Hellen Choong settled in Chinatown after immigrating to America in 1991. She’s lived in the neighborhood ever since, and will tell you she has no plans to leave. “I love Chinatown, to be honest. It’s so convenient, no?” she asked recently, sitting in her apartment at 11 Allen Street. “Everything is right there. Even when I come home form work, I can still get food. In Queens or Brooklyn, I would have to start running around. No way, I wouldn’t budge from here.”
But if her landlord wins a dispute currently making its way through Housing Court, she may have no choice. In February 2011, real estate investor Fei Wang purchased 11 Allen, an apartment building near the corner of Canal Street. According to residents, some of whom have lived in the building’s small apartments for more than 20 years, he didn’t wait long to demand a change in the way the building had traditionally operated.
“Immediately he told us, ‘I’m the new landlord. How much are you renting this room for?” remembered Choong. “So we told him. And he said, ‘Oh, you’re renting for 400? No!’ He just banged the table: ‘No!’”
Before the building changed hands, tenants paid affordable rents according to written and verbal agreements rather than formal leases. After purchasing the five-story building for $2.3 million, Wang clearly hoped his investment would begin paying greater dividends. According to tenants, he insisted that rents increase by as much as 100 percent immediately, telling them they could leave if they were unable to afford the new rate. But soon after, he began disputing the legality of tenants’ residence in the building at all: 11 Allen is technically zoned as a commercial building, not for residential use.
But the resulting case in housing court has rallied the families living in 11 Allen to oppose their eviction. Tenants say they are fighting to preserve a small but close-knit community, in a building in which neighbors feel a special kinship. “Everybody in the building, we’re all friends,” said Frank Liu through a translator provided by an advocacy organization. “He’s lived in the building for 8 years with his wife, who moved in 16 years ago. “Every Saturday night, some of us get together and have a meal. It’s really fun and welcoming.” Residents visit each other frequently, and greet each other with friendly familiarity. Choong said a toddler living downstairs often makes surprise visits, which she welcomes gladly. “He’ll just run up to our place,” she explained, smiling.
In an effort to preserve their homes and their communal dynamic, the tenants have partnered in their cause with CAAAV-Organizing Asian Communities, a local organization that serves low-income Asian Americans immigrants in New York City. That partnership led to the involvement of the Urban Justice Center, which is representing the tenants in housing court pro-bono. Shafaq Islam, the tenants’ lawyer, has been impressed by how the residents of 11 Allen have pulled together.
“It’s been a great learning experience for me, because they are very cohesive as a group of tenants,” he said. “I don’t think I’ve seen another group of tenants that’s this large and this united.” He says the argument that the building must be used for commercial purposes blatantly ignores its history. Built before 1974, used for decades as residential property, and composed of more than six units, 11 Allen meets the established criteria for rent stabilized housing, he asserted.
Esther Wang, project director for CAAAV’s Chiantown Tenants Union, said the tenants’ struggling to remain in their homes are fighting against a familiar trend: Chinatown and the Lower East Side’s continuing gentrification.
“For us, part of the problem is, if buildings stay in the hands of private landlords, who don’t care about maintaining affordability or who don’t really care about the character of the neighborhood,” she said. “What you really get is situations like this.”
(Our attempt to contact Fei Wang through his attorney went unanswered. Tenants say the landlord has ceased all direct communication with them, and city records suggest he lives in Maryland.)
CAAAV and the tenants are pushing hard to settle the case out of court, so that they can negotiate for the building to become permanent affordable housing in a neighborhood where rents are rising fast. CAAAV has been in contact with local non-profits about the possibility of purchasing the property from Fei Wang for that purpose, but no plans have solidified yet.
While the court could technically begin to try the case in earnest at its next hearing, Islam said he thought it was prudent to continue to work towards a settlement. “At trial, there’s always the risk one side will win and the other side will lose completely. A trial is always a risky proposition.”
Of Fei Wang, he noted, “He also is aware of what a loss means.” While the tenants could be evicted from their homes, their landlord could see his expensive investment completely thwarted in a rent-stabilized scenario. “We’re going to continue to explore these settlement options a little longer, as long as both sides are negotiating in good faith,” Islam said.
The opposing camps met in July to discuss a possible settlement, but tenants grew frustrated as Fei Wang’s offered to pay the tenants of each apartment $5,000 to leave. “It’s useless,” said Frank Liu. “For those of us who have lived here for so long, $5,000 is nothing.”
Both sides did agree to take the possibility of a trial off the table for the near future. Tenants were wiling to pay the equivalent of two months’ rent to Fei Wang, on the condition that he agreed to delay going to trial and continue to negotiate a settlement. (Because Wang is disputing the legality of their tenancy, he hasn’t technically been able to charge them rent in months). The court hearing in this case is scheduled for the end of the month.
Esther Wang believes the terms of the agreement were a good indication that the tenants’ opposition and financial pressure resulting from the case might be weakening the landlord’s resolve. “I think he’s feeling the pinch,” she said.
Hellen Choong is determined to hang on at 11 Allen, but she knows she is part of a story that is larger than the troubles of a single building and its owner. Even if her home becomes permanently affordable, the victory will be an exception to the rule of gentrification in Chinatown. “It’s too fast, too much,” she said, reflecting on 21 years in the neighborhood. “We Asians—there’s no more Chinatown for us?”