Wah Luck House stands on the corner of 6th and H streets NW in the heart of D.C.’s shrinking Chinatown. Just around the corner from the Friendship Archway, this low-income apartment complex houses—in its 153 units—the majority of the remaining Chinese immigrant population in Chinatown.
A Taiwanese immigrant named Alfred H. Liu designed both Wah Luck House and the archway in the early 1980s. At the time, they were unusually tall additions to the neighborhood. Nearly four decades after Wah Luck opened in 1982, Chinatown is one of the most expensive residential neighborhoods in D.C., and also the ultimate urban downtown, replete with major chain stores, a sports arena, and bright electric signage.
Yet Liu’s Wah Luck, 10 sturdy stories of concrete and brick, continues to stand its ground in the fray of rapid gentrification. And so have its residents. On sunnier days, even the oldest among them will take a walk across the busy block or look out from their balcony boxes. These people have stayed through it all: the closing of Chinese-owned grocery stores and businesses, friends passing away or moving out to the suburbs.
Wah Luck’s residents recently survived a sale. Nonetheless, many residents continue to feel uneasy or insecure. Aspects of the sale left some of them confused, and they are still reeling from what they see as more than a decade of poor property management. And bigger picture, the growing value of the land under Wah Luck is plain to all who have watched the neighborhood change.
Denver-based national real estate company Aimco (Apartment Investment and Management Company) officially sold Wah Luck House in August 2017 to Wah Luck House Preservation LLC for $55 million dollars. Local businesswoman and real estate developer Yeni Wong manages WLHP. Tenants have long known her as the owner of two nearby restaurants, Chinatown Garden and Joy Luck House.
Developer Andrew Agetstein is a key partner in the deal. He formed Pala Chinatown Holdings in 2017, and through this entity went in on the purchase with Wong. Notably, Agetstein was the Vice President for Aimco from 2002 up until August 2012. Wong tells City Paper that when she heard the news that Agetstein had left Aimco, she promptly called him up to see if he was interested in helping her purchase Wah Luck House. She says she began pursuing Wah Luck that year.
The most important features of the sale are threefold: The predominantly senior and Chinese or Chinese-American tenants get to stay in the building; tenants continue to pay affordable rents through the Section 8 housing voucher program; and the building will undergo a renovation that Wong says will cost $9 million in total. Current property manager Fan Zhang reports that renovations of apartment units are already underway and that a renovation of the first floor of the building should be completed by the spring.
The acquisition and rehabilitation of Wah Luck is being funded by multiple partners: a $39 million investment from the District of Columbia Housing Finance Agency (DCHFA), $24 million in low-income housing tax credit equity through an investment by Wells Fargo, loans from Greystone, and other backing from the National Foundation for Affordable Housing Solutions.
New York-based Arco Management Corporation has taken over day-to-day operations. In February 2018, Lisa Chow, who had worked as Aimco’s property manager of the building for 10 years, departed from Arco. According to Zhang, many tenants cheered and some shed tears upon learning that Chow had left. Arco replaced Chow with Zhang, who worked second to Chow under Aimco for several years. Even though months have passed, residents continue to talk about Chow’s tenure.
Chinese immigrants first arrived to Washington D.C. in the 1850s. Many lived along the south side of Pennsylvania Avenue NW until the city announced in the 1930s a wide-scale project to build the Federal Triangle government complex and other municipal buildings. The displaced community relocated to establish Chinatown between 5th and 7th streets NW.
In 1976, the city threatened the community once again by demolishing much of 7th Street between H and F streets NW to develop the Metro. Then, the city announced plans to build Washington Convention Center in the heart of Chinatown at 7th and H streets, echoing the events of 40 years earlier. Residents of Chinatown organized to protest the displacement, and successfully pushed the convention center two blocks west to 9th and H streets NW. (The Washington Convention Center was eventually demolished in 2004 and replaced by the Walter E. Washington Convention Center at Mount Vernon Square.)
As a sort of concession after this fight, the city announced in the late 1970s that it was planning on constructing an apartment building for Chinese immigrants. An organization called the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association—which has chapters nationwide, most notably in San Francisco and New York City—was watching closely and plotting moves. Led by Chinese immigrants with business acumen, the CCBA sent an application to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to acquire the ground underneath what is now Wah Luck House, and were granted ownership of the half acre. Since March 31, 1981, the CCBA has leased the ground below the building to property management companies who own and operate the actual building.
It is Wah Luck’s ground lease that makes the property unique in the world of multifamily real estate. Carolyn Gallaher, professor of geography at American University and author of The Politics of Staying Put: Condo Conversion and Tenant Right-to-Buy in Washington, DC, says, “While not unheard of, it’s quite uncommon for a building to have a ground lease.” She explains that a ground lease is often unattractive to a prospective buyer. “Most developers would ask themselves—why invest so many resources into a property that does not fully belong to you?”
Thirty-eight years remain on the ground lease between the Wah Luck’s current owner and the CCBA.
Wong has served as chairwoman of the CCBA and has worked closely with the organization for years. She tells City Paper that one of the members of the CCBA, a doctor, will be opening an office on the first floor of Wah Luck after renovations are complete. She also says that per Fannie Mae’s request for security, she has negotiated a possible 20-year extension of the ground lease, but that in 2056, “CCBA has the right to return Wah Luck to the community.”
Many of the current senior residents of Wah Luck House will have died by 2056. Wong says that she has promised the CCBA that the building will always stay affordable for whoever will apply to move into the building.
Residents of Wah Luck who spoke with City Paper feel less secure about their future.
Building tenants learned in March 2017 that Aimco had drawn an initial contract selling the building to Wong’s group, Wah Luck House Preservation LLC.
Given the sale announcement, the tenants themselves had first right of refusal through a D.C. law called the Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act, or TOPA. Tenant associations, especially in large apartment buildings, are able to interview and select a developer of their choosing. Developers, for their part, often know which buildings are going up for sale and compete heavily to buy them, either by wooing tenant associations or looking for ways to circumvent TOPA all together.
Wong says she was “nervous” throughout the TOPA process but she knew that “there were no other buyers.”
Three Wah Luck residents tell City Paper that in March 2017, Wong spoke at a large tenant meeting and made a verbal promise that as owner of the building, she would make sure all residents could stay in the building and continue to participate in Section 8 and furthermore, that if she were “to break any of her promises” she would personally pay each tenant $500,000. Later that month, she sent out a notarized memo explaining her support of the Chinese community in Chinatown which again stated a “monetary guarantee” of $500,000. In this memo, Wong wrote that this guarantee demonstrates her commitment to keeping the building affordable.
The December 2017 Memorandum of Agreement between tenants and Wah Luck House Preservation LLC does not state that Wong will give any financial compensation to tenants.
Residents have different interpretations of what Wong’s $500,000 guarantee meant.
One tenant tells City Paper that Wong’s guarantee “is real because her document was notarized.” She posits that many tenants continue to think that Wong’s notarized memo is a financial guarantee for them. Another tenant says, “There are some residents that still believe in Wong’s guarantee and there are some that do not.” For him, it was important to take this deal because he wanted to stay in an affordable building. He acknowledges, however, the brutal reality that Wah Luck House could be sold again after renovations are completed. “It’s always going to be about business,” he says.
Wong says that many residents were skeptical of her monetary guarantee, telling her that “she would go bankrupt” if she had to pay out residents. When asked why she offered it then both verbally and in the notarized memo, she says she wanted to demonstrate how “serious” she was about keeping the building affordable.
The majority of Wah Luck’s residents receive housing vouchers that are tied to their units. Individuals or families who receive these vouchers are asked to spend up to only one third of their income on rent, which is imperative for Wah Luck tenants, especially because about 75 percent of them are seniors who live solely on social security and other income assistance.
Like many federally subsidized housing complexes, Wah Luck House has a long waitlist for its 153 units. Several of the building’s current tenants waited years before receiving word that they could move in.
As Aimco’s property manager at Wah Luck for more than a decade, Chow managed this waitlist. For applicants desperately seeking affordable housing, Chow was the de facto gatekeeper to these coveted units. Chow also controlled access to limited parking spots and unit repairs, and served as the on-the-ground liaison to Aimco and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which administers the voucher program. (Chow acknowledged her past employment at Wah Luck in an email, but did not return City Paper’s requests for comment.)
Chow has been gone from Wah Luck for about eight months now, but several residents will only speak about her anonymously because they fear retribution or removal from their apartment units. Their complaints against Chow range from verbal abuse to failure to respond to maintenance requests to bafflement over the application process to get into the building.
Tenant Joanna Xu says that she developed breathing problems and severe allergies from her apartment unit. She explains that she repeatedly asked Chow to ask Aimco to replace the carpet in her unit and to eradicate persistent mold in her kitchen. According to Zhang, the current property manager, Chow always insisted that Aimco did not have the money to do routine renovations. Only in 2015, when Xu says she procured a doctor’s note from Howard University Hospital confirming her breathing problems, did Chow agree to replace the unit’s carpeting. Asked why Xu continues to live at Wah Luck, she says that she was on the waitlist for a unit for 10 years and she simply cannot afford to move elsewhere.
Another tenant similarly recounts how building management under Aimco failed to replace the carpet in her unit after many years. “Under old management, residents did not feel like they could complain or ask for anything,” she says.
Xu also spoke about her multiyear fight to secure a parking spot. Her job requires her to work late on Sunday nights and return to Wah Luck at around 2 a.m. From 2014 to 2017, she says she repeatedly asked Chow if she could rent a parking spot building to limit the amount of time she spent walking alone at night. In 2017, Xu was upset to learn that a man who had just moved into the building had received a parking spot.
A different anonymous tenant lived in Wah Luck House from 2007 to 2011 with his wife and daughter in an overcrowded one-bedroom apartment. He repeatedly asked Chow for a two-bedroom apartment but she denied his requests. Eventually, he made the difficult decision to move out to give his family more space, but has since gotten back on the waitlist to try to move back into the building.
A third anonymous tenant—we’ll call her Ms. Liang—lives nearby in Museum Square, another affordable apartment building. (It is larger than Wah Luck, and has the second highest concentration of Chinese immigrant residents in the neighborhood.) Liang has been on the waitlist for Wah Luck House for years; she wants to live in the same building as her elderly mother.
Liang tells City Paper that in October 2017, Chow called to tell her that she could move into Wah Luck. Liang was overjoyed and immediately prepared all of the move-in paperwork and started to pack her belongings. But Chow failed to follow up with instructions and details. Frustrated, Liang went to Wah Luck House to visit Chow and ask for her move-in date. She says that Chow shooed Liang away angrily and threatened to call the police.
A Wah Luck applicant City Paper spoke with has a similar story. She says that she applied for a unit in 2015, and that Chow called and asked her to come in to fill out paperwork to prove her low-income status. The prospective tenant complied, and recalls that in November 2017, Chow called to inform her that she could move in to the building. But Chow never followed up with more directions. The woman says she continued to call Chow and regularly visit Wah Luck, but eventually Chow told her to stop contacting her. “I felt deceived,” the prospective tenant says. A year later, this past summer, she inquired again, and learned from Zhang, the current property manager, that her application was not in the Wah Luck database. She is now back on the waitlist.
Lifen Peng wants to sue Aimco for mismanagement. On Feb. 3, 2012, Peng married a Wah Luck resident. The two were already living together in an apartment there. But she says that Chow refused to register her as a proper resident of the building.
Shortly after their marriage, Peng reports, her new husband became verbally and physically abusive and at times would lock her out of the apartment. Peng says she spent many nights crying and sleeping on a sofa in the lobby, and Chow refused to give her entry to the unit. By March 2014, Peng sought a civil protective order against her husband and then filed for divorce. The court order prohibited him from being near Peng, who ultimately had to vacate the building and leave her community of friends. Her husband subsequently died, and his apartment unit was filled immediately. Peng is seeking legal representation to help her return to Wah Luck.
Regarding tenant and applicant complaints during the period that Chow managed Wah Luck, a spokesperson from Aimco says, in an emailed statement: “Each applicant received a copy of the resident selection criteria describing waitlist management. All HUD procedures were followed with regard to waitlist management and monitored by the regional property manager, Aimco’s compliance department and HUD’s Performance Based Contract Administrator.” The spokesperson goes on to say, “We take all resident comments very seriously and follow up on all. In addition, a formal grievance procedure was posted at the property. The grievance procedure provided the names and contact information for all levels of management, including the regional property manager and an Aimco Senior Vice President, along with the HUD account executive.”
For more than a decade, the main office of Wah Luck House has had a sign on its wall that says “No Cash Accepted.”
The tenants City Paper interviewed report that they have never seen or spoken with HUD or any additional representative from Aimco.
Mayor Muriel Bowser has been known to make occasional visits to Wah Luck. Bowser was due to make a speech this past February at the building’s annual Chinese New Year party. New building owners Wong and Agetstein attended and sat at a table in the front of the room with members of the CCBA. There were other outside guests: a camera crew from Fannie Mae, who was there to shoot a promotional video for Fannie Mae and Greystone, Fannie Mae’s lending partner on the sale. A camera man and a boom operator captured a staged scene of older women playing mahjong.
Bowser never showed up to the event, and when news of her absence trickled through the crowd, the tenants packed up their cardboard cartons of food, walked to the elevator, and ascended through the building.
Today, renovation of the building’s interior is moving quickly, though Wah Luck’s concrete facade may never be touched. In January 2013, the DC Preservation League sent an application to the DC Office of Planning’s Historic Preservation Review Board calling for an expansion of the boundaries of the Historic Downtown District. This proposal includes Chinatown in the expansion and states that Wah Luck House must be historically preserved for “its architectural design, visual presence, and continuing role in the preservation of Chinatown’s ethnic character.” The Historic Preservation Review Board has not yet set a hearing date to hear the proposal.
Estimates on the number of remaining Chinese or Chinese-American residents in Chinatown hover at a few hundred. Shirley Woo, director of the Chinatown Service Center, tells City Paper that in the fiscal year from October 2016 to September 2017 she provided social services to 708 Chinese individuals and she believes that “most do live around here.” Many of those who don’t live in Wah Luck are nearby in Museum Square, where a diverse tenant group, including African, Latinx, and Chinese immigrants, as well as born citizens, have successfully fought displacement in recent years.
How much money do the various stakeholders of Wah Luck House stand to make in the future? The case of Museum Square provides some insight. A few years ago, Museum Square’s owner, Bush Companies, gave the tenants there an opportunity to purchase the building for an incredible $250 million, a number that Bush calculated based on “the future value of the property, after redevelopment.” But the two cases are not parallel. Museum Square currently has 302 units and the redevelopment vision included more than 800 units.
Wong tells City Paper that after the renovation is complete, she estimates that the building will be worth over $70 million. When asked about the value of the land underneath the building, Wong says with a chuckle, “CCBA will never sell that land.”
The residents of Wah Luck are aware of the value of their building. Xu tells City Paper that “she was praying to God to give her a place to live,” before she moved in to Wah Luck. She reports that she was on the waitlist for 10 years before finally getting a unit in 2007. Despite the many challenges of living in Wah Luck, she considers herself “very, very lucky” to call it home.
A previous version of this article stated that Museum Square has more than 800 units. It has 302 units. A redevelopment vision included 800 units.