing was built at market rates than with deed restrictions — at a ratio of 9 to 1, according to data from the Chinatown Land Trust.

Meiqun Huang, 46, lived in one of the townhouses on Johnny Court from 2008 to 2017. But in 2017, its landlord sold the building to a landlord who converted it into an Airbnb rental, she explained in Cantonese with an English interpretation by Yu Sin Mok, a paralegal senior at Greater Boston Legal Services.

As a single-parent working family, “it was really, really difficult” to find a new place, said Huang, who now lives in Charlestown with her two children.

Huang said she remembers forming meaningful friendships with neighbors, who shared a mutual linguistic and cultural understanding.

“When new immigrants arrive here and need to get acquainted with a new life here outside of Chinatown, it’s really hard for working-class families to find that same sense of community,” Huang said.

But if redevelopment continues — which has already caused the Asian population of Chinatown and downtown to drop by 57 to 45 percent between 2001 and 2017, according to census data — Huang fears that “the whole landscape will change”.

Since the late 1800s, Chinatown has been home to Chinese immigrant communities, but before that it was also home to Syrian, Lebanese, Chinese and many European immigrant communities, said Lydia Lowe, director of the Chinatown Community Land Trust.

Lowe said Chinatown deserves the same protection from development as other neighborhoods such as Back Bay and the South End. That’s why Lowe’s and Chinatown advocates are lobbying the city to establish a Townhouse Protection Zone, which would preserve the architectural integrity of townhouses with smaller-scale zoning requirements.

The threat of redevelopment of Chinatown’s historic rowhouses has prompted city officials to include this area in an upcoming downtown planning process that will propose ways to protect and revitalize the neighborhood.

In 2019, at the start of the controversy over the development of 9 Johnny Court, Councilmen Michael Flaherty and Ed Flynn said they had proposed designating Chinatown as an interim planning overlay district to give townhouses temporary protections. historical. Still, it is unclear whether the city will adopt such a neighborhood in its ongoing downtown planning process.

Chen of the China Progressive Association said she has a displacement story for each corridor in Chinatown and believes defenders always make the same demand of city leaders.

Still, she remains hopeful that someone will reach out to Johnny Court’s townhouses.

“Sometimes fighting the same battles over and over…will help change the game,” she said.


Tiana Woodard is a member of the Report for America body that covers black neighborhoods. She can be contacted at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter at @tianarochon. Katie Mogg can be contacted at [email protected] Follow her on twitter @j0urnalistkatie

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