When Elites Hide Behind Populist Rhetoric: The Case of "Flushing United"
By Tarry Hum
In Flushing Queens, one of New York City’s largest and fastest growing immigrant communities, a developer and business-led group is mobilizing left-populist imagery and rhetoric toward conservative ends. A family transitional housing project has become a flashpoint sparking debate on affordable housing and Flushing’s post-pandemic future. It is a cautionary tale for planners and activists working for housing justice, and a reminder to look beyond slogans and signs and toward the elite political, economic and social ties behind coalitions claiming to speak for a broad public.
Flushing United is calling for a protest march on May 31, 2022 starting at the Flushing Library steps to oppose the family transitional housing project planned for College Point Blvd and to demand a “true public hearing” and “fully affordable housing in Flushing.” Since last November, Flushing’s business and community elites have held numerous protests, raised tens of thousands of dollars, and secured attorneys to press their opposition to a 90-room transitional housing facility for women and children in need of safe shelter. Their grievances, however, are not about housing affordability; rather, these elites seek to protect their business and property investments, and advance Flushing’s post-pandemic economic recovery as a global marketplace for luxury real estate and tourism.
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, New York City was experiencing an acute affordable housing crisis. In Downtown Flushing, tenants have been evicted from rent stabilized buildings which were then sold to investors who converted apartments that were affordable to working class households into condominiums that sold on average for $659,000. Individual rent stabilized buildings have also been assembled into massive portfolios accounting for hundreds of apartments that were purchased by investors who methodically engage in a process of tenant displacement through unnecessary capital improvements, rent increases, and conversion of vacated units into condominiums. The alarming loss of affordable housing is a consequence of Downtown Flushing’s transformation led by new luxury developments including hotels, residential condominiums, retail and entertainment venues to accommodate the lifestyle and consumption desires of a global elite.
If ever there was a moment for Flushing to unite to demand permanent affordable housing, it was November 7, 2020 when La Journada food pantry operator Pedro Rodriguez came upon a tragedy – an Asian elder who had died in a cardboard box on Prince Street. And yet, the community and business elites who formed Flushing United were silent. There was no outcry nor demand as there is now “to build permanent affordable housing that Flushing desperately needs.” Rather, these same elites continued their efforts to push through the Special Flushing Waterfront District (SFWD) that will facilitate a massive $2 billion luxury mixed-use development in 13 towers along a fragile Flushing Creek – all without a comprehensive environmental impact study and public scoping meetings.
Less than two weeks after the homeless Asian senior died on a Flushing sidewalk, prolific developer, George Xu (brother of United Construction and Development Group’s Chris Xu, a SFWD property owner and developer) and Congresswoman Grace Meng’s father, Jimmy Meng, a property owner and disgraced former NYS Assembly member who pled guilty in a federal wire fraud charge for soliciting a $80,000 bribe, led a rally to support then-City Council Member Peter Koo’s pro-development vision for Downtown Flushing and to call for the city’s approval of the SFWD.
Immigrant advocacy organizations, community alliances and activists including the MinKwon Center for Community Action, Chhaya Community Development Corporation, Greater Flushing Chamber of Commerce, Flushing for Equitable Development and Urban Planning (FED UP), Flushing Workers Center, Guardians of Flushing Bay, and Flushing Anti-Displacement Alliance opposed the SFWD rezoning at every stage of the public review process by pointing out Flushing’s acute need for deeply affordable housing which will hardly be abated by SFWD’s meager 75-90 affordable units required by the city’s Mandatory Inclusionary Housing policy. The dearth of affordable housing stands in stark contrast to the 1,725 units of market rate condominiums planned for the SFWD and was a concern echoed by New York City Council Members as they “grilled” the development team at a November 2020 hearing. The SFWD team (comprised of F & T Group and United Construction and Development Group who purchased Young Nian Group LLC’s site for $103 million last month) spent more than $1 million on lobbyists to counter these concerns and ensure final approval of the 29-acre special district and waterfront rezoning in December 2020.
The site in question today, 39-03 College Point Blvd, has been owned by an Asian Americans for Equality (AAFE) subsidiary since 2003. The one-story structure, which housed AAFE’s homeownership assistance programs and a conference room, was demolished in 2016 to make way for a proposed seven-story commercial building. Failure to raise the transnational capital (through the controversial EB-5 immigrant investor program) to finance the commercial building eventually led to AAFE’s partnership with Urban Resource Institute to propose a transitional housing facility to accommodate 90 families with children. According to AAFE, the proposed service-enriched transitional housing will be the “first project of its kind in New York City, offering outreach and services in Asian languages.”
Upon learning of AAFE’s plans for their College Point Blvd site, only steps from F & T Group’s Tangram and directly across the street from the massive SFWD, Flushing’s developers, business and community elites formed Flushing United to mount a sustained and vocal opposition to the family transitional housing by gathering signatures on a petition, preparing WeChat posts to inform and shape immigrant Chinese users’ opinions, mobilizing turnout at protests, and securing lawyers. At an organizing meeting in January 2022 facilitated by business and civic leaders George Xu, Jimmy Meng, and Jerry Lo, more than $60,000 was raised through donations and pledges from developers F & T Group ($10,000) and Chris Xu ($5,000), migrant civil society organizations including Beijing Hometown Association ($5,000) and Henan Chinese Association USA ($3,000), and business associations including Chinese Business Association of New York ($10,000) and Equal Opportunity for Physicians in New York ($16,000).
A recent Flushing United press conference was held at George Xu’s Farrington, “a collection of 100 luxury residences rising above the Sheraton Four Points Hotel.” According to the Department of Finance rolling sales data, 22 of Farrington’s residential condominiums sold in 2021 at an average sale price exceeding $1 million. As a business and civic leader, George Xu chairs the Chinese Business Association of New York and is active in electoral politics through donations (e.g., $1,000 to Eric Adams for his 2021 Mayoral race) and endorsements. He regularly posts on his LinkedIn account and in a March 2022 post, Xu reported his endorsement of Kenneth Chiu’s candidacy for Assembly District 40, currently represented by Ron Kim. Assembly Member Kim was the only elected representative of Flushing who opposed the SFWD. Kenneth Chiu, a former staffer for NYS State Senator and Independent Democratic Conference member Jesse Hamilton, authored the “We the people OBJECT to building a shelter in Flushing!” petition and helps lead organizations such as CAARC and BRACE to mobilize Brooklyn’s Chinese community to oppose a transitional housing development in Sunset Park.
On a cold February day, Flushing United held a protest in front of 39-03 College Point Blvd.A Chinese language media source reported the participation of former City Council Member Peter Koo, developers George Xu and Chris Xu, current and former political candidates Kenneth Chiu and Andy Chen, and numerous migrant civil society leaders.Renown human rights activist, Yanhai Wan, and Queens College alum and activist, Howard Wong, and a few others bravely waged a counter-protest.They were harassed and berated by transitional housing opponents, including Jimmy Meng, who accused Wan and Wong of being paid $15 per hour for holding signs calling for compassion and housing for working families with children.While handing out flyers with excerpts from an interview with AAFE’s Nelson Chan to clarify misinformation about the proposed family transitional housing, Flushing activist Li Huanjie was harassed by a protester saying she deserved to be sexually assaulted by homeless men, a statement that is repugnant for both its misogyny as well as its employment of stereotypes about the unhoused.
Business owner and civic leader, Jerry Lo, co-wrote an op-ed lamenting “Flushing’s Perilous Future” in regards to how the pandemic has heightened precarity for Flushing’s working-class families. However, his statements ring hollow and highlight the hypocrisy of Flushing’s business and community elites in their current demand for public input and permanent affordable housing on 39-03 College Point Blvd. Lo wrote “we still don’t even know if all the proper environmental studies have been completed to ensure this development is safe.” These same elites pushed back when community groups objected to the Department of City Planning’s negative declaration on the SFWD application resulting in no environmental impact study or public scoping meetings. In other words, according to Flushing elites, massive rezonings for luxury development don’t deserve public scrutiny, but small projects for families experiencing homelessness must be subject to endless regulatory review.
Lo noted the personal investment of Flushing’s elites in its future. If SWFD is an example, that future will generate only the minimal, legally required provision of public goods, including affordable housing and open space in any future development. Then as now, these business and community elites are motivated by property investments and development, quality of life issues including banning street vendors, busways, and bike lanes – as exemplified in then-City Council Member Koo’s callous statement at a Department of Transportation press event that “BLM means Business Lives Matter” during the summer of protests of George Floyd’s murder by the police. Flushing’s perilous future is one that increasingly privatizes the public realm, promotes luxury development, with leaders who are silent when homeless people die on city streets but vehemently object to a “misguided development” that seeks to help place homeless and women and children at-risk of homelessness as close to their work, schools, and family members as possible. Clearly, their definition of community does not include Flushing’s working class, as evidenced in a recent WeChat appeal to “Every owner and employee of all the businesses and clinics in Flushing please participate in this meaningful event that is directly tied to our community’s public safety and prosperity.”
Flushing United’s demands for public review and affordable housing are a smokescreen for their larger project to remake the neighborhood for the wealthy. Planners, elected officials, and neighborhood stakeholders must reject this misdirection and see it for what it is: a long-standing class project hiding behind the rhetoric of good governance and affordability.
Tarry Hum is Professor and Chair of the Urban Studies Department at Queens College, CUNY. She is on leave to complete a book, Global China: Transnational Capital, Growth Coalitions, and City Building in Immigrant New York.