Recovery for NYC’s Chinatown ‘still not looking great’ as back rent weighs on businesses

·Reporter
·3-min read

One of the hardest hit communities in New York City from the COVID-19 pandemic — Manhattan’s Chinatown neighborhood — hopes to bounce back as the economy recovers.

But back rent is still weighing on Chinatown’s many small businesses. A survey done by the nonprofit organization Welcome to Chinatown showed 71% of businesses unable to pay rent in full in 2020, with the average amount of rent still owed totaling $32,000.

“The situation is still not looking great,” Welcome to Chinatown co-founder Vic Lee told Yahoo Finance. Along with fellow Chinatown resident Jennifer Tam, Lee created the nonprofit in the midst of the pandemic to promote and help the many restaurants and shops that nearly went under.

When COVID cases spiked, the organization’s volunteers distributed food and fresh produce to seniors and others unable to shop for themselves. The organization has also been promoting local businesses online, many of which are multi-generational institutions that haven’t kept up with social media.

NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 16: A person walks in a desolate Chinatown shopping area on April 16, 2020, in New York City. New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo announced during his daily COVID-19 briefing that the
NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 16: A person walks in a desolate Chinatown shopping area on April 16, 2020, in New York City. New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo announced during his daily COVID-19 briefing that the "New York State on PAUSE" order will be extended until May 15, and shared plans to allow business to reopen in what he is calling a phased priority scale based on the risks posed. (Photo by David Dee Delgado/Getty Images)

The vaccine rollout has brought traffic back to Chinatown. But back rent and other financial challenges highlighted the need for more help through the re-opening, spurring Welcome to Chinatown to start a “Longevity Fund” to offer grants to businesses still struggling.

Lee said the goal is to distribute $1 million to the community by the end of 2021. Welcome to Chinatown is funded by donations and also operates in a fiscal sponsorship with Players Philanthropy Fund, a Maryland charitable trust with tax-exempt 501(c)(3) status.

Xenophobia another challenge

The uphill battle for the community extends beyond the COVID-related shutdowns.

Xenophobia and a string of anti-Asian hate crimes have brought fear to the many Asian American communities scattered across the country, including NYC’s Chinatown.

Lee recalled her conversation with a jewelry shop owner who expressed concern about workers being out after 6:30 p.m. given the string of anti-Asian hate crimes highlighted in recent months.

“It tells you about the emotional turmoil that’s going on for business owners, where you have the prolonged impact of the pandemic [and] xenophobia,” Lee told Yahoo Finance.

With a mostly Millennial and Gen Z volunteer base, Welcome to Chinatown is leaning on social media to combat stereotypes and draw new audiences to the community’s restaurants and shops.

The trend is pointing to a Chinatown with younger patrons — and entrepreneurs, too. Millennial-owned businesses like Karho Leung’s 12 Pell barbershop and Michael Tan’s dessert shop Eggloo have leaned on social media app TikTok and video conferencing software Zoom to bring new-age twists to their businesses.

As Chinatown re-opens, Lee said people should continue to promote and support Asian-owned businesses.

“What’s really important is to recognize that this outpouring of support should be beyond May’s [Asian American Pacific Islander] Heritage Month,” Lee said.

Brian Cheung is a reporter covering the Fed, economics, and banking for Yahoo Finance. You can follow him on Twitter @bcheungz.

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