Change comes to New York's Chinatown

Some tenants evicted from illegal subdivisions to allow gentrification

September 08, 2002|By Yilu Zhao | Yilu Zhao,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

NEW YORK - It had to happen eventually. Chinatown already spills over into two neighborhoods moving from modest to mod: Little Italy and the Lower East Side. And it is just a cell phone's throw from TriBeCa and SoHo. Gentrification was bound to come to Chinatown.

Now that it has arrived, the neighborhood is experiencing the usual side effects, including landlords trying to evict longtime tenants who pay very little rent in favor of deep-pocketed bond traders. But this time there is a twist. It seems that many of the Chinatown apartments that tenants are clinging to are illegal subdivisions, minuscule single rooms divided by little more than wooden boards. So when the landlord comes to evict these tenants, he can do so by wielding the city's building codes.

From 200 to 400 families have been evicted from Chinatown every year in recent years, legal aid lawyers and social workers say. Many have moved to Chinese enclaves in Brooklyn or Queens. Some families have become homeless.

There is little dispute that illegal spaces are all over Chinatown. In some cases, said a number of social workers, some immigrant tenants profited from cutting their rent-controlled or rent-stabilized one- and two-bedroom apartments into smaller units, and illegally renting them out to other families. Others say that in the 1980s, as immigrants poured out from China, some Chinatown landlords divided single-family apartments themselves.

But no matter who did the dividing, these illegal living quarters mean that many families share one kitchen and bathroom. The spaces, often partitioned into warrens with thin wooden boards, could be firetraps.

Courting city agencies

Now the building owners are courting city agencies to come inspect those longtime hazards.

This is what is happening at one building on Rutgers Street. Zongbo Zhou and his wife, Caizhu Tan, live in one of those tiny spaces, with wooden boards for walls. Zhou, a gaunt 82-year-old, once taught Chinese in elementary schools in rural Guangdong, China, then butchered chickens in Chinatown's live poultry market before retiring.

For 14 years, the couple paid $300 a month rent on a squeezed 150-square-foot room, with a full-size bed, a small table, a cupboard and a couple of chairs. But now their landlord wants them out.

They say that the wooden partitions were erected before they moved in. At the end of last year, the landlord, Bao Li, called in the Fire Department to inspect the building's second floor. When the Fire Department found a violation, he evicted every tenant: 18 immigrants from China. Since then, Li has started to modernize those apartments. And he has told all tenants on the other floors to move out immediately.

The telephone number listed for the landlord, Bao Li, has been disconnected. His lawyer, Mark Friedlander, declined to comment, saying, "I do not like litigating cases in newspapers."

Rent on the rise

New rentals in Chinatown are commanding at least four times the rent of rent-controlled and rent-stabilized units, according to Community Board 2, which encompasses northern Chinatown. Rents on studio apartments are now as high as $1,600 a month. And the average price of a condominium in the area has shot up by 28 percent since last year; two-bedroom apartments are sold for $700,000 to $900,000, according to the Corcoran Group.

Scott Durkin, the chief operating officer of Corcoran, said the market in Chinatown was strong and getting stronger. "All the hip bars in the East Village and on the Lower East Side are close by," he said. "People like the rawness of the community and the mix of different types of people."

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