Unsafe Building In Chinatown Prompts Tenants’ Rights Campaign

BOSTON — Boston Mayor Thomas Menino has launched a public information campaign aimed largely at immigrants who do not know their rights as tenants. It will distribute posters and pamphlets — available in seven languages — that encourage renters to report unsafe or unhealthy living conditions without fear of retaliation or deportation.

The “You Have Rights” campaign comes after city officials evacuated tenants from an illegal rooming house in Chinatown in February. The renters were living in squalid conditions, and their apartment building on Harrison Avenue had a host of code violations and structural problems.

The extent of such problems in Chinatown and across Greater Boston is unclear, according to Mark Liu, deputy director of the Boston-based Chinese Progressive Association. Liu has been working with the Harrison Avenue tenants and other Chinese immigrants living in similar situations.

“This was a shock to all of us, but when you look at the conditions that are happening in Chinatown – in terms of housing and how much luxury development is being built and the gentrification of the neighborhood — rents have gotten really expensive for some of the working-class immigrants and working-class people in the neighborhood,” Liu said. “So, many of the tenants had talked to us about how this was the only place they can afford if they wanted to live in Chinatown, in a place that had services they can access in their own language.”

It’s common for immigrants not to know what their rights are and to fear that they will be retaliated against — or deported — if they complain about substandard living conditions, Liu said.

“We haven’t talked about [undocumented immigrants] specifically with the city,” Liu said, “but knowing the folks, I think the basic goals are to protect tenants’ rights, no matter what people’s immigration status is.”

Tenants may also be reluctant to report substandard housing because they do not believe they deserve better conditions, he said.

“When we were working with the tenants at Harrison Avenue, some of them felt like they paid for what they got,” Liu said. “They were still paying $400, $500 a month for one room and a shared bathroom and kitchen,” Liu said. “Part of it is people really believing that they are entitled to very basic rights around health and safety in their own homes.”

In the case of the Harrison Avenue building and other problem properties in Chinatown that Liu has dealt with, the landlord owns restaurants in the area and employs some of the building’s tenants. In those cases, immigrants will be even less inclined to complain, Liu said. But he said he hopes the “You Have Rights” campaign will encourage tenants to seek help.

“It helps create an environment where tenants know that the city and their community organizations and the government [are] behind them,” he said.

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  • http://twitter.com/easyashell Ed Ellis

    Sorry. But I must opine An “undocumented immigrant” has no “Housing Rights”. PUH-LEASE!. If these buildings were in Sherborn or Wayland I would have a Greek Chorus of people singin’ my tune.

    • D.S.

       Your prejudices are showing.  The only time the word “illegal” is used in the article is referring to the housing conditions, not the people living there.  Many of them may be illegal, the article doesn’t say, but that’s completely beside the point that there are also plenty of perfectly legal immigrants, and even people born and raised here, who are taken advantage of because they don’t know their rights.

    • Daniel E.

      According to the 2010 Census, 93.3% of the people in Sherborn live in owner-occupied housing; 88.7% of the people in Wayland live in owner-occupied housing.  Nonetheless, those 6.7% of people in Sherborn and the 11.3% in Wayland, who live in rented homes are entitled to 
       “Housing Rights.”   That’s a far cry from the 66% of the people in Boston living in rented homes, who are incidentally, entitled to those same rights.
      Moreover, this “Greek Chorus” to which you refer must be a small one.  The same Census report indicates 2% Greek ancestry in both Sherborn and Wayland.  Boston, by comparison is comprised of 10% Asian population, much of it concentrated in low-income housing areas of Chinatown.  At just over 62,000 , the Asian population of Boston alone is nearly fifteen times the TOTAL population of Sherborn and nearly five times the TOTAL population of Wayland.  Think about that for a minute.  
      This means that the “Housing Rights,” which you would only like to selectively offer, are a much bigger issue in Boston’s Chinatown which features such a pronounced concentration of so many people of Asian origin.  While undoubtedly part of that population will be undocumented workers, let’s grossly exaggerate and say a full 50% of them, that’s still seven times the *total* population of Sherborn, and close to three times the *total* population of Wayland.  Which is “A Lot.”
      Thist makes it  a “Big Problem” because of attendant spillover problems that would affect other who work and live in Boston to include issues like sanitation, disease, and crime.  Not to mention things like “Social Justice.”

  • D.S.

    I once had a landlord who invited himself into my apartment one day while I was out, with absolutely no notice.  He decided it was too messy, and gave me an eviction notice.  Massachusetts law requires at 24 hours notice before a landlord enters a tenant’s apartment, and a good faith effort to arrange a mutually agreeable time.  (Before anyone jumps on me, I admit it was messy, but it was papers and clothes.  Nothing vermin would feast on.  In 6 years in that apartment I’d never had so much as an ant.)  I spent the night cleaning, told the landlord to come up.  He said the place looked cleaner than when he’d rented it to me, and that all he really wanted was for me to clean up the mess.  No mention of the clearly worded eviction letter he’d slipped under my door.

    The best part?  The man runs a law firm.  He’s my dad’s client, actually.  I was upset, but I didn’t want to make trouble.  I know for a fact that he treats the other tenants at least as shabbily, though.  While I was just a poor grad student, many of the others were immigrants or ex-cons who had few other affordable options for housing.  So they didn’t make waves when he didn’t replace broken appliances, took 4 years to fix roof leaks, replaced the large broken water heater with one a quarter its size and incapable of supplying all the apartments, and threatened the entire complex with eviction notices over someone (he didn’t know who) smoking in the stairwell.

    I wish I’d known my rights as a tenant then.

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