A tale of two Chinatown buildings

Along Broadway, in Chinatown, there is a single room occupancy building with blacked out windows on the second floor, dating back to the ‘80s. It houses more than 40 people, most of them senior immigrants living on very low incomes.

A senior resident of a Chinatown SRO apartment building walks down a hallway, lit only by a single skylight. (Photo by Bear Guerra)
A senior resident of a Chinatown SRO apartment building walks down a hallway, lit only by a single skylight. (Photo by Bear Guerra)

Inside, the hallway is dark and musty. There are doors on either side, leading to small bedrooms where one, two or even three people lived, crammed in with all their belongings. Everyone in the building shares a single kitchen with a single small stove, and six bathroom stalls. Cockroaches are a constant nuisance.

Despite the conditions, tenants do what they can to stay. Ady Lopez, 43, pays $400 a month for a single room that she shares with her boyfriend. Estela, her 69-year-old mother who came from Mexico about a year ago, lives in another room down the hall. Ady says she fears losing her room or being faced with a rent increase. She has nowhere else to live.

Ady, 44, and Estela Lopez, 69, are a mother and daughter who live in separate rooms in a Chinatown SRO. They both have disabilities that prevent them from working, and though they hope to find better housing, this is all they can afford right now. (Photo by Bear Guerra)
Ady, 44, and Estela Lopez, 69, are a mother and daughter who live in separate rooms in a Chinatown SRO. They both have disabilities that prevent them from working, and though they hope to find better housing, this is all they can afford right now. (Photo by Bear Guerra)

The rent for both rooms costs almost as much as Ady’s entire monthly disability check. Mother and daughter live in a cheap, decrepit place and yet they barely have any money left for food.

Phyllis Chiu (left), a retired schoolteacher and volunteer with CCED, helps a senior Cantonese-speaking resident of a Chinatown SRO translate several pieces of mail, including an outstanding charge for medical care. (Photo by Bear Guerra)
Roaches are seen on top of the shared stove, and are a constant nuisance in one SRO in the heart of Chinatown. (Photo by Bear Guerra)
A resident of one Chinatown SRO looks out the window in the shared kitchen. More than 40 residents share a single kitchen, with one small roach-infested stove, and a 3-basin sink that leaks and regularly clogs. (Photo by Bear Guerra)
Volunteers with the Chinatown Community for Equitable Development (CCED) speak with a resident of a Single Room Occupancy (SRO) building in Chinatown. SROs are often the most affordable option for many residents, but the conditions are frequently sub-standard. (Photo by Bear Guerra)
A woman removes her laundry from the stair rail of a low-income Chinatown apartment building. With one of the lowest median incomes in the city, Chinatown's poorest residents - many of whom are seniors - often live in substandard housing. (Photo by Bear Guerra)

 

Within a five-minute walk from the SRO, on the corner of Alpine and Spring Streets, is a very different kind of building. The three-year-old Metro at Chinatown Senior Lofts stands tall. It is a former noodle factory with hip minimalist decor and 123 subsidized units starting at around $800 a month—well below the $2,000-plus market rate for an apartment in the neighborhood’s new developments.

From the outside, the Metro Senior Lofts may seem like a great place to live. But inside, the senior residents are vulnerable: they’ve had a contentious relationship with the building manager and a recurring bed bug infestation.

Erich Hunt has lived in the building for the past three years. Soon after moving in, the problems started for him when someone from management came into his apartment blaming him for the bed bugs. His complaints were ignored and later he was sued for helping his neighbors organize.

Erich Hunt is a resident of Metro at Chinatown Senior Lofts, and has been instrumental in helping a group of tenants to organize in response to what they felt was unfair and demeaning treatment from a previous building manager. (Photo by Bear Guerra)
Born in Hong Kong, Hunt speaks Cantonese, Mandarin and English; and has become the go-to translator, advisor, and liaison for many of the other Chinese residents. (Photo by Bear Guerra)
Sandy Thomas is an artist and resident of the Metro at Chinatown Senior Lofts, and one of the tenants who helped start the residents organization. (Photo by Bear Guerra)
Chinatown residents share their concerns about new development projects in the neighborhood. (Photo by Bear Guerra)
After a series of conflicts lasting more than two years with the building's first manager, a group of tenants came together and started MACRO - the Metro at Chinatown Residents Organization. The group now meets monthly to share tenant concerns and serve as a line of communication with the management. (Photo by Bear Guerra)
King Cheung is a retiree and active volunteer with CCED. He says that gentrification is one of the main challenges faced by Chinatown residents today. (Photo by Bear Guerra)
A group of senior Chinese immigrant residents participate in a September meeting organized by the CCED. (Photo by Bear Guerra)
Estela Lopez is a 69-year-old immigrant from Mexico, who came to Los Angeles two years ago to be with her 44 year-old daughter. She recently attended a Chinatown meeting to connect with others sharing concerns around affordable housing and other issues affecting the neighborhood. (Photo by Bear Guerra)

Erich and many of his neighbors complained repeatedly to management about the bed bugs; about their failure to fix things like the wheelchair lift by the entrance that was always locked, making it useless. More than once, Erich was sued by the building manager and threatened with eviction, but he’s successfully fought the claims and managed to stay.

Today, Erich and around a dozen of his neighbors make up MACRO—an acronym for Metro at Chinatown Residents Organization. Once a month, they meet in the building’s community room and strategize ways to improve the quality of life in the building. Their first win? The removal of that first manager.

For around 3,000 seniors, Chinatown is home. From one-family cottages to single room occupancy buildings and new apartment towers: The majority of residents are renters, with one of the lowest median income levels in the city–$18,657 a year. Whether they’re living in a rundown SRO or a newly redeveloped tower, there aren’t many good choices in Chinatown for seniors looking for affordable housing.

The Metro at Chinatown Senior Lofts is an apartment complex completed in 2013, with 123 affordable, loft-style units specifically for seniors. (Photo by Bear Guerra)
The Metro at Chinatown Senior Lofts is an apartment complex completed in 2013, with 123 affordable, loft-style units specifically for seniors. (Photo by Bear Guerra)