LOS ANGELES (CN) – In a low-income apartment structure above a souvenir shop in the Chinatown neighborhood of Los Angeles, a Chinese woman prepares lunch in a small kitchen she shares with 45 other people.
The woman, who speaks Cantonese, holds a bowl of raw vegetables in one hand and in the other a sheet of burning old newspaper which she uses to ignite one of the two working burners on the stove.
A stainless sink in the kitchen takes up much of the limited space across the faded linoleum tile. Colorful fabric on the window refracts the afternoon sunlight, partially covering the view of a patio in the middle of the building where residents hang their hand-washed clothes to dry.
Ripped and fading dark blue carpet lines the hallways of the 30-unit single room occupancy apartment, one of the few remaining low-income housing options in a community where residents are increasingly priced out by rent hikes.
Craig Wong, a housing advocate with Chinatown Community for Equitable Development, said residents of the neighborhood on the eastern edge of LA’s downtown are being forgotten in the area’s development boom.
More than 40 percent of residents here live at or below the federal poverty line and more than 92 percent are renters.
With a median neighborhood income hovering around $21,000, even small rent increases can destabilize most residents.
Those who live in the apartments above the souvenir shop pay about $450 for the modest rooms and had to fight to keep their homes. The building owner – who also owns a Chinatown bank – threatened to raise tenants’ rent in 2017 by at least $100. The residents, many of whom sell vegetables or collect recycles to subsist, organized a resistance.
Part of their strategy included occupying the building owner’s bank, which eventually forced him to agree to a rent freeze.
But Wong said the residents are still in danger of being priced out since they have no formal, long-term agreement with the landlord.
“The only safety they have is to stay organized,” Wong said.
Housing has always been a concern for Chinatown residents, even the earliest recorded residents who began living here in 1852. Those early residents, mostly men, took jobs as laborers in road and building construction.
Racist, exclusionary laws prohibited the Chinese from obtaining U.S. citizenship. Consequently, they couldn’t purchase property and many were forced to rent substandard housing for years.
But between 1890 and 1910, the Chinese gradually expanded their community eastward from downtown, backed by their financial stake in the booming laundry industry, and an Old Chinatown district began to appear.
On Chung King Road, the old district’s former commercial strip, residents shopped for groceries at Hong Sang Lung Market, purchase clothes at Fong’s department store and try on jewelry at In Sun Company.
Today, however, Chinese residents are a rare sight on Chung King Road. The old storefronts have been replaced by dozens of exclusive art galleries and event spaces. The sign for the Black Dragon Wu-Shu Kung Fu Society still hangs above the road but no apprentices have entered its doors for some time.
Alex Cheung, the last remaining Chinese store owner on Chung King, says the mostly white owners of the new galleries are cold and uninterested in having a relationship with the community’s senior residents.
“People once related to each other, helped clean outside their storefronts and were friendly,” Cheung said inside the import store he opened in 1971. “Now they come here to look for money, but what do they know about Chinatown?”
As an example, Cheung said when new gallery owners came in, they cut the feed to outdoor speakers that for years played Chinese music for Chung King shoppers. Meanwhile, a cluster of sewing factories on Chung King once supplied critical jobs to Chinese women in the community but were priced out of the space in recent years, and Cheung said it’s difficult to retain friendships when people are forced to move.
“Chinatown is supposed to be for shopping, seeing people, not for painting,” Cheung said, half-joking.
With residents priced out of the community, local shops – including supermarkets – have closed up shop.
Outside the Alpine Recreation Center down the road, a group of Chinese women in their 70s and 80s are betting their pennies in a card game called Big Two. One woman who declined to share her name said she takes public transit to cities in San Gabriel Valley to shop for groceries, up to an hour each way by bus.
She said her rent went up in 2018, from $800 to $1,100 for a two-bedroom apartment she shares with other women.
“It’s not the same as walking around your own community to shop,” the woman said through an interpreter, adding prices are higher outside of Chinatown. “I have to go to church food pantries to get the food I need.”
Wong said the rise in housing costs and the shortage of affordable housing units is directly tied to development of market-rate apartment complexes.
Last summer, over 120 seniors living on fixed incomes at The Metro apartments in Chinatown were told they’d face an 8 percent rent increase. Over 40 percent of the residents would have been forced out, according to Wong.
LA City Councilmember Gil Cedillo, who had facilitated a rent increase moratorium at The Metro the year before, managed to forge an agreement between residents and the building owner. Under the agreement, two developers – Meta Housing Corporation and Atlas Capital Group – will absorb the residents’ rent increases in exchange for city approval, without affordable housing unit requirements, of their 725-unit College Station development in Chinatown.
But Wong said the city shouldn’t have let the developers skip out on affordable housing unit requirements, adding many residents opposed Cedillo’s agreement and his “strong-arm” negotiating tactics.
In a statement, Cedillo said the Metro agreement protected the residents.
“By negotiating with landlords, we have been able to defer rent increases and in the most recent case at Metro Lofts we came up with a solution to absorb rent increases for the next 10 years,” Cedillo said, and noted his office has hosted tenants-rights workshops for Chinatown residents.
Cedillo said his office is working to enforce city laws that protect low-income rents from dramatic rent increases.
“With rising rents occurring citywide, we are challenged with preserving affordable housing, especially in situations where affordable housing covenants are terming out,” Cedillo said.
Under the city’s rent stabilization ordinance, landlords are only allowed to raise rents by 3 percent per year and must show reasonable cause before initiating an eviction process.
Sisi Trinh, a housing advocate with Southeast Asian Community Alliance, said preserving local businesses that also serve as employers for local residents is critical, but housing remains a central focus.
The organization is working on community benefits agreements with some developers to ensure that their apartment projects include below market-rate or low-income housing units. But Trinh said the process is daunting with so many projects popping up across the community.
“We can’t fight all of them,” Trinh said.