Chinatown International District is at a crossroads.
Down one possible path is a vibrant community of elders, youth, immigrants and workers thriving in a neighborhood that has survived despite 150 years of exclusion, redlining and city neglect.
Down the other, the city and developers whitewash what Da-Li Development Chairman James Hsieh called the “old, dirty and poor” Chinatown image with luxury high-rises that displace longtime residents and small businesses.
On Feb. 28, Da-Li broke ground on KODA Condominiums at Fifth Avenue South and South Main Street — the first high rise to go up in the neighborhood. While city officials and other guests toasted this 17-story tower of luxury condos priced up to $1.4 million, nearly 100 residents and community members gathered on the other side of a chain-link fence to send a message: This community is not voiceless, and we will not sit idly by as our elders, youth, workers and local businesses are pushed out.
At least half a dozen similar development projects are in the pipeline for Chinatown International District. Under the city’s controversial “upzone” legislation — approved for the neighborhood in 2017 despite community opposition — developers are allowed to build up to 17 stories in exchange for a small payment into the citywide Mandatory Housing Affordability fund. But those fees could be redistributed to other neighborhoods, and developers thus far have refused to include a single unit of affordable housing our community desperately needs.
More than half of the neighborhood’s current residents are immigrants, 37.3 percent are below poverty, and the median household income is $29,418 — about half of the citywide average. The city identified that CID residents and small businesses are at high risk for displacement. We do not need luxury condos and hotels. We need affordable housing and equitable, community-led development that serves the needs of the most vulnerable in our neighborhood.
For two years, CID community members provided comments on the KODA project. We raised concerns about the displacement of elders and low-income workers, and the lack of affordable housing or homeownership. We gave feedback about KODA’s 17-story shadow and its effect on the mental health and well-being of the predominantly African-American and immigrant residents of the affordable housing complex next door. We asked for steps to mitigate the increased traffic brought to the area by the development, to ensure our elders and children are not in danger. For two years, we tried to engage in good faith, only to be told that affordability and equity were “outside the purview” of the International Special Review District board’s decision-making process.
Proponents of market-rate development argue they will “revitalize” the neighborhood by bringing in new residents and new money. But will these incoming residents join the existing community or replace it?
Just 20 percent of KODA condo buyers are from the neighborhood. It is unlikely that Da-Li’s largely white, affluent clientele will walk down the street to support mom and pop shops like Dong Sing or Pacific Herb. As we’ve witnessed in the Central District and other neighborhoods undergoing gentrification, these new residents will patronize businesses that feel familiar and drive out those foreign or alien to their tastes. Meanwhile, speculative real estate will increase rents and property taxes of small businesses, threatening their ability to stay in the neighborhood and diminishing the overall health and vitality of the community. For communities of color, unchecked market-rate development leads to destabilization, not revitalization.
We are not against development. We are for development that is rooted in and driven by the needs of our community. With the average Asian and Pacific Islander household size at five to seven people, we need family-sized housing with three- to five-bedroom units. With many elders who are limited-English proficient, we need senior housing, accessible community space, and culturally-sensitive health care and social-service agencies. We need small businesses that speak our native dialects and provide affordable meals, groceries and services.
Some say that equitable, community-led development is an unreasonable fantasy — but the history of the Chinatown-International District proves it is possible. When all Chinese were restricted to live east of Occidental Street and white-instituted banks refused to lend to Chinese immigrants, family associations provided housing and capital for small businesses. When elderly, low-income residents needed a place to grow their own vegetables, Danny Woo gave a plot of land on the hillside between Washington and Main for a community garden. When the Wing Luke Museum was created, community members donated family heirlooms and priceless artifacts to preserve the legacy of immigrants and laborers who built this neighborhood.
Chinatown International District is a community with a rich history of working together to lift up the most vulnerable. The city, Da-Li and other private developers do not honor that history or promote the future vitality of our community by displacing the elders, immigrants and laborers who call it home.
We hope the city and developers will meaningfully engage with the community and offer real, tangible benefits for community-oriented development. Until then, we’ll see you in the streets.