Housing crisis strikes Chinatown

San Francisco's housing crisis is "hitting home" in the historic Chinatown neighborhood... and threatening a century-old  way of life. 

KTVU  found elderly people and immigrant families living in single room residential hotels. The space is cramped.  Even though it isn't much, they call it home. But now, like the rest of the city, there's pressure to raise rents.    

Chinatown has an ambiance that fills the senses. It's architecture and culture bringing into focus a world that is foreign to many Americans.

"San Francisco Chinatown  is the only one that's got the pagoda top buildings, We have more than just a gate," said Sue Lee with the Chinese Historical Society.

It offers a familiarity and essential services to immigrants who are the backbone of the area's economy.Often the only affordable housing they can find are single room occupancy hotels... or SRO's.   

But there are changes in Chinatown because of the city's housing crisis...a clash that is reminiscent of another San Francisco neighborhood.

"Chinatown is very similar to what we've seen in the Mission.  The rents are going up and we're seeing individuals occupying the residential hotels that wouldn't traditionally occupy those buildings," said Rosemary Bosque, chief housing inspector with the Department of Building Inspection. 

Advocates say elderly people and young immigrant families are starting to be pushed out. KTVU spoke with Mr. and Mrs Yu who immigrated from China eight years ago The couple says they came to the United States hoping for a better life. Despite the small 6 x 10 room they call home, they say life is better here than in China.

A  historian tells us Chinatown rose from the ashes after the 1906 earthquake to become a major tourist attraction and commerce hub.  She says the many immigrants who live in the area are vital to the existence of this historic area.

Advocates say the increasing loss of SRO hotel rooms could push this vulnerable population out of San Franciso or worse yet--cause them to become homeless.

"SRO  rents are going through the roof," said Cindy Wu , deputy director with Chinatown Community Development Center or CCDC. 
Affordable housing advocates say sro's make up to 45 percent of housing in Chinatown. The nonprofit CCDC surveyed tenants in single room occupancy hotels. It found that in 2013,  the average rent for a room in a sro was about $600. By 2015 it went up to almost one thousand dollars a month...an increase of 60 percent in two years... outpacing the citywide rent increase of 18-percent... according to www.zumper.com.

"What's challenging is that there's no laws against this. It really puts Chinatown at risk," said Wu.  

Lily Young owns 3 Chinatown sro hotels including one on Commercial Street  where Mr and Mrs Yu live. She says there is good reason why property owners raise the rent on new tenants.  Many people stay put for decades or until they die...and rent control limits rent increases. 

"Meanwhile, my utilities have gone up, maintenance, insurance, property taxes, everything's gone up," said Young. 

A tenant from another SRO who asked KTVU  not to identify him said  vacant units are increasingly being rented by non-immigrant tenants who can pay higher rent.

One non-immigrant man tells KTVU  he lives in the same sro building but declined to say how much he pays. "We're losing this housing resource and poor people have no place to live," said Lee  

Critics  showed KTVU several ads  they found online - Chinatown SRO;s for rent. Ads they say are  designed to attract English speaking people such as tech workers and college students."It's really at crisis point," said Wu.

CCDC is partnering with the mayor's office and opened a first of its kind apartment building on Broadway last year, that has units designated for immigrant families who have lived in SRO's.  "There were 3000 applicants for these 75 units.  We just need to put money into this solution," said Wu.

But of the 75 units, only 18 were rented specifically to SRO families.

Tracy Zhou and her family were among the lucky few. "Very excited...very happy.  All my friends say you're very lucky ...winning lottery." said Zhou.

"What kind of Chinatown do we want to see in 5 years, 10 years, 20 years," said Lee.  

For many the question is, will Chinatown continue to welcome new immigrants. as it has since the 1850's
or turn into a facade for tourists?