After twenty years spent building a solid foundation, AAFE entered a period of rapid expansion that pushed the organization into many new and unexpected directions. AAFE's growing reputation as a housing developer enhanced the organization's credibility with the City government and other agencies. As a result, AAFE was entrusted with an increasing number of projects that challenged the organization to evolve in new ways.
When a nonprofit organization that had been rehabilitating nine buildings in the Lower East Side suddenly went under in 1997, the project's main funders asked AAFE to take over the reins. AAFE quickly evaluated what needed to be done to save the project and adjusted its approach accordingly. AAFE's success with this project, which won a Maxwell Award of Excellence from the Fannie Mae Foundation, encouraged the organization to continue devising new strategies. Over the next few years, AAFE added new construction projects and homeownership developments to its housing endeavors.
The organization diversified its social services as well, adding expanded immigration services, access to health care, a computer technology center, and other programs to its roster. Margaret Chin describes AAFE's growth as an organic process, based on responding and adapting to needs as they arose.
During this period, the social service landscape in America was changing. By the mid-1990s, welfare reform was set in motion, and anti-poverty and affordable housing programs were rapidly being dismantled. AAFE weathered this difficult period, expanding its small business loan program, and starting a new homeownership program. Banks see small business borrowers and homebuyers as business opportunities, not charity, so AAFE increased its work in these areas, making a conscious choice to try to bring wealth into the community as other resources were drying up.
As a result of this new strategy, Renaissance was able to expand its programs for small businesses. In 1998, Renaissance qualified for CDFI (Community Development Financial Institution) status and became the Renaissance Economic Development Corporation. This was an important step forward, enabling Renaissance to provide direct small business loans, and to attract more financing to the community.
The homeownership program, which was initiated in the early 1990s, started out as a program to help renters become homebuyers. In June 2000, AAFE's Homeownership Department qualified for CDFI status as well, and became a separate institution (AAFE CDF). This allowed AAFE CDF to provide direct financing to clients for down payment and closing cost assistance along with its education and counseling services.
In developing its program, AAFE paid close attention to the unique needs and obstacles of its Asian and immigrant clients. Unfamiliarity with the American system made immigrants more vulnerable to untrustworthy brokers, and more likely to end up paying higher interest, higher prices, and higher down payments, or buying properties that they could not afford.
Homeownership is a very important goal for many immigrants. Owning a house is more than just a financial investment; it is a meaningful step toward establishing a personal sense of belonging and commitment to a life in the United States. "With the AAFE program, they really understand the whole process," says Siu Kwan Chan, AAFE CDF's Managing Director. "Buying a home is an important part of their life. AAFE's services make everything make more sense."
Frank Lang, AAFE's Director of Planning and Development, observes, "AAFE has kept the ideals it had at the beginning, although it has had to continually reframe them in a changing world. Even the activities that might sound the furthest from the original grassroots protests all come back to the same impulse the founders followed: trying to help people to improve their lives."
As the primary New York organization offering housing counseling and homeownership assistance to the Asian community, AAFE began to serve a citywide clientele, beyond Chinatown. In 1996, AAFE therefore opened a satellite office in Flushing, Queens, to offer services to the rapidly growing Asian and immigrant populations there, including Chinese, Koreans, and South Asians.
Another important step in AAFE's outreach to other immigrant communities was the creation of a new affiliate, Chhaya CDC, in October 2000. Chhaya, whose name means "shelter" in several South Asian languages, offered housing advocacy, eviction prevention, referrals, tenant and immigrant services, English classes, and social services to the South Asian community.
AAFE also built partnerships with other Asian Pacific American groups in the region through a Resource and Assistance Center offering technical assistance to other community development organizations, and played a leading role in establishing National CAPACD (the National Coalition for Asian Pacific American Community Development). These new partnerships offered an opportunity to advance AAFE's long-held dream of creating a stronger Asian American political voice, bringing diverse groups from around the country together around a common agenda.
As AAFE was expanding on all of these different fronts, events conspired to bring the organization's attention sharply back to its Chinatown base. Disaster struck New York City on September 11, 2001, and AAFE leaped to respond. Lower Manhattan was devastated by the attacks and their aftermath, and Chinatown, situated just to the east of where the World Trade Center once stood, was left reeling from the shock.
On the evening of September 11th, AAFE staff assisted with Chinese translation in downtown disaster centers. In the following weeks, they acted as community liaisons between the relief agencies and the Chinatown community, helping terrified local residents, some of whom, isolated by the language barrier, did not understand what was going on, or how to seek aid after losing their loved ones, jobs, or income. AAFE educated people in the Chinatown community about how they could register to get government help, and helped many people to file their claims. AAFE also served as the designated agency helping Chinatown residents apply for federal grants intended to stabilize lower Manhattan's housing occupancy after the attack.
In the months that followed, AAFE saw that the long-term effects of September 11th on Chinatown promised to be even more devastating than the immediate shock. Tourism had been dealt a serious blow. Half of the neighborhood was locked down in the "frozen zone" below Canal Street, with limited traffic access, for weeks following the disaster. Garment factories lost orders and clients, and other local businesses, dependent on tourism and local workers' patronage, were struggling. Nearly 8,000 jobs were lost in Chinatown, making it one of the hardest-hit neighborhoods in the city.
Renaissance saw that small loans could help keep Chinatown's economy together,
and launched an Emergency Loan Fund on September 21, 2001, with
$150,000 diverted from its operational funds. The first emergency
loan was made on October 4. Later, with more funding coming in
from both public and private sectors, AAFE helped to distribute
additional grants, loans, and wage subsidies to local businesses.
To ensure that the work begun after 9/11 would continue, AAFE launched the Rebuild Chinatown Initiative (RCI) in partnership with other Lower Manhattan groups. This community-directed planning process engaged residents, businesses, and public agencies in the preservation and revitalization of Chinatown. The RCI was a direct continuation of the work that AAFE had been doing in Chinatown since its inception: keeping Chinatown prosperous, as a place of commerce, business, culture, tourism, and more.
A new project concretized the hope that the organization had worked to revive. In 1999, AAFE pioneered its first all-new construction project in lower Manhattan, Norfolk Apartments. The first phase of the project provided 24 units of low-income rental housing built to a high standard, and represented a huge step forward in AAFE's capabilities. The second phase of the project was to be an even more ambitious development, built on three vacant lots.
When it appeared as if the 9/11 disaster might delay the second phase indefinitely, AAFE resolved to forge ahead with its partners. Against all odds, Norfolk Apartments II broke ground in January 2002, becoming the first affordable housing development to be built in Lower Manhattan after 9/11.
Frank Lang says, "I feel very proud that we broke ground just a few months after the disaster. The need for housing in this neighborhood has been very great for a very long time. It sent an important message that we would be there, no matter what, to help the future of this neighborhood."
When it opened the lottery process to select tenants for Norfolk Apartments II's 52 units in 2003, AAFE received 10,000 applications. This overwhelming response affirmed that AAFE's work was of vital importance to the community, and would remain so for a long time to come.
As Christopher Kui points out, AAFE's ability to respond to crisis and bring projects like the Norfolk Apartments to fruition despite the circumstances have helped redefine what Asian Americans can contribute to the renewal and development of New York City from now on: "By making the policymakers of this city aware of the contributions and needs of Asian Americans, the future of the city will have to include our ideas and hear our voices."
"AAFE has made my life better in so many ways. My family
has benefited from its different programs. Our apartment
in Equality House has been a wonderful home. The help I
got inspired me to volunteer for AAFE. My daughter worked
as an intern for AAFE after college, and then became a full
time staff person. I am thankful."
- Winnie Lee
resident of Equality House since 1989.