Asian Americans facing high risk of displacement mobilize to fight back

“Even things like ordering food, buying food and being able to cook food you’re familiar with could become a challenge” if residents get displaced, one advocate said.
Image: Boston Chinatown
Cui Li Chen sits on her bed in Boston's Chinatown on Oct. 8, 2019. She and her husband share a cramped three bedroom walkup sublet with five other people. They had their own apartment until a landlord forced them out of their home when they were away visiting their son. The lease for this apartment ends in July, and they are uncertain if it will be renewed.Lane Turner / Boston Globe via Getty Images

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By Agnes Constante

Baolian Kuang had recently immigrated from China to Boston’s Chinatown when she found out in 2004 that her rent would be increasing by 25 percent. She didn’t speak English and was five months pregnant with her first child at the time, but that didn’t stop her from knocking on doors in her apartment complex to rally tenants against the rent hike.

Kuang was determined to take action so she could afford to stay there.

Along with 87 other low-income households in the building, the neighborhood was where they worked, where their social services were based and where their community was.

So she organized the residents in her complex to form a tenant association. They met with their landlord, submitted petitions and spoke to media outlets about their housing struggles.

“I feel the people most impacted have to be the one to fight,” Kuang said. “They need to speak for themselves. That's very important.”

According to data referenced by the National Coalition for Asian Pacific American Community Development (CAPACD), 73 percent of poor Asian American and Pacific Islanders live in the most expensive housing markets, and low-income members face a high risk of economic displacement.

Quinn Rhi, organizing network manager for the coalition, said that effective strategies to combat displacement vary depending on the circumstances communities face, but tenant unions have proven to be widely effective. It allows tenants to collectively advocate for policy changes — such as rent control — and gives them a stronger voice when dealing with negligent landlords.

Through the association that Kuang helped organize, tenants in her building rallied to defeat the rent hike. They gathered a second time around 2017 after a federal subsidy that kept their building affordable had expired. Residents mobilized and successfully secured funding to keep their rent affordable for another 30 years.Still, the threat of displacement consistently looms over communities of color, including the Asian American community.

Rhi said the coalition ramped up its anti-displacement and anti-gentrification organizing efforts in 2009 following the recession. Coalition members at that point began reporting that the cost of rentals and home ownership started becoming out of reach, she added.

Yan Chi Chen speaks during a rally outside of his hair salon at 106 Tyler St. in Boston's Chinatown on Feb. 14, 2019. The salon owner who faced eviction in what his supporters called a blatant example of the displacement caused by gentrification.David L. Ryan / Boston Globe via Getty Images file

For Asian Americans living in ethnic enclaves like Boston's Chinatown, which has seen a dwindling Asian population as the cost of living has risen, being priced out of the neighborhood would present challenges in their daily lives.

Karen Chen, executive director of the Chinese Progressive Association of Boston, which helped Kuang and other residents in their fight, said that the Chinese American community lives in Chinatown out of necessity rather than convenience.

Not everyone, for instance, speaks English. But the neighborhood is home to a multitude of bilingual services — such as schools, banks and medical clinics, employment opportunities and culturally specific establishments that are essential in the daily lives of its residents, Chen said.

“Even things like ordering food, buying food and being able to cook food you’re familiar with could become a challenge” if residents get displaced, she added.

To remain in and preserve their communities, Asian Americans across the country have deployed various anti-displacement strategies that depend on the circumstances they face.

In Portland, Oregon, the Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon (APANO) advocated for the conversion of a vacant furniture store into a 48-unit affordable housing complex, and engaged residents, elected officials and community partners in the process.

Todd Struble, community development director at APANO, said the community's biggest fear was that the building would become market-rate housing unaffordable for residents in the neighborhood or become a McDonald’s.

“There’s a huge unmet demand for affordable housing,” he said.

In the Northern California city of Alameda, youth have played an instrumental role in anti-displacement efforts.

A few years ago, a new landlord attempted to evict the residents of an apartment complex that was home to predominantly Filipino families, Denise Wong, tenant organizer of Filipino Advocates for Justice, said. At the time, Alameda had no tenant protections, rent control or just-cause eviction policies, which limit the basis on which landlords can evict tenants, she added.

“Youth were the first ones to go to city council and raise hell about this issue, resulting in the passage of an emergency moratorium on evictions so that these young people and their families would not be evicted,” Wong said. She also noted that they helped collect 25 percent of the signatures for a petition to get a rent control and just-cause ballot initiative on the 2016 ballot in Alameda.

This year, the city adopted just cause and rent control ordinances.

“What Alameda was able to accomplish this year would not be possible without Filipino youth,” Wong said. “Through combined efforts, we turned out 40 to 60 people at several key city council meetings this year.”

The successes of Kuang and APANO are two of several highlighted in a toolkit National CAPACD launched in October to augment efforts that combat ongoing displacement. It provides tenants and groups with resources in six languages to organize and fight against displacement, including information on tenant rights, data on housing costs and guides on how to develop campaigns.

“I think with all these different stories we’re building, it really does require that we create something like a toolkit so that we can share across what are the best practices, what are different ways that people have talked to local officials and what kind of language are people using to talk to tenants,” Rhi said.

For APANO, meanwhile, the next step is figuring out how to stabilize small, culturally specific businesses, which are just as vulnerable to displacement as residents, Struble said.

“If those businesses get priced out, the folks that live in the neighborhood are going to look around and see a bunch of restaurants or grocery stores where they maybe can’t afford the goods and services they need to stay in the neighborhood. And it doesn’t reflect their cultural experience,” he said. "That’s something we are really concerned about and think about on a daily basis, of who are the anchor businesses in the neighborhood? And how can we support them and keep them stable?"