Tensions in Queens as Chinese Rebuild Houses

Chinese homeowners protesting for rebuilding to council member Koo. (Photo by Yukuang Chan via Sing Tao Daily)

Chinese homeowners protesting for rebuilding to Council member Peter Koo. (Photo by Yukuang Chan via Sing Tao Daily)

Standing in front of a house being rebuilt into a multi-story one, Council member Peter Koo on July 25 called on Chinese residents to be considerate of their neighbors and maintain the harmony of the houses in the neighborhood when they rebuild their own. He also said he had a meeting with the Department of City Planning regarding the issue and asked the agency to review the building code of the neighborhood.

Queensboro Hill, which is close to downtown Flushing and the Long Island Expressway, has been attracting more and more Chinese house hunters in recent years due to its excellent location. But most houses here were flats with gardens built in the 1930s. After purchasing the houses, the new Chinese owners like to rebuild them by adding more floors on top and paving the garden with concrete to maximize square footage and pump up the value.

But this has triggered strong opposition from the white residents who have protested and complained to Community Board 7. They asked the board to take action to stop the “abusive rebuilding” of the Chinese homeowners. They said the rebuilding damages the low-density and garden-like environment in the neighborhood and, more importantly, some of the multi-story houses are blocking sunlight to the flats around them, affecting the health of residents.

However, several Fujianese homeowners living there reacted to Koo’s mediation efforts with anger. They said it is unfair to not allow them to rebuild houses. A Fujianese lady shouted that she spent all her life savings to invest in the property. And if she cannot rebuild it, the value of the house would be reduced. She’d suffer a big loss.

Chinese homeowners said if rebuilding is not allowed, it is unfair to them. (Photo by Yukuang Chan via Sing Tao Daily)

Chinese homeowners said it is unfair to them if they can’t rebuild houses. (Photo by Yukuang Chan via Sing Tao Daily)

Other than Koo, state Sen. Toby Ann Stavisky, State Assemblywoman Nily Rozic, and Don Capalbi, former president of the Queensboro Hill Neighborhood Association, also participated in yesterday’s talks in front of the house at 146-21 56th Rd., which is being demolished and will be rebuilt into a three-story house. They said the newly rebuilt houses are at odds with the original style of the neighborhood, and that they reduced yard space, increased house density, and damaged quality of life in this middle-class community.

Capalbi said the middle-class residents in Queensboro Hill chose this neighborhood for its comfortable environment and low-density, owner-occupied houses. But in recent years, many houses have been purchased and turned into rentals, which damaged the appearance of the neighborhood.

All four of the elected officials and civic leader said that real estate investment is a business. But when rebuilding, one needs to consider the environment of the community and avoid hurting the neighbors’ interests. The rebuilding projects of the houses along 56th Road focus only on expanding the rental space with little consideration of their negative impact in a neighborhood originally composed of flats. So it is necessary to review the building code in this area.

Koo said his office got a lot of complaints from constituents in Queensboro Hill. As an elected official, he realizes how serious the problem is. That’s why he had a meeting with the Department of City Planning on July 24 to share the concerns of the community. The commissioner said he heard their voices and his agency would study the situation to see whether the building and zoning codes need to be altered.

Koo said that rebuilding the houses is legal. But it doesn’t show respect to the neighbors. He asked residents to be considerate of the community, urging that they not build their own businesses at the expense of the neighborhood.

Koo and other elected officials and civic leaders calling on homeowners to be considerate when rebuilding their houses. (Photo by Yukuang Chan via Sing Tao Daily)

Koo and other elected officials and civic leaders calling on homeowners to be considerate when rebuilding their houses. (Photo by Yukuang Chan via Sing Tao Daily)

Stavisky and other elected officials said some homeowners often complain that the houses in Queensboro Hill are dilapidated and their prices are too high. So they have to rebuild houses in order to rent them out partially to pay back the mortgages. But homeowners should have known this at the time they decided to buy. In addition, the city’s building codes often vary by the division of streets. They will communicate with the Department of City Planning on this matter.

Daniel, the original owner of the house at 146-21 56th Rd., said his mother had been living here for a long time. They moved out last year but she misses the neighborhood and often comes back to walk around and to look for the remnants that bring back memories. Now the house that she spent most of her life in is being rebuilt into a “luxury” building. Her memories may soon be lost.

Although there are many complaints from their white neighbors, the Chinese homeowners who plan to rebuild their houses don’t seem to be listening. They poured their own complaints to the elected officials and asked them to support their rebuilding projects. They said the houses here are so old that the pipes and plumbing are all old. They will be changed during the rebuilding so rebuilding is indeed helpful to the environmental safety of the neighborhood. Also, they argued, the neighborhood needs to expand itself vertically, like what happened in Hong Kong. And high-density high-rises can make the neighborhood more prosperous.

In 2010, the New York City Council passed the Queensboro Hill zoning reform proposal from the Department of City Planning. The law was changed to allow increasing the density of residential and commercial buildings in appropriate locations with the condition of maintaining the characteristics and the size of the community.

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