A Hunger Strike for Chinatown’s Soul

Tenant organizers in New York’s Chinatown are challenging the city’s pro-landlord policies.

Amir Khafagy

Last month, beneath a grey and drizzly sky, seven Chinatown residents camped outside New York’s City Hall in a grueling three-day hunger strike. They vowed not to take a bite of food until Mayor Bill De Blasio conceded to their core demand: to be allowed to return to their homes at 85 Bowery, a dilapidated tenement in Chinatown.

The 100 tenants of 85 Bowery were abruptly evicted in January, after the FDNY and city officials deemed the building dangerously uninhabitable. Since then, the building has sat empty while the landlord, Joseph Betesh, makes the necessary repairs. In the meantime, most of the tenants have been living at the nearby Wyndham Garden hotel at the landlord’s expense. With neither Betesh nor the city having given a concrete date for when they’ll be able to return home, their stay at the hotel has come to feel indefinite.

Amir Khafagy

The strikers believe that the De Blasio administration has at best neglected them and at worst is colluding with the landlord to keep them out. “At first, they said we’ll be back in two weeks,” said Liu Hao, one of the tenants on hunger strike who lived in the building for over twenty years. “They said it was only the staircase, then they said it was the asbestos, now it’s the structure of the whole building. It never ends!”

“How come they evict us?” added fellow striker Huang Meirong. “We are hardworking, good people, with good families.” The sixty-nine-year-old Meirong has lived with her family of six in a one-bedroom apartment at 85 Bowery for almost thirty years. Ever since Betesh bought 83 and 85 Bowery in 2012, she and her fellow tenants have seen their homes degenerate into slumlike conditions.

“The landlord has treated us terribly,” said longtime resident Yaqin Li in 2016. “Last year there was no gas for over a month, and there are no repairs. He refuses to do anything.” Most of the tenants are rent stabilized and believe Betesh deliberately allowed the building to fall apart so he can deregulate the building, or worse, tear it down.

They also believe the mayor’s failure to intervene on their behalf makes him complicit in their eviction. “The silence from De Blasio signals his refusal to meet the strikers’ demands” Kai Wen Yang, a representative for the strikers said. “It makes the landlord look more progressive than the mayor.”

The city has responded by making it sound like it’s doing all it can to get the tenants back in to their homes. “Appropriate City agencies are making every effort to ensure that this landlord completes all necessary repairs in an expeditious and safe manner, so these families can return to a home that is safe and structurally sound,” spokesman Jose Bayona told the Daily News.

The hunger strike, the second of its kind in four months, was organized by the Citywide Alliance Against Displacement and led by the Chinese Staff and Workers Association (CSWA). The CSWA first got involved in 2015, when Betesh threatened longtime resident Shu Qing Wang with eviction from her rent-stabilized apartment. Wang complained to her cousin, who advised her to contact CSWA for help.

With Wang’s leadership, CSWA formed tenant associations in both 83 and 85 Bowery. They held weekly protests outside the building that brought citywide attention to their plight. Now, in the wake of their eviction, they’ve expanded their protests to target the mayor for his developer-friendly policies. “The mistreatment of the Bowery tenants is shocking but not surprising” reads a CSWA flyer, “as De Blasio has been pushing for pro-developer rezoning plans, while refusing to pass community-led rezoning plans.”

Amir Khafagy

Together with CSWA the tenants have made three demands: that De Blasio guarantee in writing a deadline for their return home, that De Blasio stop evicting tenants at the behest of landlords, and that De Blasio end his pro-developer agenda by passing community-led rezoning plans. This final demand is at the root of the tenants’ struggle. They believe the best way to fight displacement is to limit landlords’ financial incentive to evict tenants like them.

The strikers’ demands go well beyond the confines of 85 Bowery: they’re intended to shed light on the rising pressure gentrification has placed on Chinatown residents. The seven strikers are at the center of a tug of war between developers and residents for the soul of Chinatown.

Amir Khafagy

Back in 2008, the city passed an East Village rezoning plan that capped height development and ensured affordable apartment units in the area. But when CSWA and community groups on the Lower East Side developed their own rezoning plan — one that would have curbed overdevelopment and displacement over the long run — the mayor rejected it as “too ambitious.”

Amir Khafagy

Communities across the city have been frantically organizing against De Blasio’s plan to upzone 15 neighborhoods. The mayor argues that rezoning — allowing private developers to build bigger — is the only tool the city has to stem the tide of gentrification and halt displacement. According to the plan, the city would force developers to set aside an allocated number of affordable housing units in exchange for permission to build larger buildings. The mayor claims that’s the only way to incentivize the private market to build affordable housing.

But critics argue the plan does little to address the city’s affordable housing crisis, and that it ignores other options that are at the mayor’s disposal. In fact, they say, it actually contributes to the crisis. “It is being sold as the best we can do with the tools that we have. It is not,” said Sam Stein, a PhD student in geography at the City University of New York Graduate Center. “Instead, it puts to work the most lucrative and least effective tools available and locks the city into repeated cycles of gentrification and displacement.”

Stein believes that if the city were truly committed in tackling the affordable housing crisis they could have explored alternatives, such as CSWA’s community-led rezoning plan. “They could have encouraged every neighborhood in the city to create community plans, set guidelines for planning goals (including fully affordable housing for all), and made a commitment to put them into practice,” he said. “The city currently allows this, and many neighborhood residents have spent years coming to painstaking consensus around the kinds of land-use changes they would like to see.”

Amir Khafagy

In the case of the East Village, the city did follow the lead of community groups, adopting the neighborhood’s community-led plan with little change. The double standard angers CSWA members. “The city downzoned a predominately white, wealthy community,” Sarah Ahn, a CSWA member, said of the East Village plan. “Yet they upzoned our communities. That’s not fair.”

But the strikers and CSWA aren’t backing down. In the midst of the hunger strike, city officials offered to relocate the strikers to housing in the Bronx. The strikers refused. “My home is Chinatown.” Huang Meirong said under the shade of her umbrella, “I will strike as long as it takes. My next step is home.”