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.
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