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Preserving Affordable Housing – One Tenement Building at a Time

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The before and after pictures tell the story. Residents of 112 Eldridge Street (between Broome and Grand) were living in terrible conditions. Walls had decayed, ceilings buckled, water could only be run in one unit at a time. But thanks to an innovative government/non-profit partnership, the residents of this once-typical Chinatown tenement will soon be moving into beautifully refurbished apartments. Last week, I toured the building with Chris Kui, the executive director of Asian Americans for Equality (AAFE), which led the restoration project. What was accomplished at 112 Eldridge, Kui says, reveals a great deal about where the fight for affordable housing in New York City is headed in the years to come.

The renovation of this building was made possible through the Chinatown/Lower East Side Acquisition Program, funded by the federal government and administered through the city of New York. Following 9/11, a $16 million fund was set up to purchase small buildings, preserving them as affordable through rent stabilization (the fund is supplemented by private bank loans). The city teams up with non-profit organizations, such as AAFE, who have experience renovating apartments, and who know the intricacies of their own communities. So far, AAFE has completed work on six buildings (132 apartments). Kui estimated the market rate value of the 3 bedroom apartment he showed me would be at least $3000. Rent stabilized, the tenants will pay less than $800.

Since 1989, AAFE has created hundreds of units of affordable housing (both rental and owned apartments) in Chinatown, the Lower East Side and in Queens. Using tax credits and tapping into other sources of government funding, they took possession of many dormant city-owned buildings. But the conversion of the Eldridge Street tenement represents a new frontier, in which private properties are acquired – and preserved as affordable. Just last week, Mayor Bloomberg’s new housing commissioner, Rafael Cestero, said that while the city will continue to look at ways to add new units, maintaining the currently affordable housing stock was his top priority. Kui told me the cost of developing a single new affordable unit is twice that of maintaining an already existing apartment ($150-thousand vs. $300-thousand).

AAFE has maintained a high profile in the city for many years. But the election last month of its former deputy executive director, Margaret Chin, to the City Council, is a new sign of the organization’s political power. At a news conference last week to announce AAFE’s acceptance into the national group, NeighorWorks America, Kui was surrounded by New York’s political establishment. It’s been quite a journey for an organization once considered “radical,” and “anti-establishment.”

During a conversation at AAFE’s Norfolk Street headquarters, Kui told me the organization has stayed true to its roots. While community-based housing development is an important part of their work, he said advocating for tenant rights, leading educational workshops and helping people navigate public housing options are just as central to their mission. Kui also noted that AAFE has moved well beyond its origins in the Asian American community. About 30-percent of the people they help, for example, are Latino. And he’s proud of their involvement in a wide range of civil rights issues, from Chinatown to Harlem.

AAFE has many admirers, and over the years, they’ve picked up a few foes as well. Any developer in New York City (even a non-profit) is bound to make some enemies. But Kui told me he believes that AAFE is a better advocate for low-income residents because of its experience building housing. “We see ourselves as a community developer, using public resources, along with socially responsible private investment.” Kui thinks of his organization as a bridge between neighborhoods and government.

And what about the future? Kui was one of the driving forces behind the creation of the Chinatown Working Group, a large committee trying to formulate a plan that both encourages investment in the neighborhood but also protects it from unrestrained development. In Chinatown, as well as the Lower East Side, Kui said he believes unconventional home ownership models need to be developed. One possibility: something similar to the limited equity cooperatives that were so successful on the LES in the 70’s and 80’s. He also floated the idea of building “efficiency” apartments for single residents and couples, the kind of smaller units common in Asia and Europe. It’s a concept, Kui said, that would allow far more affordable units to be created.

Margaret Chin.
Margaret Chin.

As for Margaret Chin, Kui said he thinks her deep roots in the community and her in-depth understanding of affordable housing issues will be assets on the City Council. Kui has long advocated greater Chinese representation in government (Chin is the first Chinese woman elected to the City Council).  He implied her victory is a sign of the times, an indication that there is a new hunger in New York for reaching across cultural and economic divides to find solutions. Kui believes that’s what AAFE is all about.

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