By Zhihong Li. To read the original article in Chinese, click here.
Over 20 years ago, Aunt Lee was ahead of her time among New York City’s Chinese elders when she decided to apply for an affordable housing unit in Flushing, out in the borough of Queens.
“I lived in Manhattan’s Chinatown at that time,” she said. “I knew the news from the newspaper that an affordable apartment building for seniors was open for application. I applied successfully. It has been 21 years.”
New York City’s aging Chinese population is increasing rapidly as affordable housing has become more rare. To solve this problem, some local elected officials ask the city to approve the building of more affordable housing.
Nationally, a 2014 study by the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies and AARP Foundation concluded that for the older U.S. population, “Housing that is affordable, physically accessible, well-located and coordinated with supports and services is in too short supply.”
But in 2012, Congress ended tax incentives for new private affordable housing developments under Section 202 of the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). The move capped over two decades of cuts under administrations of both parties for programs that finance the building of and rental assistance for subsidized seniors housing.
Moving Away from Chinatown
An immigrant from China, Aunt Lee, now nearly 91, said many in New York’s Chinese community were unwilling to move so far from Chinatown then, but today it is extremely difficult to find an empty affordable apartment for seniors there.
Back in the 1990s, Aunt Lee said, “Flushing was not as developed as it is now.” When she first moved, she explained, the environment was not good and the transportation was not convenient. There were few Chinese supermarkets, and what was especially off-putting for them, was that a funeral service was located right next to the apartment building.
Unlike other Chinatown seniors, though, Aunt Lee applied for the Flushing apartment because it was closer to where her son lived. Her application was approved in less than one month.
Jessie Liu, a direct-care nursing aid, who takes care of Aunt Lee, said today the apartment house is very popular among Chinese seniors. More than half of the residents in the building are Asian.
Even though Aunt Lee lives alone, she said she doesn’t feel lonely. On any senior resident’s birthday, the employees and social workers organize a birthday party in the basement common room and post the notice in English, Chinese, Korean and Spanish inviting other residents to attend.
Few Subsidized Apartments Available
Although Aunt Lee’s apartment is a studio, it is roomy enough to hold two twin beds, a table and some furniture, while still leaving Aunt Lee some spare room. The kitchen and the bathroom are fully equipped. And it remains very warm, even on a cold winter’s day.
Along with providing good facilities and services, the government-subsidized housing units for lower-income seniors have low rent, which can be no more than 30% of a resident’s income. The building’s management committee checks every senior’s income and Social Security benefits every six months.
Aunt Lee’s rent is $200 a month. The amount increases every year, but only by five or six dollars.
At one moment as she spoke, Aunt Lee stopped smiling and said, “Lots of seniors here have low incomes. They do not live with their children and have no place to live.” She added, “Some of them have been waiting for an affordable apartment for 20 or 30 years. Some moved in when they were 90.”
Po-Ling Ng, director of the Chinese American Planning Council’s Open Door Senior Center, said the supply of affordable apartments for seniors is far less than needed. She added that many have died while waiting for an apartment.
Ng said that the affordable senior housing units include studios and one- or two-bedroom apartments. Once the rooms are open for applying, all of them would be full soon.
Rents vary depending on an apartment’s size, an elder’s income and other factors, Ng said. For instance, the cheapest rent at Hong Ning Housing in Manhattan, where 98% of residents are Chinese seniors, is $100 a month.
On the rare occasion when a unit becomes available, from 5,000 to 10,000 seniors apply for it, Ng said.
To be eligible, Ng added, an applicant must be age 62 or older. A building’s management committee considers every applicant’s health condition, past living condition and income, including assets, such as property and stock. Qualified seniors are then interviewed, and often a lottery-type drawing is held to pull the names of those lucky enough to get available apartments. Sometimes, Ng noted, that may be only one person.
In Flushing and Manhattan’s Chinatown, most residents in affordable apartments are Chinese. For example, 98% of residents in Hong Ning Housing are Chinese seniors. Ng said, Chinese immigrants prefer to live in the environment they are familiar with, but this limits their choices.
Little Available Land
In New York’s Chinese communities, available land for such developments has diminished, some efforts to increase affordable housing in the city have encountered community resistance.
Driven by City Council Member Margaret Chin, New York City’s Housing Preservation and Development office announced last December that the city plans to convert the Elizabeth Street Garden to 121 affordable units for seniors.
But the proposal was soon opposed by the local community board, some elected officials and residents, who strongly objected that the city should not increase affordable housing by decreasing public open space. They suggested relocating the affordable housing project to another area.
Chin’s office stated that many Chinese seniors have long lived in Chinatown, far from a proposed alternative site on Hudson Street. She and her staff argued that the conversion of Elizabeth Street Garden may be the only location currently available to keep so many elders in their community.
As in Chinatown, it is also hard to find developable land in Flushing. “It’s not enough to only rely on the government, we need also to cooperate with developers to encourage them to build affordable units,” said Peter Koo, the Council Member representing Flushing.
For example, Koo point to the One Flushing development. When the city sold a parking lot there, the nonprofit Asian Americans for Equality with other organizations got the bid and worked with developers to create One Flushing, a mixed-use project including 66 affordable units for seniors in a total of 232 residential apartments.
To pass rezoning applications more easily in local community boards, some developers agree to increase the percentage of affordable units.
For instance, one developer planning a high-rise project on 35th Avenue in Flushing agreed with the city to set aside 30% of the units as affordable for low- and medium-income families, thus making it easier to obtain approval for their rezoning application.
Koo stressed that in 2016, the New York City Council passed the bill called Mandatory Inclusionary Zoning, which requires developers to build 25% to 30% affordable units in certain areas. West Flushing is one of those areas. The bill could relieve housing problems of seniors to some extent.
Other cities as distant as San Francisco are enacting rules requiring developers of new housing projects to set aside a similar percentage as below-market affordable units.
Koo also reminded young people to take care of their parents’ housing issues, such as by helping them find and apply for affordable apartments.
Because of age, income, language barriers, immigrant status and other issues, some Chinese seniors who already live in an apartment may face more problems and even discriminations than other people.
The city’s policies, including Rent Stabilization and Senior Citizen Rent Increase Exemption, provide relatively steady housing for seniors, but many Chinese seniors complained that some landlords are not willing to rent a room to seniors or do not repair facilities on purpose. Some seniors do not communicate with their landlords well because of language barriers, making their lives even harder.
And although some Chinese immigrants live in rent-stabilized apartments, that does not mean they have stabilized lives.
For example, after Ms. Fu moved into a rent-stabilized apartment with her elderly mother in 2015, their landlord refused requests for repairs to old and deteriorated floor. Eventually, though, Ms. Fu called New York’s non-emergency 311 number to complain, and city building sent inspectors ordered the landlord to repair the facilities.
Koo said, “Some landlords try any way to evict seniors. This is discrimination.” Koo added that some older adults simply cannot find an apartment to rent.
He went on that some seniors have reported to his office that after making appointments to see an apartment, they were told the rooms were already rented.
“Some landlords do not want to rent rooms to older people, because they are afraid the seniors are too old and something bad would happened in their houses. Some landlords are also concerned about whether seniors have enough steady income to pay the rent,” Koo said.
Back in Flushing, Aunt Lee looked around her small but lovely studio witnessed the development of her family. “When I moved in here, my grandson was only four years old. Now I already have my little great-grandson,” she said with a big smile.
Zhihong Li wrote this article with the support of a journalism fellowship from the Gerontological Society of America, New America Media and the Retirement Research Foundation.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Diverse Elders Coalition.