Chinatown Group to Keep Pushing for Low-Income Housing

The City Council voted unanimously Oct. 11 to approve a massive Lower 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 Renewal 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 apartments, 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, speaking in Spanish at a press conference the next day. The Council “completely ignored the demands of this community for low-income housing and affordable spaces,” added Fung Yee Chan of the Chinese Staff & Workers’ Association, a Chinatown labor-advocacy group, speaking in Chinese.

The city’s definition of “affordable” is misleading, they say. Two-fifths of the “affordable” 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 much less. The Coalition says it has collected 8,000 signatures on a petition calling for 100 percent low-income housing on the site.

City-subsidized housing developments 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. 

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 proposals” for the site. When it does, she says, Chinatown businessman Ben Wong will present his plan to build entirely low-income housing on the site, along with a depot for the low-priced intercity “Chinatown buses,” which now pick up and drop off passengers on the street.

“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.”