Social Distancing? Not If You Live in A Chinese Immigrant 'Boarding House'

Two beds crammed into the corner of the living room of a two-bedroom apartment in Monterey Park that sleeps up to 10 people a night. (Chava Sanchez/LAist)

For some Chinese immigrants, social distancing is literally impossible. That's because many of them are packed into apartments, condos, and garage conversions — and by many, I mean 10, 15, even more.

These places are called "boarding houses" or "family motels" — and they are all over the San Gabriel Valley, especially in Monterey Park.

Last week, LAist published my extensive coverage of overcrowded Chinese boarding houses. Yesterday, I caught up with a few of my sources.

A NERVOUS 'SECOND-HAND LANDLORD'

Hengbin Wu rents two units at a building in Monterey Park and sublets beds to several tenants for about $15 a night. He's known as a "second-hand landlord." He says the neighborhood is still bustling and he's seeing many new boarding house tenants at other apartments in the 26-unit the complex where he lives. Wu told me:

"It's obvious that there are more people in Monterey Park, especially around the Dingpangzi plaza. More people mean more problems, and more problems mean it's easy to lose control of the situation."

He told me he's scared of the coronavirus spreading through overcrowded boarding houses. And he's only letting five people stay in each of his two bedroom units. Usually he tries to keep a rotation of nine tenants in each unit on any given day.

ELSEWHERE, LESS DISTANCE

I'm hearing that as restaurants close, workers are spending more time in boarding houses. Chunsheng Zhang, a construction worker, told me he's been living in a three-bedroom apartment with 15 other people. That's four people in each room and four people in the living room.

Zhang said that the sanitation at boarding houses is worrisome. Workers from countless cities and states come and go on a daily basis. He told me no one wears a mask inside, and nothing gets disinfected. He said that someone at his boarding house was sick with a fever but refused to go to the hospital. Zhang told me he was terrified, and left the city for Sacramento.

THE ENFORCEMENT CONUNDRUM

So what can be done to make a terrible situation slightly less bad? Not much.

City officials are concerned that the overcrowded and unsanitary boarding houses are a risk factor for the spread of COVID-19. But they don't want to break up these homes and put people on the street. They're focused on the big picture right now, trying to keep institutions functioning and informing the public.

I asked Peter Chan of the Monterey Park city council if there were any plans to address the potential health hazards posed by overcrowded boarding houses during the current pandemic. He told me:

"There is no specific action or special means for any specific groups."

And here's what San Gabriel Mayor Jason Pu told me:

"I recognize, too, that many of those individuals may not have health insurance, may not have access to health care. So it's an extremely dangerous situation."

He admitted that the situation is "challenging," then added, "however, at this point in time, the focus is on trying to keep the overall community healthy and safe."

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