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A mother finds her voice in a fight to save her home

Oakland Chinatown’s Pacific Renaissance Plaza opened in 1993. It was a real victory for Chinatown and signaled its change from a Chinese-centric neighborhood to a multicultural and pan-Asian identity.

In 2003, the Pacific Renaissance was again the center of a neighborhood battle. Just ten years after it opened, the low-income residential units automatically converted to market rate. One of the tenants was 87-year-old Yen Hom. Her son, Art Hom, remembers how she got the news. “She got this notice in the mail that asked her to come up with $300,000 to buy the apartment or move,” recalls Hom.

Occupants of the building’s 50 subsidized units received eviction notices like this in April of 2003. At first, Yen Hom couldn’t even understand the letter, which was written in English. Her son Art had to read it for her. “My mother felt hopeless and helpless and we all felt pretty vulnerable,” he remembers. “At that time we were thinking we had no choices.”

The evictions stunned the mostly elderly Chinese residents. They said no one had told them that the units would stop being affordable. Still, Art Hom says most of them quietly began moving out, with some serious consequences. “Elders don’t respond to this kind of disruption without it affecting their health, so we had deaths, illnesses, relapses and it was a very painful time,” Hom remembers.

Yen Hom decided to fight her eviction. Her son says she was empowered by the battle. “My mother seemed to have found her voice and was able to say, ‘What’s the next step? Let the Sheriffs come? If they come, well let them drag me out.’”

Yen Hom was conducting a “live-in." Art Hom says she was taking a huge risk in doing so because, in her community, it wasn’t customary to be open about personal matters like money or to exert political power. “The culture is to keep it to yourself and quietly submit,” he explains.

Yen Hom had faced many displacements in her life. She left her home village in China when the Japanese invaded during World War II. And she fled to the U.S. in the politically turbulent years after the war. Art Hom says this time, his mom refused to go. “My mother was willing to stand up for it, and go to court, and possibly lose. And she was willing to make the sacrifice and I was quite proud of her. And to this day I am still very proud of her.”

Yen Hom wasn’t alone. Francis Chang’s parents, who also lived at the Pacific Renaissance Plaza, stood up against the eviction as well. Chang called lawyers, but they turned him away. Finally, desperate for help, he contacted the office of Congress member Barbara Lee and was directed to the Berkeley Community Law Center. Art Hom says he and Chang called the center and discovered they had more options than they realized. They decided to fight the eviction.

The local community group CJWP, or Moving Forward for Peace joined Hom and Chang. Volunteers went door-to-door at the Pacific Renaissance Plaza, trying to organize tenants to resist the eviction. Half a dozen chose to stay, forming a small but determined tenant’s rights group. With help from the city of Oakland, they filed a lawsuit against the Pacific Renaissance developer, Lawrence Chan.

The plaza had been built with public money, so advocates argued that the developer had an obligation to the community. And as the fight wore on, an increasingly diverse and intergenerational group of protesters took up the cause. Hom says his mother was celebrated as a hero. “Now, this is quite unusual for an 87-year-old woman who all her life has been pretty much not have any political power at all,” he points out.

Hom remembers bringing his mother to one of many hearings at City Hall. “I’m just wheeling my mom up in a wheel chair, and we see people surrounding her as we enter the meeting hall, holding signs, doing street theater, doing renditions of my mom’s life experience in a mural,” he says. At that moment, he says he felt they “had a sense of community and sense of belonging, feeling heard, validated, understood.”

In 2007, they settled out of court. The developer turned over control of the low-income units to the non-profit East Bay Asian Local Development Corporation, or EBALDC, ensuring they would remain below market rate and affordable for future residents. Art and Yen Hom had succeeded, but Yen didn’t live to see her victory. She died a year and a half into the lawsuit, but Art Hom represented his mother through the end. He says the fight gave his mother a sense of purpose at the end of her life. “She was able to join us and make a stand for herself and I think she felt invigorated by that, no longer the helpless victim.”

Art Hom says the principle that his mother fought for is still alive. He also says she showed that “an 87-year-old woman can make a difference, but it takes a whole community organization around and many, many people to sacrifice a lot of time and energy and to stand up for what we believe and work together.” Hom says his mother helped inspire a generation of activists, and he says he hopes that legacy of empowerment endures.

This story originally aired on June 16, 2010 as part of a series on Oakland's Chinatown.