Beyond Cathay Manor: The Interconnected Tenant Struggles of LA Chinatown
Elderly tenants of a low-income senior housing complex protest unsafe living conditions and demand accountability from landlords, developers and politicians.
Chronically broken elevators, dangerous stairwells without proper lighting, a non-functional laundry room, inconsistent hot water, and cockroach infestations — this is only a partial list of the grievances named by the elderly tenants of Cathay Manor, a low-income senior housing complex that stands 16 stories high at 600 N Broadway in Chinatown. The tenants, many of whom are Chinese immigrants in their 80s and even 90s, have begun organizing powerfully to demand habitable conditions and accountability from slumlord Don Toy, chairman of the board of the Chinese Community on Aging Housing Corporation (CCOAHC) that owns the building, as well as the former chair of the Historic Cultural North Neighborhood Council (from which Toy was recently removed due to improper conduct).
The tenants are also demanding accountability from politicians such as US Representative Jimmy Gomez, Councilmember Gil Cedillo, and Supervisor Hilda Solis, implicating a vast array of community actors on a scale that has rarely been seen before in Chinatown.
Built in 1984 using $30 million of federal funding after years of pressure from community activists, Cathay Manor was once a thriving senior community that had more than 2,000 seniors on its waitlist. Tenants described the building as pleasant, safe and clean, and offering ample supportive services including English classes, translation services, basic health checkups, and even a nutritious lunch program. The initial composition of the CCOAHC Board of Directors, which was charged with applying for and administering funds for the building, included organizations and leaders who had demonstrated long-term accountability to the community, from members of the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association to church leaders.
Today, disabled seniors living in the building are unable to consistently access food due to the constantly broken elevators, not to mention the closing of Chinatown’s last full-service grocery store in 2019. How did Cathay Manor, and Chinatown, reach this point?
In reality, the golden years of Cathay Manor were few: tenants actually held their first protest against the owners and management in 1988, just 4 years after the building was built, citing concerns ranging from (already) inaccessible elevators to restricted common-area access. That tenants are still protesting similar conditions more than 30 years later shows that, somewhere along the line, the CCOAHC became unaccountable to tenants. In fact, Don Toy is the only remaining original member and now unilaterally runs the board with his partner, which suggests that any original community accountability structure has now been fully neutralized.
Cathay Manor’s struggle also reveals systemic flaws of commodified housing that extend far beyond the actions of a single person: the CCOAHC still rakes in almost $3.5 million in annual income despite leaving tenants in abusive, life-threatening conditions. Lack of accountability is designed into the system when landlords, bureaucratic agencies like Housing and Urban Development and the Los Angeles Housing Department (LAHD), and electeds like Gomez, Cedillo, and Solis ping-pong the responsibility for ensuring access to safe and habitable housing around to each other, each wanting to wipe their hands clean of tenants’ blood.
Though Cathay Manor is a relatively large building — holding 270 units in total — the struggle unfolding there is not unique, nor is it occurring within a vacuum. Instead, these precarious conditions are a symptom of a decades-long Chinatown-wide struggle against the forces of gentrification, systematic disinvestment, and government neglect.
Since the late 80s when Cathay Manor was built, the influx of art galleries, hip eateries catering to downtown professionals (largely driven by the racist and anti-poor Business Improvement District), and large market-rate developments have contributed to a rapidly gentrifying Chinatown, where community-serving small businesses, cultural institutions, and the neighborhood’s affordable housing stock are continually ravaged by divestment, skyrocketing rents, and predatory real estate speculation. Driven by these factors, Chinatown’s only hospital and the last grocery store both closed within the last four years.
With gentrification comes displacement, and the 2020 census showed a 9% decline in Chinatown’s population in the past decade as well as a changing racial composition: from 1990 to 2020, the Asian population decreased from 68% to 54% whereas the white population rose from 1% to 10%. The median household income rose from $19,500 in 2013 to $47,027 in 2019, which does not indicate rising median household incomes: it is because higher income residents are moving in.
These numbers are reflective of a Chinatown where the low-income immigrants who built the community are being priced out while white downtown professionals move in. However, these quantitative values do not capture the qualitative experiences of the multi-ethnic working-class immigrants in Chinatown who are continuing to fight for their homes, their right to the city, and their right to truly affordable housing, despite and because of the multi-pronged attacks gentrification has taken on their lives.
Alongside the Cathay Manor seniors, the 651 Broadway Tenants Association, Hillside Villa Tenants Association, 920 Everett Tenants Association, and many others have been engaging in interconnected struggles to fight for safe, habitable, and truly affordable housing in Chinatown for a number of years. 651 Broadway is a single room occupancy (SRO) building of 30 units where tenants have been fighting frequent harassment from management and slumlord Howard Chan, who has been doling out rent increases of up to 150% and refusing to address unsafe conditions — such as non-working stoves leaking gas — since 2017. Hillside Villa is a 124-unit building of Latinx, Asian, and Black tenants who have been fighting up to 200% rent increases (essentially de facto evictions) that slumlord Tom Botz implemented when the building’s affordable housing covenant expired in 2018. 920 Everett is a 6-unit building of Southeast and East Asian immigrants and refugees who have faced eviction and harassment by house-flipper Victoria Vu and USC capitalist Jerry Fink.
Across differences, these site fights are bound together in their overarching vision of an equitable Chinatown where working-class tenants can exercise self-determination and flourish in their own community. They are united in their struggle against the expansion of capital through gentrification, which lines the pockets of greedy developers and landlords at the expense of the lives of the working class.
All across Chinatown, tenants are rising up to demand accountability from profit-driven landlords and developers, as well as neglectful politicians who are quick to swoop into Chinatown for performative photo ops but often side with landlords and developers in ways that have deleterious material impacts for their constituents. Take councilmember Gil Cedillo, who is quick to claim the credit for the Hillside Villa tenants’ tireless organizing for affordable housing when it boosts his political capital. At the same time, he is advancing massive corporate developer projects such as Atlas Capital’s College Station, which will bring 725 luxury units into Chinatown with zero affordable units. Make no mistake, College Station would further the conditions for the gentrification and displacement that Cedillo purports himself to be “saving” tenants from.
Tenants are not asking to be saved by these figures — rather, they are demanding that landlords simply do their jobs and provide safe and habitable living conditions, that developers only build 100% truly affordable housing that is affordable for working class community members who have known Chinatown as home for decades, and for politicians to actually serve the interests of the people.
Recently, tenants across Chinatown came together in protest against the College Station development that Cedillo has facilitated. Various tenants associations continue to hold weekly meetings to strategize how to win their struggles, with associations like the Hillside Villa tenants moving closer and closer to enacting their historic and creative vision of using eminent domain to take their building from slumlord Tom Botz and transform ownership into a cooperative community land trust model. Such strategies defy the market-based forces that have weakened affordable housing protections and aim to decommodify housing so that it can truly be honored as a human right. Tenants associations connect on a monthly basis through the All Chinatown Tenants Union, which currently encapsulates over 100 tenant members, in order to share strategies and provide mutual support, because a win for one is a win for all in the interconnected struggle against gentrification.
Supporting Cathay Manor seniors means moving beyond a limited vision of the building as an insular struggle and instead, developing a Chinatown-wide anti-capitalist praxis that takes into account the collective power of working-class tenants unified in their struggle against oppressors who seek to profit off their home. The scale of the Cathay Manor fight provides us with a unique moment to advance demands across Chinatown by placing unprecedented pressure upon all the guilty parties: landlords, bureaucratic agencies, politicians, and developers.
Organizing and building radical tenant power across Chinatown: this is how we’ll fight, and this is how we’ll win.
Janis Yue and Amy Zhou are tenant organizers with CCED (Chinatown Community for Equitable Development).