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Since the 1850s, when thousands of Chinese workers migrated to the US to play a major role in the building of America’s western railways, Chinatowns have been a feature of many of our country’s biggest cities. Chinatowns have long existed in New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Washington DC, and, of course, in San Francisco, America’s main port of entry from lands on the farthermost shores of the Pacific Ocean.
For the most part, these enclaves have been home, not only to ethnic Chinese, but also to a conglomeration of different Asian immigrants, many of them, low-income – all of them striving to build a new life in America, while still holding on to their cultural heritages and traditional ways of life.
Historically, these Chinatowns have not only provided inexpensive housing for generations of the newly arrived and their families, but often offered other amenities to their inhabitants, such as immigration services and jobs, as well as social services, such as healthcare and education – services that were not always provided by local governments.
But Chinatowns across the country are being threatened by continuing waves of gentrification, wherein developers displace low-income families and ethnic businesses by buying up properties and then replacing them with high-end apartments and commercial enterprises that cater to more affluent, and generally much younger upper class tenants.
San Francisco’s Chinatown is home to about 18,000 residents and 1,000 small businesses, including hundreds of mom-and-pop grocery stores and restaurants. The latest salvo in the Chinatown gentrification wars involves one of this community’s SRO (single-room-occupancy) hotels, which make up about three quarters of the neighborhood’s housing stock.
Recently, a real estate investment group, Emery Vallejo LLC, has served eviction notices to two dozen families at No. 2 Emery Lane, a 32-unit residential hotel where the tenants live in 100 square foot rooms and share kitchens and bathrooms with one another. The property was bought in November 2013, for $2.72 million.
The building’s new owner maintains that the tenants have broken their leases by doing things such as hanging laundry outside their windows (long a common practice in the neighborhood) and hanging Chinese New Year decorations in the hallways. Meanwhile, neighborhood affordable housing advocates and community groups like the Chinatown Community Development Center (CCDC) charge that the new owner is harassing tenants and gouging them for an increase in rents – from an average of $550 a month to $1,300.
According to the CCDC, Emery Vallejo LLC wants to attract new tenants who work in Silicon Valley’s high-tech corridor. Two blocks away from No. 2 Emery Lane is a bus stop. There, buses sponsored by employers like Google and Yahoo, stand ready to whisk their passengers to work without them having to navigate Highway 101 – the normally backed-up automobile route to their jobs.
Malcolm Yeung, deputy director of the CCDC, said the situation shows that: “Every neighborhood in San Francisco is now vulnerable to this crisis.
Chinatown has been a resource for low-income families, for immigrants, for people trying to build a life. SRO hotels have been the housing of last resort for these people. It’s where families come to make a life and a place for seniors to age in place. It is a crime that we are now in a situation where the housing of last resort in the city is coming under attack.”