During the early 1970s, living conditions for Asian-American residents of New York City’s Chinatown typified those found in turn-of-the-century slums. In Lower East Manhattan, the area had always been a port of entry for new immigrants. Earlier in the century, it was settled primarily by Eastern European immigrants who were seeking opportunities to become assimilated into American society. After laws restricting Asian immigration were relaxed in 1965, the Asian population boomed in Chinatown. While these immigrants were drawn to the area because of its strong social networks and familiar goods and services, they lived with some of the worst housing and working conditions in the city. Several factors, not the least of which was a history of racism against Asians, left Chinatown’s residents open to widespread exploitation. The high demand for shelter and employment allowed property owners and employers to commit gross violations of city housing codes, occupancy standards, and work rules. It was common for several unrelated households to be forced to reside in basements and other non-residential spaces that were illegally subdivided into small, crowded rooms. Unfortunately, city agencies did little to enforce existing laws. Because many of Chinatown’s residents were undocumented workers who spoke little English, they were afraid to challenge these conditions.
The Fight for Equal Rights
The Asian community first fought back with a major campaign for equal opportunities in 1974, when the builder of a federally-funded project known as Confucius Plaza refused to hire Chinese applicants, claiming that they were “too weak” for construction work. Outraged by this racial stereotype, a coalition of Asian community residents, students, and professionals founded a volunteer organization eventually known as Asian Americans for Equality (AAFE). The group’s original purpose was to coordinate pickets, demonstrations, and marches to demand the right to employment in the construction industry. Because of these actions, the builder was pressured to change its policies and hire 27 minority workers, among them Asian Americans. This victory was a milestone in AAFE’s struggle for workers’ rights in Chinatown. Inspired by the success of its first advocacy campaign, the group began to mount protests against illegal raids on sweat shops, the intimidation of garment workers and the harassment of undocumented immigrants. This early experience gave the community a sense of power to bring about change, and solidified AAFE’s role as an outspoken advocate for the rights of minorities throughout New York City.
AAFE soon turned its attention to another critical issue in Chinatown: the need to improve housing conditions and preserve affordable housing. Because of its proximity to downtown Manhattan’s financial district, Chinatown was under enormous development pressure. Eager to convert dilapidated tenements into luxury housing and commercial space, real estate speculators often tried to force tenants out of their buildings by discontinuing essential services such as heat and hot water. As a result, fires and fatal injuries were common. Throughout the late 1970s and early 80s, AAFE fought these practices by organizing tenant associations, training tenant leaders, and sponsoring numerous legal actions on behalf of area residents. AAFE launched one of its most significant battles against a zoning variance that facilitated rampant speculation by real estate developers and foreign investors. While the ruling was never completely overturned, the group was able to rally the community around efforts to halt its most detrimental effects.
In order to maintain its ability to conduct advocacy and organizing, AAFE ran as a volunteer storefront operation that accepted no public or private funds during its first 10 years of existence. One of its main leaders was Doris Koo, an energetic volunteer with a background in community organizing. In 1983, the group decided it was necessary to create a permanent institution with a full-time staff in order to achieve some of its long-term goals. With a $30,000 grant from the Campaign for Human Development, Koo was hired as AAFE’s first executive director.
From Housing Advocate to Developer
On January 21, 1985, a fire at 54 Eldridge Street killed two tenants and left 125 people homeless. The blaze typified the plight of many Chinatown residents. The landlord had shut off heat and hot water in the building for a week, forcing tenants to resort to the use of electrical heaters in the dead of winter. Tragically, the old wiring became overloaded by the heavy use of electricity, causing the building to burn to the ground. The fire underscored the community’s desperate need for safe, affordable housing. After a difficult search to place the fire’s survivors in existing city shelters, AAFE decided to undertake the development of housing for low-income and homeless families in Chinatown.
Later that same year, the organization was able to obtain partial funding for a housing rehabilitation project, including a $1 million grant from the New York State Department of Social Services. With these funds, AAFE acquired two vacant city-owned buildings in Chinatown. Unfortunately, the organization soon suffered a major setback when fire struck once again, gutting the two properties. Despite a $1.5 million increase in construction costs, AAFE persevered and was able to piece together financing from various private sources. The linchpin was a grant from the Enterprise Foundation, which agreed to fill the difficult gaps in this patchwork of funds. Equality House, a 59-unit rental project for low-income and homeless households, was finally completed in 1988.
A Commitment to Tenant Empowerment
Despite its new role as a landlord after the opening of Equality House, AAFE was determined to maintain its principles of empowerment. To enable tenants to take ownership of the maintenance and operation of the building, the organization helped create a tenants association that not only helps run the building, but addresses larger issues that affect the quality of life in the neighborhood. The association has, for instance, initiated tenant patrols and other crime prevention measures that have helped to combat the drug and crime activities that once plagued the block.
Since the completion of Equality House, AAFE has significantly expanded its housing development activities. The organization has renovated an additional nine buildings, producing over 145 units. The demand for affordable housing in Chinatown remains extremely high, however. AAFE’s Clinton/Peace Houses, which contain 22 units of housing for low-income families and senior citizens, received close to 3,000 applications when it was opened in 1992. One reason for this high number of applications is AAFE’s insistence on reaching out to a broad range of ethnic and racial groups, with the aim of achieving racial and economic integration in their housing developments and the larger community.
Asian Americans for Equality also believes in reaching out to New York City’s vast homeless population. Twenty to thirty percent of AAFE’s housing units are reserved for families and individuals referred from the city’s shelter system. Knowing that basic shelter alone cannot address the needs of people living in poverty, AAFE integrates an array of social services into its housing projects. For instance, one of the projects in its pipeline, Norfolk Apartments, will not only provide rental housing for low-income families and senior citizens, but will also offer child care, job training and other community services.
Today, tenant organizing remains a major component of AAFE’s mission. Since 1983, it has run a project that makes bilingual tenant organizers available to handle complaints and court litigation in dozens of buildings a year. In order to help community residents protect their right to decent, affordable housing, the organization runs a housing hotline for tenants and landlords who are seeking information on such issues as rent increases, code enforcement procedures, and leases.
Transforming Adversaries to Allies
In its early years, AAFE viewed landlords primarily as adversaries in the battle to ensure decent, affordable housing for the residents of Chinatown. Today, AAFE’s leaders have a different perspective on the role of small property owners in low-income neighborhoods. “We’ve matured,” Koo points out. “We’ve understood that maybe we need to take a second look at the private owners we were organizing against. Small owners may not have the wherewithal to fix those boilers that have been neglected for 50 years.”
Through a Community Loan Program that is administered by a consortium of banks, AAFE provides technical assistance to small property owners who want to apply for low-interest loans to upgrade their buildings. In return, the owners agree to avoid displacing tenants or raising rents drastically. The overall aim of the program is to preserve Chinatown’s unique housing stock for the next generation of low-income immigrants.
The Community Loan Program is an example of AAFE’s efforts to create a beneficial relationship between local banks and the community. Early on, the group had great difficulty convincing banks to invest in neighborhood development projects. When AAFE was turned down by 15 banks in its search to finance the Equality House project, however, it decided to conduct a survey of bank deposits in Chinatown. It discovered that the 33 bank branches in Chinatown were sitting on a collective deposit base of $3 billion between 1988 and 1990. Koo insists that community residents who place their hard-earned wages in local banks have a right to access this capital. “They are the first generation of immigrants who said we will sacrifice so our children will have a better future,” she points out. “And all that hard work, all that sweat that went into the sweatshops and restaurants goes right into a bank account.” Armed with the information from their survey, AAFE eventually managed to convince several banks to invest in the community. After approaching every financial institution in Chinatown, the organization ultimately secured $15 million in commitments to finance its housing development projects.
As part of its efforts to foster investment in the community, AAFE also helps small businesses gain access to capital. To do this, AAFE formed an affiliated economic development organization called the Manhattan Neighborhood Renaissance Local Development Corporation. AAFE/Renaissance helped a home health care business obtain a $200,000 line of credit from a local bank. This business provides job opportunities for Asian residents of Chinatown by training them to work in the growing field of health care.
Building a Membership Base
As the scope of its mission has broadened, AAFE has grown considerably. Membership presently numbers over 3,000. “Our members basically join to get assistance in their daily lives,” says Koo. “They bring in a phone bill and say, ‘I didn’t make these calls.’ We then call the phone company for them.” Members are required to pay yearly dues: $10 for senior citizens, $25 for individuals, and $45 for families. These payments reflect AAFE’s belief that its members should have a sense of ownership in the organization. Revenues from membership fees also increase AAFE’s financial self-sufficiency.
AAFE’s members play an important role in electing the organization’s board of directors. In order to create strong ties with the community, at least half of the board members must be low-income residents of Chinatown. In the past, board members have included retired garment workers, restaurant workers, lawyers, and public administrators. These directors play a strong role in setting the organization’s policies, direction, and goals. Christopher Kui, AAFE’s executive director, also believes AAFE should build leadership among its diverse staff, interns, and volunteers.
Achieving Political Empowerment
Despite civil rights victories over the past 30 years, AAFE is aware of the need to continue to struggle for political empowerment in the Asian-American community. To this end, the group organizes nonpartisan voter registration and education drives to encourage community residents to exercise their democratic rights. AAFE’s bilingual volunteers assist newly-registered voters at the polls and offer naturalization courses for undocumented residents seeking citizenship. The group is also adept at working with other groups for national policy changes. Recently, AAFE was instrumental in a coalition that worked to ratify a federal law requiring ballots and other voting materials to be printed in Chinese.
Creating Effective Coalitions
A key element to AAFE’s success has been its ability to build coalitions with other ethnic and racial groups to fight all forms of discrimination. When New York City passed a new charter in 1989, AAFE joined over 70 other minority community groups to develop a redistricting proposal that would provide fair and effective political representation in their neighborhoods. Every year, the organization holds a 1,000-seat banquet to honor people who have contributed to the struggle for racial equality and economic and social justice in Asian-American and other New York City communities. AAFE’s work to create integrated housing and build multiracial coalitions demonstrates its firm commitment to joining with other communities to confront common problems and create common solutions.
This article was originally published by the Pratt Institute Center for Community and Environmental Development (PICCED) as part of their Oral History Project documenting the history of CDC’s around the country. Profiles of 14 other organizations were also produced, along with the video documentary “Building Hope.” For more information contact PICCED, 379 DeKalb Avenue, Brooklyn, NY 11205; Phone 718-636-3709.