Skip to main content

Chu Huang has lived in the Boston Chinatown her whole life. In the last few years, the 29-year-old has noticed a change: more people with luggage and backpacks waiting on the doorsteps of apartment buildings to be let in or picked up.

"It's so subtle," she says. "I feel like it's just so easy to not be aware of it or just have it slip my mind."

She suspects the people laden with bags are travelers renting Airbnb units. Their presence may be muted, but the effects are deeply felt in the neighborhood.

"People think of Airbnb as friendly, like you go stay in somebody's home," says Lydia Lowe, the executive director of the Chinatown Community Land Trust. "But it's become a huge industry that's actually eating up a lot of the housing in the city. These were people's homes before. Tenants have been evicted for this purpose."

In a city where nearly half of renters pay more than 30 percent of their household income for housing and utilities, short-term rentals squeeze an already tight housing market. But for Chinatown in particular, a historically working-class immigrant community in the heart of the city, gentrification brought on by development and short-term rentals threatens to erase its cultural identity. Chinatown is fighting for its existence.

Located within walking distance to the Financial District and the shopping area of Downtown Crossing, Chinatown has long battled for space. The ethnic enclave was formed in the late 1800s by Chinese immigrants looking for work in New England's growing manufacturing sector. Faced with discrimination that barred their families from joining them and targeted in an immigration raid in 1903, residents banded together to help each other find jobs and housing. Chinatown continues to provide a support system for newcomers today with non-profit programs, services, health care, and groceries—all in a language that they can speak.

Those services come at a time when Chinatown is seeing its geography diminish. The neighborhood lost significant land to two highways in the 1960s and to the expansion of universities and a medical center in the 1980s. Luxury developments began in the 1990s and have accelerated in recent years—defying a community-generated master plan. As students and young professionals moved into the area, working-class residents were priced out. In 1990, Asians made up 70 percent of the population in Chinatown. By 2010, that dropped to less than half, according to United States census data. During that same time period, the white population in Chinatown doubled even as it declined in Boston overall.

Today, high-rise towers named One Greenway and Radian tout amenities such as yoga studios and pet care. Studio apartments can rent for as much as $2,800 a month in a neighborhood where 24 percent of families live below the poverty line.

"We're losing housing for long-term residents—and not just low-income housing, [but] housing in general—faster than we can build them," says Karen Chen, executive director of Chinese Progressive Association, a Chinatown service organization that organizes tenants and workers. "From what we see in Chinatown, in the past it used to be working-class folks who were impacted. But now it's even young professionals."

Off the top of her head, Chen can think of seven buildings that have been emptied of long-term residents by landlords and turned into de facto hotels through short-term rentals. Even units in the new luxury buildings are being rented out as Airbnbs.

"I see a lot of them being listed as well. We basically have been building housing that people don't need," Chen says.

Last May, Arturo Gossage, a Chinatown resident of 11 years and the treasurer of the Chinatown Resident Association, tried to map all the Airbnbs in his neighborhood. Although Airbnb doesn't disclose the address of a particular unit until it's booked, Gossage cross-referenced listings for rent with Google Maps, property tax records, and the knowledge of community members who are familiar with how the interiors of buildings look. He found over 100 listings. The majority of them were not operated by individuals, but by companies. For instance: "Anthony," who appeared to be a prolific Airbnb host, turned out to be a New York-based rental company called Domio.

"Even when people think they're helping out a person who is trying to pay the rent or just trying to pay their mortgage, they may actually be helping a large corporation," Gossage says.

Gossage and his wife live in a red brick row house, one of the few that still has full-time tenants, he says. Out of all the types of housing in Chinatown, historic row houses are most at risk of disappearing. There are about 500 to 600 units of them in Chinatown, according to a survey conducted by the Chinese Progressive Association. Landlords can legally raise rents as much as they want, so there's nothing stopping them from pushing tenants out through rent increases and turning the apartments into short-term rentals.

More than 90 percent of Chinatown's residents are renters. Ten years ago, when people faced eviction or rent increases, they didn't fight them because there were other affordable places to move to. Today, there is nowhere left for them to go.

Chen says the city needs to do more to protect long-term residents. In addition to short-term rental regulation, she would like to see more policies that protect renters and stabilize rent, as well as transfer fees for properties with high price tags to discourage real estate speculation.

On January 22nd, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh introduced an ordinance to regulate short-term rentals like Airbnb and VRBO. The proposed ordinance requires units to be registered with the city and limits rentals of entire homes to 90 days a year. Much like San Francisco, Seattle, and other cities, Boston's goal is to allow homeowners to generate extra income while keeping residents from being displaced. A bill that would tax and regulate short-term rentals has also been making its way through the Massachusetts state legislature.

Gossage says the mayor's proposed ordinance doesn't do enough. While it caps rentals of entire homes to 90 days, a unit could be rented out for 45 weekends out of the year, he points out.

"I'd like to see the investor class eliminated from the short-term rental market," he says. "It does absolutely nothing for long-term residents here. Brian Chesky, Airbnb's own [chief executive officer], was talking with Fortune magazine and he said that he actually wanted to support a 'one host, one home' agreement. I think we need to hold him to that."

In the meantime, residents worry about the character of the neighborhood, which seems to be disappearing day by day. As luxury towers, boutique hotels, and Airbnbs proliferate, the neighborhood starts to look more generic and affluent new residents don't even refer to the neighborhood as Chinatown. Street signs that were once bilingual have been replaced with English-only signs.

As the Asian population has decreased in Chinatown, the types of households have changed as well. Chinatown has traditionally been home to multi-generational family households, but between 1990 and 2010, the percentage of families living in Chinatown decreased from 73 to 47 percent.

Some owners of the new luxury units don't even live year-round in them. Wealthy international investors, many from China and other Asian countries, have snatched up condos to use during vacations or for their children to attend school in the U.S.

Chu Huang, who serves as co-chair of the Chinatown Resident Association, wonders what it means for a community when the people in them are only temporary.

"[Chinatown] should be a viable community where people do not just come in and act like tourists and then leave," she says. "Who's invested in the community?"