The Struggle for Quality Affordable Housing in New York City: Asian Americans for Equality

Article excerpt

In serving New York City over the last three decades, Asian Americans for Equality (AAFE) has evolved from community advocate to community builder. Today, the organization works for community development and empowerment on many fronts: producing affordable housing, offering social and legal services, providing tenant and minority advocacy, encouraging civic participation, helping individuals build assets, and initiating economic development. This article examines the continuing struggle for quality affordable housing in New York City. The history of affordable housing in Manhattan is intertwined with the founding and growth of AAFE. As we explore how Asian Americans are affected by the current state of affordable housing we'll also discuss AAFE's past and future role in Manhattan.


In 1974, construction began on the Confucius Plaza high-rise development, a federally funded project in the heart of New York City's Chinatown. Despite city policies requiring employment opportunities for minority workers, the builder refused to hire Chinese applicants. Outraged by this blatant discrimination, a coalition of Chinatown residents, students, and professionals came together to demand the right of access for Asian Americans to those construction jobs.

The leaders formed Asian Americans for Equal Employment, later renamed Asian Americans for Equality (AAFE). AAFE coordinated demonstrations, marches, and picketing around the Confucius Plaza site. The sustained effort at Confucius Plaza spilled over beyond the Chinatown and Asian American communities. African American and Latino construction workers and activists also came to the site and held protest signs written in English and Chinese to show their solidarity with the protesters. After six months of unrelenting demonstrations, the Confucius Plaza struggle ended with AAFE's first victory for minority rights and equal employment when the builder was pressured into hiring twenty-seven minority workers, including Asian Americans.

After experiencing victory with Confucius Plaza, AAFE continued to play a leadership role in civil rights in the 1970s and beyond. For example, in 1975, when an Asian American engineer was stripped and beaten by the police for a minor traffic violation and then charged with assault, AAFE helped to organize a protest of more than 20,000 people at New York's City Hall, which led to the New York Police Department dropping the charges. AAFE also led local protests against anti-Asian violence that was happening across the country. For instance, in 1973 in San Francisco, Chol Soo Lee, a Korean American, was wrongly convicted of murder for killing a gang member and ultimately sentenced to death. AAFE organized pickets to gain exoneration for Lee in New York City in solidarity with the California activists. AAFE also demanded justice for Vincent Chin, who was murdered in Michigan in 1982 in a racially motivated attack. In addition, AAFE rallied to raise awareness about the mistreatment of Vietnamese refugees by other Asian countries and called for an end to apartheid in South Africa.

AAFE's path toward community builder began when it started its first housing clinics in 1979 and discovered that residents in Chinatown were living in extremely hazardous conditions. People were crowded into basements and other nonresidential spaces that were illegally subdivided into tiny rooms. The high demand for living space allowed landlords to ignore housing codes and occupancy standards and to demand elevated rents and "key money" (cash payments to secure the option to rent). In the course of its work, AAFE realized that there was no place to refer these people for help. For one, city agencies and community organizations that dealt with housing issues lacked Chinese-speaking staff. Again, AAFE took a leadership role by serving as a link between the existing housing groups and the Chinatown community. …