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Life at ground zero in Boston’s class war

Chinatown being squeezed by luxury highrises

Yawu Miller
Yawu Miller
Yawu Miller is the Banner’s senior editor. VIEW BIO
Life at ground zero in Boston’s class war
Chinatown activists marched last week with banners bearing the messages “remain,” “reclaim” and “rebuild our community” as part of an effort to draw attention to the rising rents and real estate values that are forcing low-income families out of the neighborhood.

Walking through the shadows of the brick row houses that for decades have housed Chinatown’s low-income residents, several dozen protesters carry signs and brightly colored banners with the words that make up the Right to the City’s slogan: “remain, reclaim, re-build our community.”

In the row houses, struggling families are seeing their rents double and triple, as well-heeled professionals seeking proximity to their downtown jobs rediscover city living. Looming above the warren of narrow streets are new steel-and-glass luxury towers, including the Millennium with its $37.5 million 60th floor penthouse.

The struggling Chinatown residents, many of whom earn $20,000 a year working long hours in the local restaurants, stand in stark contrast to the mostly-white professional class that is encroaching on their neighborhood from all sides. If Boston — as the Boston Foundation’s Indicators Report points out — has the third highest rate of income inequality, Chinatown is ground zero.

“Chinatown is really a community of the very rich and the very poor now,” says Lydia Lowe, executive director of the Chinese Progressive organization, which led last week’s demonstration.

It’s pointless to talk about the median income in Chinatown, where Lowe says families double up in small apartments to afford the $1,200 to $2,000 a month in rent for unimproved apartments, while well-heeled professionals, entrepreneurs and executives pay $950,000 on average for condos in and around Chinatown.

Boston’s working-class residents are caught in a squeeze, with wages stagnating while rents and other costs of living are rising rapidly. The median yearly income of the bottom 20 percent of Boston earners increased by just $930 or 14 percent, according to the Boston Foundation’s Indicators Report. At the same time, the top 20 percent of earners saw their incomes rise 40 percent — $63,000 on average.

While low-income city residents have the possibility of obtaining affordable housing in Boston, though the wait for a unit can be as long as six years, middle income renters have been forced out of gentrified neighborhoods like the South End, Jamaica Plain and South Boston.

They may not be coming back. Of the 14,000 people who moved to Boston between 2008 and 2013, nearly half reported incomes of less than $10,000, according to the Indicators report. And while 40 percent of the new arrivals reported incomes higher than $100,000, the number of households in Boston earning between $25,000 and $100,000 declined by a thousand, a shift the Indicators report says is indicative of a “hollowing out of the middle class.”

Curbing gentrification

Chinatown residents demonstrate against rent increases and other economic pressures they say are forcing residents out of the downtown neighborhood. In the background the 60-story Millennium Tower is nearing completion with multi-million dollar luxury condos.

In Chinatown, the demonstrators issued a set of demands aimed at protecting working-class residents from displacement, urging the city to reserve the few remaining parcels of publicly-owned land in Chinatown for affordable housing and a Chinatown branch of the Boston Public Library. The activists are also calling on the City Council to pass a proposed ordinance that would place restrictions on no-fault evictions, which landlords often use to displace tenants paying low rents.

The Chinese Progressive Association also is part of the Raise Up Massachusetts coalition, a group advocating an amendment to the Massachusetts Constitution that would establish a higher tax rate on all income over $1 million. Under the amendment, which will require a statewide ballot initiative and two successive votes with at least 50 of the 160 legislators’ support, the tax rate will move from 5 percent to 9 percent for every dollar earned over $1 million. With 14,000 Massachusetts residents earning over $1 million, organizers estimate the amendment would raise $1.5 billion, which the law would require the Legislature to spend on education and the state’s transportation infrastructure — public transportation and roads and bridges.

Harris Gruman, executive secretary of the Service Employees International Union Massachusetts State Council and an organizer of the ballot initiative, says it would make a small dent in the structural inequality in Massachusetts.

“It’s a modest step in the right direction,” he told the Banner. “It’s asking the top half of one percent who have had all the growth in income in the last 30 years in this state to put a tiny bit back — four percent of their income on top of $1 million — to help bring prosperity back into the economy from which they’ve benefitted.”

The $1.5 billion the amendment would generate for education and transportation could have a positive impact on the state’s economy, says Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center Executive Director Noah Berger.

“There are a number of things that can impact the lives of low-income people,” he said.

Public transportation helps low-income people access jobs. Robust K-12 and the public higher education system help low-income people become competitive in the state’s job market.

Urban livelihood

Other local efforts to improve the incomes of low-wage workers include last year’s successful bid to raise the minimum wage in Massachusetts, which will rise to $10 an hour in 2016 and $11 an hour in 2017. The administration of Gov. Charlie Baker recently signed into law a 50 percent increase in the state’s Earned Income Tax Credit, a tax break for low-income families.

At the city level, Mayor Martin Walsh says his administration has been combatting the effects of income inequality through a variety of initiatives, ranging from expanded paid parental leave for city employees to financial empowerment centers, located in Dudley Square, South Boston and Downtown Boston, that offer free financial counseling, job counseling and other services.

At a topping off ceremony for a 140-unit mixed income development under construction in the Mission Hill neighborhood, Walsh said affordable housing is an important component in keeping low- and moderate-income people in the city.

“We have to build more moderate- and low-income housing,” he said. “When you talk about income inequality a lot of it comes down to cost of living and the cost of housing. For the first time this year and last year our housing starts of moderate- and low-income housing has outpaced high-end housing. It shows you there’s a concerted effort to create more workforce and low-income housing. It will help. People are being priced out.”

Walsh and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio are heading a National Inequality Taskforce for the U.S. Conference of Mayors to devise strategies to close the income gap.

Walsh also said he’s supporting legislation on Beacon Hill that would allow cities and towns to set their own minimum wages.

But Berger notes that state-level efforts can only go so far toward alleviating the income disparities that are affecting not just Massachusetts, but every state in the nation.

“A lot of the structural issues relate to national policies — things like fiscal policy and trade policy are decided at the national level,” he says.

More than 20 years after the North American Free Trade Act, regional and international trade deals are making it easier for corporations to outsource jobs to foreign countries, undermining the blue collar segment of the U.S. workforce.

In Chinatown, organizers are looking for local government solutions. The service industry jobs in which the residents work — mostly in restaurants — aren’t going away, but the low wages they’re earning aren’t keeping pace with the rent increases. And more and more of the low-rent buildings are giving way to luxury apartment buildings, putting the future of the Chinatown community in doubt.

While the Boston Redevelopment Authority is advancing a citywide Imagine Boston 2030 community planning exercise, many in Chinatown are questioning whether city officials want them to stay.

“When we imagine Boston in 2030, we want to know that there will be a Chinatown here,” said Chinese Progressive Association Co-Director Karen Chen.

For some Chinatown residents, the question is will they be there next year.

“To find a place to move to in Chinatown is very difficult,” said Mei Yue Zhang, whose landlord has ordered her out by Oct. 1. “My life is here. My family is here. My daughter goes to school here. We just want to stay here. This is my community. This is my home.”