*Included in print edition
In her fourth floor apartment with no elevator, 80-year-old Mrs. Chen welcomes visitors to her four-sided home, each wall lined with necessities for life: clothing on the upper bunk bed on one side, a refrigerator on the second wall, shelves for shoes on the third, and finally a wall for baskets with kitchen items and toiletries. Like a magician, out of nowhere she pulls out plastic children’s chairs and insists we sit and take some strawberries and Chinese dried plum snacks. Mrs. Chen points to the Bruce Lee poster near the window, telling us she rescued it off the gritty sidewalk on a rainy afternoon. “Stay!” she orders in Cantonese. “Don’t leave. Have some candy.”
Across America in the 19th century, residential hotels were initially built to house the working class. They were known as flophouses and tenements. Single Residency Occupancy (SRO) apartments is the official name, and they continue to be scattered across high-density urban centers.
Of the 6,200 units of housing available in Chinatown, 52 percent are comprised of SROs with rents as low as $250 a month. Life can be harsh in an SRO. Residents wash clothing by hand and hang personal items to dry outside the windows. Tensions run high as people must wait to use the communal restrooms and kitchen. Sometimes angry renters sabotage neighbors who are cooking dinner by sneaking garbage inside the pots on the stovetops.
And in Chinatown, the most famous SRO was the 184-room International Hotel, the target of demolition after an overseas company purchased the building. On August 4, 1977, 2,000 housing activists linked arms to block the eviction of its mainly Filipino and Chinese residents. Police avoided the ground level protestors and entered the building via the rooftop with the help of a ladder from a fire truck. The building was eventually demolished, but the movement to save residential hotels was unleashed.
In 2005, due to the perseverance of non-profits, community groups, and advocates, the International Hotel was rebuilt and opened as a carefully-planned SRO complex with 88 studios and 16 one-bedroom units for low-income seniors.