Evictions, relocation and discretionary review around Chinatown
The San Francisco Planning Commission will hear what is normally a routine request Thursday/25 to change the size of a backyard behind an unassuming building on a block not far from Chinatown.
But behind the request for discretionary review lies a much deeper story involving the deportation of 11 Chinese immigrants, the loss of rent-controlled housing and the transformation of what was once a heavily Chinese community.
The building is at 45 Bernard Street, which connects Jones and Taylor between Broadway and Pacific. It is owned by Tina and Lindsey Huston, who bought the building for $1.4 million in 2019, Recorder’s Office records show.
Tina and Lindsey are mother and daughter.
In 2020, they filed for a building permit to significantly improve the property, at an estimated cost of $389,000. The contractor is James Huston, Lindsey’s father.
Meanwhile, Lindsey and her sister, Taylor, have moved in to evict the current residents and move in – as landlord and landlord’s relative. It’s perfectly legal. All tenants were Chinese immigrants with limited English.
Rent Board records show that landlords helped tenants relocate. From the request for discretionary review:
According to the San Francisco Rent Stabilization and Arbitration Board (case numbers M201229 and M201400), the evicted tenants all received a relocation assistance payment. Each of the three seniors and/or disabled persons who lived at 47 Bernard Street received $9,151.80, and each of the other two received $4,334.80. Each of the five elderly and/or disabled people at 49 Bernard Street received $8,429.33 and Huang Zhang Chen received $3,612.33. There were no owner buyouts; restrictions are imposed at 47-49, rue Bernard until the fall of 2025.
That’s a total, if the Rent Board records are correct, of about $81,000 for all tenants. In many cases that I have tracked, payments to individual evicted tenants have been within this range.
And, of course, the move wiped out several rent-controlled units, in a city where the conversion of rental housing to owner-occupied housing has created a severe affordability crisis.
Either way, the Huston sisters now want to legalize an existing accessory dwelling unit, where a tenant currently lives, and expand the building envelope further into a fairly modest backyard.
A group of neighbors, organized as the Upper Chinatown Neighborhood Association, is appealing the permit and asking the Planning Commission to conduct a discretionary review.
Here’s what the neighbors are saying:
The plans and design of 45 Bernard Street undermines the cultural fabric of this community by eliminating the Chinese court experience, a local neighborhood asset. Consider the disruption that has already been done to eleven Chinese immigrants, eight of whom are elderly and/or disabled with little or no English language proficiency. The new owners evicted Chen and Yu family members and He and Cen family members. Plans eliminate the spiritual refuge that isolated open space provides. (See Figure 1 below of Chinese courtship.) Sponsors will not benefit from this courtship experience nor anyone else on the block. If approved as submitted, this project will only accelerate the transformation of our neighborhood away from a community of Chinese-American families – the social and economic unit of stability.
For more than thirty-five years, we have observed that the Chinese families who lived at 45-49 Bernard Street naturally relied on the open space of their modest courtyard as an unofficial temple. It was a space where family members of all ages came and went freely as they pleased, but were more stable and connected when undisturbed and together in the yard. As Professor Laurence G. Liu, Head of Architectural Design and Graduate Programs at Southeastern University, Nanjing, Jiangsu, China, wrote in a historical reference work: “. . . people actually lived in an unstable and transient world. . . the communist character of the family system, the inner feeling of withdrawal from the outside world and the idea of a simple life. . . contributed to the formation of the courtyard house. . . . Because the center of all activity was the yard, there was no privacy regarding the movements and activities of all family members. . . it was an organization that had the particularity of isolation. Moreover, he has created an arrangement and a form that psychologically mobilizes all members of a family to live together in a spiritual refuge. . . . It was only through the unity of thought and the strength of a family that they were able to face and survive the misfortunes of life.
They also note:
In 2013, 80% of owners were of Chinese American descent. In 2021, their homeownership rate fell to 60%, and Chinese immigrants and low-income Chinese-American individuals and families were displaced. What is emerging in our neighborhood is a younger, less diverse, and more affluent individual tenant population that will likely be more transient.
I spoke with Lindsey Huston tonight, and she sent me the following statement:
When our family purchased the house in 2019, the property was and remains in a significant state of disrepair. The tenants were represented and advised by lawyers, and our family paid the required moving amounts, as well as months of free rent and other financial assistance. When our tenants got other accommodations in San Francisco they moved out, although they were able to stay much longer if they wanted given the Covid moratoriums. Now we just want to make it a better home for us and our tenant, who is supporting the project and who will be able to live in a brand new unit at a protected rent price – the first significant renovations in 40+ years. One of the tenants who moved under the OMI process was also willing to provide a letter of support for the project.
We are not developers – this is our home and we currently live here and will continue to live here as we live and work in the city. Many of the things our neighbors have said are just plain wrong. While we understand their concerns, improving building conditions for our family, our tenant and our neighborhood has been our primary focus. After living here for more than two years, we wish to settle this matter amicably and hope to be able to move forward in a positive way with the neighborhood community.
I will say all the same: This project took several rent-controlled units off the market. Buying a building that has rent-controlled tenants with plans to evict them and eliminate rent-controlled housing is a serious problem in San Francisco today.
The planning staff all but dismissed UCNA’s concerns and recommended allowing the project to proceed.
The hearing begins at 1 p.m.
The new agency supposed to provide civilian oversight of the sheriff’s department holds its first meeting on Monday the 22nd, and although the agenda is fairly basic, this is where the Oversight Council will establish its operating rules, elect officers and initiate the process of recruiting an Inspector General.
The Department of Police Accountability is a civilian agency that handles complaints about cops. It will be the first agency to do so for the sheriff.
Interesting, since 1979 San Francisco has had sheriffs (Mike Hennessey, Ross Mirkarimi) who weren’t cops. Hennessey was a lawyer, Mirkarimi, and an investigator in the district attorney’s office. The current sheriff, Paul Miyamoto, who took office in 2020, is a career police officer who rose through the ranks and was once a member of the union representing deputies.
This meeting begins at 5:30 p.m.