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News + PoliticsEvictions, displacement and a discretionary review on the edge of Chinatown

Evictions, displacement and a discretionary review on the edge of Chinatown

Plus: Will there be real civilian oversight of the Sheriff's Office? That's The Agenda for Aug. 21-28

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The San Francisco Planning Commission will hear what is normally a routine request Thursday/25 for a change in the size of a back yard behind an unassuming building on a block not far from Chinatown.

But behind the discretionary review application is a far deeper story involving the eviction of 11 Chinese immigrants, a loss of rent-controlled housing units, and the transformation of what has in the past been a heavily Chinese community.

The building at 45 Bernard. Behind the modest facade is a deeper story. Image from SF City Planning documents.

The building is at 45 Bernard Street, which connects Jones and Taylor between Broadway and Pacific. It’s owned by Tina and Lindsey Huston, who bought the building for $1.4 million in 2019, according to records in the Recorder’s Office.

Tina and Lindsey are mother and daughter.

In 2020, they filed for a building permit to substantially upgrade the property, at an estimated cost of $389,000. The contractor is James Huston, Lindsey’s father.

Meanwhile, Lindsey and her sister, Taylor, moved to evict the current residents and move in—as an owner and the relative of the owner. That’s perfectly legal. All of the tenants were Chinese immigrants with limited English.

Rent Board files show that the owners gave the tenants relocation assistance. From the application for discretionary review:

According to 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 elders and/or disabled who lived at 47 Bernard Street received $9,151.80, and each of the other two received $4,334.80. Each of the five elders and/or disabled at 49 Bernard Street received $8,429.33, and Huang Zhang Chen received $3,612.33. There were no owner buy-outs; constraints are placed on both 47-49 Bernard Street until the fall of 2025.

That’s a total, if the Rent Board files are correct, of about $81,000 for all the tenants. In many cases I have followed, payouts to individual evicted tenants have been in that range.

And, of course, the move has wiped out several rent-controlled units, in a city where the conversion of rental housing to owner-occupied housing has created a serious affordability crisis.

At any rate, 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 back yard.

A group of neighbors, organized as the Upper Chinatown Neighborhood Association, is appealing the permit and asking the Planning Commission to take Discretionary Review.

Here’s what the neighbors argue:

The plans and design of 45 Bernard Street undermine the cultural fabric of this community by eliminating the Chinese courtyard experience, a local asset of the neighborhood. Consider the disruption that has already been done to eleven Chinese immigrants, eight of whom are elders and/or disabled with little to no command of the English language. The new owners evicted members of the Chen and Yu family and members of the He and Cen family. The plans eliminate the spiritual refuge of afforded by a secluded 1 open space. (See figure 1 below of the Chinese courtyard.) The sponsors will not benefit from this courtyard experience nor will anyone else on the block. If approved as submitted, this project will only accelerate the transformation of our neighborhood away from being a community of Chinese American families—the social and economic unit of stability.

For over thirty-five years, we observed that the Chinese families who lived at 45-49 Bernard Street relied innately on the open space in their modest courtyard as their unofficial temple. It was a space where family members of all ages would freely come and go as they pleased, but they were more stable and connected when they were undisturbed and together in the courtyard. As Professor Laurence G. Liu, head of Architectural Design and Graduate Programmes at Southeast University, Nanjing, Jiangsu, China, wrote in a landmark reference book: “ . . . people actually lived in an unstable, transient world . . . the communistic character of the family system, the inward feeling of withdrawal from the outside world, and the idea of plain living . . . contributed to the formation of the courtyard house. . . . Because the center of all activities was the courtyard, there was no privacy concerning the movement and activities of all family members . . . it was an organization which had the distinction of seclusion. Furthermore, it created a layout and a form which rallied all the members of a family psychologically to live in a spiritual refuge together. . . . Only through the unity of thought and the force of a family were they able to confront and survive the misfortunes of life.”

They also note:

In 2013, 80 percent of the homeowners were Chinese American. In 2021, their homeownership dropped to 60 percent 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 population of individual tenants who will likely be more transient.

I spoke with Lindsey Huston tonight, and she sent me the following statement:

When our family purchased the home in 2019, the property was, and remains in, a significant level of disrepair. The tenants were represented and advised by attorneys, and our family paid the required relocation amounts, as well as months of free rent and other financial assistance. When our tenants secured other housing in San Francisco they moved out, despite being able to stay much longer if they wished given Covid moratoriums. Now, we simply want to make it a better home for ourself and our tenant, who is supportive of the project and who will be able to live in in a brand new unit at a rent-protected price—the first meaningful renovations in 40+ years. One of the tenants who moved out as part of the OMI process was also willing to provide a letter of support for the project. 

We 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 things our neighbors have stated are simply untrue. While we understand their concerns, improving the conditions of the building for our family, our tenant and our neighborhood has been our primary focus. After living here for over two years, we wish to resolve this matter amicably and hope to be able to move forward in a positive manner with the neighborhood community.

I will still say: This project has removed several rent-controlled units from the market. Buying a building that has rent-controlled tenants in it with plans to evict them and eliminate rent-controlled housing is a serious problem in San Francisco today.

The planning staff pretty much dismissed the UCNA concerns and recommended allowing the project to go forward.

The hearing starts at 1pm.

The new agency that is supposed to provide some civilian oversight for the Sheriff’s Department holds its first meeting Monday/22, and while the agenda is pretty basic, this is where the Oversight Board will draw up its operating rules, elect officers, and start the process of recruiting an inspector general.

The Department of Police Accountability is a civilian agency that handles complaints about the cops. This will be the first agency to do that for the sheriff.

Interesting, since 1979, San Francisco has had sheriffs (Mike Hennessey, Ross Mirkarimi) who were not cops. Hennessey was a lawyer, Mirkarimi and investigator with the District Attorney’s Office. The current sheriff, Paul Miyamoto, who took office in 2020, is a career law-enforcement officer who rose through the ranks, and was once a member of the union representing the deputies.

That meeting starts at 5:30 PM.

48 Hills welcomes comments in the form of letters to the editor, which you can submit here. We also invite you to join the conversation on our FacebookTwitter, and Instagram

Tim Redmond
Tim Redmond has been a political and investigative reporter in San Francisco for more than 30 years. He spent much of that time as executive editor of the Bay Guardian. He is the founder of 48hills.

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