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High rents and low wages – Is this any way to achieve affordability?


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Tenants are facing a tough time in San Francisco. The city has some of the nation’s highest rents and laws like the Ellis Act have made evictions front page news. But there are pockets of affordability, like in Chinatown, where the average rent is one third as much as in other neighborhoods.

But the neighborhood is also one of the country’s most overcrowded and tenants claim that landlords violate health and safety codes.

In response to rising rents and shoddy housing, a group of low-income, mostly elderly Chinatown renters have crossed language and cultural barriers to change to their neighborhood.

Norman Fong grew up in Chinatown in the 1960’s and has worked in the community his entire career. He’s currently the executive director of the Chinatown Community Development Corporation, a nonprofit that works on neighborhood housing issues.

“Half of Chinatown [is] actually, the tourists don’t see,” Fong says. “Above all the restaurants and shops, are SRO’s, single room occupancy residence hotels.” Fong says residents flock to parks like Portsmouth Square in the heart of Chinatown because they need space to breathe.

“Portsmouth Square is really important to our community.” Fong says. “It’s really the living room for our community. If you’ve been into an SRO, a single room occupancy, it’s very tight. It’s a closet-like space.”

Chinatown resident Lee Ming Dang immigrated from China a year ago with her husband, teenage son and daughter. Now they live together in one seven- by-seven-foot room. Aside from a couple of stools, a twin bunk bed is their only furniture. Nothing else will fit.

The family sleeps, eats, studies and rests together on the bed. “My daughter and I sleep on the bottom bunk,” Lee says. “My husband and son share the top bunk.”

The family pays $300 a month in rent. Even for Chinatown, that’s very low but Lee says that’s about all the family can afford. Her husband, a janitor, can’t find full time work.

Constant stress over money combined with living in a cramped space, literally on top of each other, lead to a lot of conflict. As she opens up about her family, Lee starts to cry. “When my husband gets back from work he’s tired. He yells at my son to get off the stool and sit on the bed instead. I am so sorry. I wish I could help earn enough to move.”

Years ago, when immigrants arrived in Chinatown, they’d live in an SRO for a while, save up, then move to a bigger place. But soaring rents and low wages block that path now, even for more seasoned immigrants.

Lee Ping Yee (no relation to Lee Ming Dang) moved to the U.S. in 2004. She’s lived in her SRO for 5 years.

Her daughter’s friends are visiting, leaving Lee with no place to sit. Instead she leans on the doorway of her unit saying hello as neighbors walk by. As we speak, the lights suddenly go out.

“There’s always power shortages.” Lee says. “I have to wait for the neighbors to finish cooking. Then I can have power to cook my dinner.”

With no electricity and no place to sit, Lee Ping Yee paces the hall in frustration. She wants out. She’s been in the U.S. for 10 years, and she feels stuck.

“I not enough money to buy house.” Lee says it’s even harder with children, “support them and you know, grow up my daughter, you need money. Always call mommy, I need money buy food. Ah, it’s hard.”

Like many in Chinatown, both Lee’s are immigrants with limited English, limited incomes, and limited prospects. They are not, however, powerless. The women are members of the Community Tenants Association or CTA. Leung and his neighbors turned to CTA for help. They pulled together other housing rights groups and elected officials to support the tenants. “We held rallies in front of the building with hundreds of people,” Leung recalls. “At a mediation conference the landlord rescinded the eviction notice.”

That was six years ago. Today, Leung is CTA’s president.

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