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Chinatown Tenants Gather Strength

Melanie Young
Chinatown resident Lee Ming Dang in her 7 by 7 foot home.

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.

Small rooms, cheap rents

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. Not they live together in one 7 by 7 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.

Wanting a way out

Lee Ping Yee (no relation to Lee Ming Dang) moved to the US 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 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 US 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.”

Fighting for change

Credit Melanie Young
Community Tenants Association -- or CTA -- meeting in San Francisco's Chinatown.

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.

The CTA was founded 26 years ago when one Chinatown building’s tenants got together to fight an eviction. When they won their case they decided to share what they’d learned with other residents. Since then they’ve seen each other through rental problems and weighed in on San Francisco’s housing policies.  

Neighborhood resident Leung Wing Ho says CTA saved his home. “I had just retired when I was evicted from my apartment. I was really worried because I was old and only had my retirement income.”

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.  

He says the group has about 1000 members and feels like a giant family. But they’re also very disciplined about their goals.

“We have weekly educational workshops on housing, health, and social security benefits policies so we’re very up to date and prepared.”

Being prepared gives CTA a voice at City Hall, where members regularly testify. At a recent Muni hearing, CTA Vice President Zheng Pei Juan explained, “I know some senior couples who can only afford one muni pass so they take turns to run errands and most importantly, to go on doctors visits. The city’s becoming increasingly unaffordable.”

That unaffordability is especially stark in Chinatown. The average household income here is only one quarter what it is the rest of San Francisco’s. Despite that inequity, rents are on the rise.

Striking a chord outside of Chinatown  

CTA member Lee Gum Gee rented an apartment on the border of Chinatown and Nob Hill for 34 years. When a new landlord invoked the Ellis Act to evict all the residents, Lee decided to fight.

Chinatown Community Development Corporation’s Norman Fong says it wasn’t just her neighbors who rallied behind her.  

“I think because she was saying I’m not moving, I’m not leaving my daughter here who is mentally challenged. This is my home. I deserve to have a life here in San Francisco,” Fong says. “Somehow her story resonated with hundreds of others.”

“On the day of her eviction, CTA were there but citywide people came from all over.”

Dozens of elderly Chinese tenants from CTA stationed themselves in front of the apartment-- holding signs and showing support.

Lee and her family eventually had to leave the apartment but Norman Fong says the case drew public attention and helped spur action at City Hall and Sacramento.

“This little Chinatown case” Fong says, “with CTA backup, citywide and statewide policies are changing now to help protect all San Francisco so there are homes for middle class folks that are at risk for Ellis act as well.”

“We’ve turned fear into action. That’s what CTA represents to me. They’re fearless.”  

Every Wednesday CTA members meet for workshops, share news updates, and socialize.  They launch each session with a sing-a-long> CTA president Leung Wing Ho says it helps bring them together.

“Singing makes us happy, gives us courage and the spirit to fight for our causes,” Leung says.

And that fighting spirit is spreading. One hundred new members join CTA every year.

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