How much does it cost to live in Chinatown?

Chinatown is a neighborhood of contradictions. It has more than 3,000 units of affordable housing, often jammed next to luxury condominiums. Historic buildings, such as the original Quincy School opened in 1847, are blocks from modern skyscrapers. Once a Syrian neighborhood, a sustained wave of Chinese immigrants make Chinatown their home. Its downtown location is served by the subway, commuter rail and two highways, making Chinatown a hub for Asian Americans.

Chinatown housing costs are higher than citywide averages. The neighborhood has the largest number of affordable units in Boston, as well as the most expensive property. (Image courtesy of Ling-Mei Wong.)

“Chinatown’s a unique immigrant community. For residents who don’t speak a lot of English, having a community enables them to get jobs and go to class,” said Angie Liou, executive director of the Asian Community Development Corporation (ACDC). “People who move to the suburbs still come in on Sunday for dim sum, groceries or to visit grandparents in the neighborhood.”

Chinatown’s public housing stock helps keep residents in the neighborhood. However, families who live in affordable units rarely move out, resulting in waits of years or even decades before a spot opens. The average apartment rent was $3,998 in Chinatown’s ZIP code 02111 for 2016, according to data from the Massachusetts Multiple Listing Service (MLS). While that ZIP code includes Midtown and the Leather District, along with listings for studios and two-bedroom units, it is higher than Boston’s average rental cost of $2,848 for 2016, from 500 MLS listings.

Buying downtown becomes even more prohibitive. The majority of 2016 condo sales for ZIP code 02111 took place in Midtown for luxury condos at the Ritz-Carlton Residences or Millennium Place, averaging $1,484,528, based on MLS data. Listings in Chinatown proper, such as a one-bedroom condo in Lofts Avana on 42 Beach Street, sold for $600,600. Homeownership is rare in Chinatown, with many residents choosing to rent or relocate to nearby Quincy and Malden.

“Anecdotally, I’ve heard rowhouse rents are rising, with landlords renovating to collect more rent from medical students or doctors,” Liou said. “When long-time tenants can’t afford the rent increases, landlords will evict them, resulting in displacement.”

ACDC work as a community developer includes One Greenway in 2015 and the Metropolitan in 2004. Both projects include more than 30 percent affordable units, well above the City of Boston’s Inclusionary Development Policy, which stipulates a minimum percentage of affordable units in housing. One Greenway is nearing completion for 51 affordable homeownership condos at 88 Hudson, which is accepting applications until April 10. One Greenway has 95 affordable rental units at 66 Hudson, which received more than 4,000 applications. The North building of One Greenway has 217 market-rate units on Kneeland Street.

“We’ve historically taken the approach of creating new housing by working on large and complex projects like One Greenway or the Metropolitan 12 years ago,” Liou said. “It’s nowhere near the housing needed to answer demand, so we’re looking at smaller projects that could be done faster.”

Image courtesy of Ling-Mei Wong.

ACDC is working to preserve affordable housing or convert market-rate units. MassHousing announced March 22 that low-income senior citizens and families will see affordable rents extended and extensive property renovations for 249 housing units in Chinatown. This covers 88-unit Oak Terrace Apartments at 888 Washington Street and 161-unit Quincy Tower at 5 Oak Street for seniors. ACDC will renovate Oak Terrace — which it built in 1995 —while Quincy Tower’s affordable rentals will be extended for 30 years.

“It is very difficult for working families and senior citizens to afford rents in Chinatown,” said Congressman Mike Capuano in the MassHousing release. “Tax-funded programs are a vital and dynamic part of preserving our communities. Keeping rents affordable through Low-Income Housing Tax Credits and Section 8 vouchers shows how the federal government can be an important partner in stabilizing communities.”

Malden and Quincy are developing as Asian exurbs, with more Chinese supermarkets and restaurants opening. About 20 percent of Malden residents are Asian, while Quincy is 25 percent Asian, based on the most recent U.S. Census in 2010.

“In talk about affordability, Boston gets it,” Liou said. “In the suburbs, there’s more a mentality of not wanting to build more affordable housing because they don’t want ‘those people’ moving in. Is it Asians? Or just people not from Malden?”

Despite more people moving to the suburbs, Chinatown remains a hub. Chinese individuals choose banking, health care and postal services in Chinatown, as downtown branches employ more Cantonese and Mandarin speakers. People may not live in Chinatown, but for many Asians, it feels like home.

“Chinatown’s very tight-knit,” Liou said. “That’s good because everyone cares.”

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This post is also available in: Chinese

About Ling-Mei Wong 黃靈美

Editor of the Sampan, the only bilingual Chinese-English newspaper in New England 舢舨報紙總編輯。舢舨是全紐英倫唯一的中英雙語雙週報。
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