Chinatown Calls for Protective Zoning for Historic Row Houses: Community Fears Loss of Housing and History of Working Immigrant Families

July 13, 2019

For decades, Chinatown has fought for its future and stability as a working class, immigrant community.

Chinatown’s historic row houses have been home to generations of working class immigrants for over a hundred years. Long before Chinatown was Chinatown, the district was comprised of factories, elevated railways, and railroad yards. In the 1800s, developers built the first Federal-style brick row houses for Irish, Italian, Jewish, Syrian and other immigrant laborers. Because row houses were built for immigrant laborers, row house rent reflected the incomes of working class people.

During the 1950s and 1960s, Boston’s plan for “urban renewal” destroyed hundreds of housing units for low-income families. The Central Artery and Massachusetts Turnpike expansions of the 1950s and 60s obliterated row houses on Kneeland, Hudson and Albany Street. Institutional expansion of Tufts and New England Medical Center seized almost half of residential and commercial land use, contributing to the dwindling number of row houses left in Chinatown. It is estimated that a total of less than one hundred row houses remain in pockets on Oak Street, Johnny Court, Pine Street, Hudson Street and Tyler Street.

In the early 2000s, the first luxury tower was built in Chinatown catalyzing waves of luxury development driving up rent, food, and other living costs. The community’s response to this form of profit-driven development was to demand development be for the public good and carry community benefit such as truly affordable housing, community space, and economic opportunities for residents.

As publicly-owned  space becomes increasingly rare in Chinatown, it must be recognized that the community cannot develop its way out of the housing crisis. To keep Chinatown a home for working class immigrants we call for the preservation and protection of Chinatown’s historic row houses. While the community seeks to keep more row houses from physically disappearing due to institutional expansion and development, the nature and purpose of row houses is threatened by other forms of gentrification such as quick building turnover, short-term rentals and condo conversion. In the past decade, many row house owners have taken advantage of land speculation to sell row houses at astonishing market prices. The result of quick building turnover often leads to spikes in rent leading to the potential displacement of tenants and, at worst, full expulsion of tenants from a building as new building owners explore different ways to maximize profit. In 2018, the City of Boston passed short-term rental regulation to prevent non-owner occupied buildings from operating as exclusive short-term rentals. While this is a victory for the community, the future of row houses as homes for the immigrant working class is fleeting with more and more owners making short-term profits of row houses that have historically supported generations of community members. Over the past decade, developers and investors have increasingly converted row house rental units into condos with more floors and floor space, driving property market values up and forcing low-income tenants out.

Speculation has driven a housing crisis that spans all of Boston, but without protective zoning measures, Chinatown faces the most urgent threats to its existence as a historic neighborhood for working class immigrants. Nevertheless, the continuous selling, purchase and expansion of row houses in Chinatown is not seen throughout the rest of the city. Most Boston neighborhoods with residential sub-districts have additional sub-districts that provide for more protective zoning.

Bay Village row houses and South End brownstones have dimensional restrictions in their zoning code specifying square footage for usable open space per dwelling unit, a minimum depth for rear yards, and much more. Chinatown’s residential district shares none of these zoning protections. In fact, most historic neighborhoods are protected by a maximum Floor Area Ratio (FAR) of 3.0 while Chinatown has a FAR of 4.0. The differentiation in zoning protections across Boston neighborhoods stems from historical inequities: until the 1990 Chinatown Master Plan, Chinatown was not recognized as a residential district despite being a home to working class immigrants of color for more than a century. Without the City’s recognition, zoning codes did not protect the residential aspect of the community. Now, we have a chance to address this inequity and secure the future of this community by calling for protective zoning for Chinatown row houses.

Reforming zoning codes is an arduous and lengthy process for an issue with urgent needs; as a short-term intervention to save the row houses, the City of Boston must designate Chinatown as an Interim Planning Overlay District (IPOD). IPODs establish short-term zoning protections that regulates development in an area undergoing a longer-term planning or rezoning process. Through IPOD, the City ensures that current projects subject to approval must abide by the goals of the longer rezoning process, averting negative implications of current development in a neighborhood. For Chinatown row houses, IPOD could regulate the expansion and use of buildings to serve the needs of working class immigrant residents.

Establishing protective zoning for Chinatown row houses will curb investors and developers from easily purchasing and expanding row houses with the sole aim to make a profit. The institution of robust zoning protections will serve as a sign to Chinatown residents that they have a right to remain in the place they call home and the place they have built to become a community. Additional zoning protections will also serve as a warning to those seeking to make a profit off of land and housing that the community and city will not tolerate profit driven endeavors at the expense of the stability and livelihoods of residents.

The community understands that the future of Chinatown as a community of working class immigrants relies on the preservation and protection of its historic row houses. Boston’s Chinatown is one of very few Chinatowns left in the United States that has not yet succumbed to the pressures and demands of gentrification at the expense of an exodus of its low-income immigrant community. This is an opportunity to honor the history and secure the future of Boston’s Chinatown by protecting its row houses through equitable policy change.

On Tuesday, April 30th, residents, community members, homeowners, and advocates gathered in front of 29 Oak Street and 9 Johnny Court to demand equity and protection for Chinatown Row Houses.