Chinatown Group Demands 100% Low-Income Housing on Lower East Side Site
Issue #
180

The City Council voted unanimously Oct. 11 to approve a massive Low•er East Side development plan, but neighborhood activists vow to keep pushing for 100 percent low-income housing on the site.

The plan for the Seward Park Urban Re•newal Area, on the south side of Delancey Street near the Williamsburg Bridge, is for a mix of residential buildings and big-box stores. It would include 900 to 1,000 apart•ments, half of them market-rate — renting for as much as $6,000 a month — and half “affordable.”

“Why does the city insist on approving a plan that benefits the rich?” responded Yolanda Donato of the Coalition to Protect Chinatown & the Lower East Side, speak•ing in Spanish at a press conference the next day. Speaking in Chinese, Fung Yee Chan of the Chinese Staff and Workers Association added that the council “completely ignored the demands of this community for low-in•come housing and affordable spaces.”

The city’s definition of “affordable” is misleading, they say. Two-fifths of the “af•fordable” units in the plan are slated as middle-class housing, for people who make $100,000 to $130,000 a year, and will rent for $2,500 to $3,250. One-fifth would be reserved for elderly people. The other two-fifths would be “low-income” housing, for people who make around $40,000 a year and could pay $1,000 rent.

But $40,000 is actually the median household income in Chinatown and the Lower East Side, says coalition organizer JoAnn Lum, and many residents make only $15,000 or $20,000. People are living dou•bled and tripled up in apartments, and the waiting list for public housing is years long. Building more luxury apartments will also lead to further displacement of low-income residents and small businesses, she adds.

“There’s a dire need,” she says. “It should be 100 percent low-income.” And because the site is public land, she contends, build•ing low-income housing on it is both a moral obligation and more viable financially than it would be on private land. The coalition says it has collected 8,000 signatures on a petition calling for 100 percent low-income housing on the site.

The city’s political and real-estate estab•lishment considers that demand wildly im•practical. City-subsidized housing develop•ments are usually 80 percent luxury and 20 percent low-income, with the ones that are half “affordable,” such as Atlantic Yards in Brooklyn, having a higher proportion of “middle-income” apartments that rent for more than $2,000. City Councilmember Margaret Chin, who represents Chinatown, has called the idea of 100 percent low-income housing “crazy,” and her spokes•person challenged opponents to “please let us know” if they find a developer willing to build that, the New York Observer re•ported.

In September, however, Chinatown busi•nessman Ben Wong, founder of the Wok & Roll fast-food chain, announced that he wanted to build entirely low-income hous•ing on the site. His plan, backed by the coalition, would also include a depot for the low-priced “Chinatown buses.”

Wong has not provided a definite plan for how he would finance his idea, but says he wants to do something for the community, and he has built two hotels in Chinatown, says Lum. His idea, notes Lower East Side activist Rob Hollander, challenges the city’s assumption that “developers would need market-rate units to float the regulated low-income units.”

The site, known as SPURA, is the larg•est undeveloped area in Manhattan south of 96th Street. It was designated as an urban-renewal area in 1965, but political conflict between those who wanted no low-income housing and those who wanted all afford•able housing tied up redevelopment plans so the land has been vacant or used for parking lots for decades. The Bloomberg administra•tion presented its 50-50 plan as a compro•mise. Community Board 3, which covers the Lower East Side and Chinatown, endorsed the plan in May, after gaining assurance that all the affordable units be permanent.

The council vote doesn’t mean the city’s plan is a done deal, says Lum. The city has not yet issued a formal “request for propos•als” for the site, and when it does, Wong will present his plan.

“There’s still room to shape this project in the way our community wants it to be,” she says. “It’s really about the political will.”