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A place to retire in Chinatown

Groundbreaking on Hong Lok House redevelopment kick-starts long-stalled plans to address shortage of affordable housing for elderly

The new Hong Lok House will be located on Essex Street in Chinatown and will provide 74 apartments for low-income seniors. The new Hong Lok House will be located on Essex Street in Chinatown and will provide 74 apartments for low-income seniors. (Erik Jacobs for The Boston Globe)
By Kaivan Mangouri
Globe Correspondent / August 4, 2011

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Ruth Moy has dedicated almost 40 years to finding housing for Chinatown’s many elderly residents, but she has often been frustrated getting them into available units in this densely packed neighborhood.

“They all have waiting lists, huge waiting lists, and they have closed their application processes,’’ said Moy, founder and executive director of the Greater Boston Chinese Golden Age Center.

Now Moy has something to celebrate: the ground-breaking today of the Hong Lok House, a $33 million redevelopment on Essex Street that will provide 74 low-cost apartments for seniors, plus space for social services for Chinatown’s other elderly residents. The current Hong Lok House, opened in 1978 and run by Moy’s agency, provides housing for 35 elderly residents and was previously a burlesque joint, a remnant of the days when Chinatown hosted portions of the adult entertainment Combat Zone.

The redevelopment was years in the making, stalled by the economic recession that dried up funding for most sizable real estate projects. But the developers cleared a key hurdle when they sold $17 million in government-provided low-income housing tax credits last month to Boston Capital Corp.

“It’s the most important project that we’ve done because of where it is, what it is, and who it’s for,’’ said James F. Seagle Jr., president of Rogerson Communities, the nonprofit housing provider building the Hong Lok in partnership with the Golden Age Center. “We were ready to go in 2008, and all of a sudden the low-income tax business basically came to a halt.’’

Although Hong Lok will put a dent in the housing issue, there is still work to be done, he added.

“The low-income in Chinatown are the poorest of the poor, and many of them don’t speak English,’’ Seagle said.

The Hong Lok is one of several developments that will try to address Chinatown’s acute need for affordable housing, especially for senior citizens. There are other senior housing options in the neighborhood - nearly half of the subsidized housing there is for elderly - but it is not enough.

Some 14 percent of Chinatown’s population are elderly, many of whom are extremely poor, according to US Census data. Meanwhile, the few recent developments in and around the neighborhood have been pricey modern projects that have added to the pressures on that tiny real estate market.

The new Hong Lok site encompasses two existing buildings and two adjacent empty lots. Construction will proceed in phases, with one of the sections expected to be available for occupancy within a year. The old Hong Lok will then be razed and replaced by the larger eight-story main building.

Once finished, Hong Lok will have about 80 residents in 74 apartments. The Golden Age Center expects to also double its day program and other social services with the larger building. Hong Lok will offer physical activities, such as tai chi and ballroom dancing, on a huge roof deck and green space, an unusual haven in one of the city’s most crowded districts.

Because they depend on the Chinatown community for their basic needs, Moy said, residents are especially excited that they will not be displaced during construction, which was a prime consideration for designer Chia-Ming Sze Architects.

The developers are also required to preserve several of the older building facades, and they have raised $5 million so far for preservation from private donors including State Street Corp., Tufts Medical Center, and Bank of America Corp.’s Charles H. Farnsworth Trust.

Jeffrey W. Sacks, a partner at law firm Nixon Peabody LLP who has represented Rogerson since the Hong Lok project’s inception, said the new building will enhance the lives of residents.

Sacks added that a complex project such as Hong Lok required collaboration among government officials, philanthropists, and developers, many of whom will be on hand for today’s ground-breaking.

“They all had to be aligned properly to get this project under construction,’’ Sacks said. “It’s only by teaming up and working together that a project like this gets done.’’

Kaivan Mangouri can be reached at kmangouri@globe.com.