There is a battle raging in LA’s Chinatown over gentrification.
Some people call it a “necessary process of modernization,” and others would frame it as “neglecting the vulnerable.”
Local tenant advocacy groups operate on the principle that gentrification leads to massive rent increases, which displace low-income elderly folks. With 19.9% of residents aged 65 and older, the elderly population in Chinatown is substantial and is lacking affordable housing.
However, some local business interests believe that embracing gentrification by bringing in new commercial businesses and residential developments will increase foot traffic and benefit the community as a whole. Disposable income is needed to stimulate the local economy, and the elderly community, by and large, relies on SSI. A 2019 study by the Philadelphia Fed reported positive effects of gentrification on the long-term low-income residents of a neighborhood by lowering the exposure to poverty for all residents.
Collaboration between business interests and tenant advocacy concerns will benefit all members of the community. Building both market-rate housing to entice young people with disposable income to move into Chinatown, while continuing to develop protected affordable housing, will maintain the culture and community of elderly locals.
The case for building more housing to address the current crisis in expensive cities like LA is supported by research done by the San Francisco Bay Area Planning and Urban Research Association. Its study reveals that current methods such as rent control and developer regulation are not effective. Instead, we must utilize the land we already have in cities more efficiently. Upzoning, or changing zoning to allow more housing to be built, means either allowing taller buildings or greater densities of housing, is the only solution.
Take a quick drive through Chinatown and you will see large swaths of empty land. The existence of these unoccupied dirt lots speaks volumes, considering the lack of housing in Chinatown and LA as a whole.
That is not to say that nobody is interested in this land. Lot 45, for instance, is a county-owned parking lot. Owned by the county of Los Angeles, it is much more affordable than market-rate land in Chinatown and is thus particularly attractive to many parties. There is also a massive empty dirt lot next to the Chinatown Community Service Center that the CSC would like to transform into affordable housing. Unfortunately, this lot is privately owned and valued at a whopping $30 million, making it out of reach.
In order to understand the positive impact upzoning might have on this community, consider the seniors residing at Cathay Manor. Cathay Manor is a private housing facility in Chinatown that accepts low-income elderly individuals with Section 8 Housing Choice vouchers. For seniors living on about $930 a month in an area where typical market-rate apartments in the area go for about $1,700 to $2,000, truly affordable housing is a godsend.
Unfortunately, many seniors who qualify for affordable housing are unable to receive it, because there is simply not enough housing available—despite the aforementioned vacant lots. For instance, every five years, 2,000 elderly apply to Cathay Manor senior housing and only 250 are approved.
Although the need to build more affordable housing is vital, we believe that the land that is dedicated to non-low-income housing—such as the new Blossom Plaza apartments—is also beneficial.
As leadership from the Chinatown Service Center expressed, it is time for the various organizations in Chinatown to come together in a powerful way to advocate for the development of market-rate and affordable housing for both the elderly and the more affluent. Both types of developments are vital to the spirit, culture and economy of Chinatown.