Rainy though it was, Chinatown in San Francisco was filled with life last weekend. The shops displayed brightly painted signs, and old men gathered under the bridge and other shelters to play cards and discuss the day. About two blocks up from the Chinese Culture Center, a local elementary school had a carnival with arts and crafts, live music, and delicious-smelling food. I haven’t visited Chinatown in about ten years, and the place might not have changed, but my perspective and understanding of the community has, thanks to our trip with Chinatown Alleyway Tours.
Led by college students with local ties to the area, we got to see some of the more unique, interesting parts of Chinatown and learn more about its culture and history from people who understand the community more than we would have if we had wandered Chinatown alone.
The most interesting part of the tour for me was learning about the zoning and rent-controlled housing in Chinatown. Zoning laws in Chinatown state that no buildings may be built above 65 feet without a special permit, which makes it difficult for big companies to move in and take over Chinatown, allowing residents there to resist being pushed out by big corporations, and the cheap housing available there is some of the only accessible housing that exists in the city. Most people can benefit from this, and people of all income levels may be drawn to live in Chinatown due to the low-rent options. However, the housing is often absurdly cramped: our guides described the one-room apartments that are available cheaply – it sounds barely livable, and not enjoyable. I think this raises further questions of housing justice.
While it is good that these apartments are available, and they are obviously better than living on the streets, I question the fact that there is nowhere else available in the city to live cheaply. A one-room apartment for an entire three-generation family is tiny. I imagine it becomes more difficult to cook and plan meals when you have such limited cooking space, and it might be impossible to work at home. This means that children in school may need to find quieter areas with more space to do work, and working family members who bring work home may have to find elsewhere to do it as well. This would add stress that families with more room in their homes don’t have to deal with, and may make it more difficult to succeed in school and work.
San Francisco housing is becoming absurd – people are being priced out all over the city. While Chinatown is one of the few places left with affordable housing, it does not mean that it is a comfortable place to live. I think it’s important to raise awareness of this problem and work to change it. There should be more rent-controlled housing available all over the city, and landlords who evict people from rent-controlled living spaces in order to charge higher rent should be required to subsidize the higher rents their former tenants would be forced to pay. It is difficult to make these things happen, but worth it to help people get the housing they deserve.