Unsafe Building In Chinatown Prompts Tenants' Rights Campaign

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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.

This program aired on April 23, 2012.


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