By Team Kearny
All of the available 928 housing units on Kearny St. from Sacramento to Columbus Ave. are located in buildings with commercial or mixed use spaces on the ground floor. All buildings with housing units were built shortly after the 1906 earthquake up to 1915, with the exception of the Hilton (built in 1971 and was formerly a courthouse and Holiday Inn) and International Hotel, or I-Hotel (2005). According to SF Planning Department’s “San Francisco Neighborhoods: Socio-Economic Profiles” that used 2000 census data, the demographics of people who live in Chinatown are 84% Asian, 12% White, 2% Black, and 4% other (SF Planning Department defines the area as Kearny to Powell, Broadway to Bush). 75% of Chinatown residents are foreign born, 70% have educational experience of high school or less, 66% of all households experience linguistic isolation (all members of the household age 14 and up have at least some difficulty with English, if they can speak English at all). The median rent for this neighborhood where 94% of the units are rented is $478. While Kearny St. is not necessarily representative of Chinatown as a whole and the west side of Kearny may or may not be included in SF Planning Department’s boundaries on Chinatown, we can use this data to back some of our assumptions of the types of people who live on Kearny St. (see below). The housing stock is best categorized into the following categories: residential housing (including apartments and studios), single-room occupancy (SRO) hotels, and conventional hotel.
Residential Housing: There were 3 buildings with apartments, typically with 18-19 units (one supposedly has two apartment units), while the I-Hotel, provides long-term housing in 105 studios for low-income seniors, primarily of Asian descent (e.g. Chinese, Vietnamese, and Filipino).
SRO hotels: SROs varied in quality and clientele. Some, such as North Beach Hotel on Kearny and Columbus and 706 Kearny, had receptionists that could answer our questions about the total units available. Others looked like apartment buildings on the ground floor with or without mailboxes, and more often than not, we were able to enter the lobbies to count mailboxes; when there were no mailboxes, we counted windows. We made assumptions that certain buildings were SROs if we saw laundry hanging in the window; we made the assumption that if the unit was anything other than a SRO, residents would be able to hang laundry in the bathroom. The receptionists at the North Beach Hotel told us that residents’ stay ranged from a day to indefinite long-term and boarders came from all over the world. We wound extend the generalization to the SRO at 706 Kearny, based on our observation in which we witnessed one Caucasian renter pay $175 for one week. From our experience as well as 2000 Census data, we assumed that most long-term residents were of Chinese descent, given that the environment of Chinatown is most conducive to folks comfortable in Chinese culture.*
Conventional hotel: The Hilton with its 543 units houses over half of the housing units on Kearny. We make the case that the Hilton are housing units, primarily short-term but some folks do use this conventional hotel as long-term housing. Based on our observations, renters were primarily from out of town and could afford the premium prices.
*Note: Even though Sandy had experience with collecting 2000 Census surveys, we had questions about how Census data is collected. For example, are short-term renters of SROs and transient folks without permanent addresses counted as part of the demographics Chinatown?
Zoning on Grant Avenue
Grant St. is zoned for commercial and residential usage. The height limit for buildings is 4 stories tall with the first two stories permitted for commercial/retail uses except financial services, and the above two floors used to accommodate housing or other institutional usages. The height limit is to stop encroachment of office usage for instance, from the financial district and downtown.
Observations and Residents
We began our observational study where most begin their journey into Chinatown, through the gates on Grant and Bush. As we surveyed businesses and residential units, we decided to go beyond casual observation and went inside buildings, asked questions, and spoke to residents. We wandered our way into many SROs and found similarities among each building. Small communal bathrooms with barely enough room to shut the door, kitchens with old stove units and dilapidated walls. Each hallway smelled of the same familiar Chinese medicines, oils, and ointments mixed with the heavenly aromas of the delicious cooking and the steaming of rice. Hallways were used to socialize in, prep food in, shave in, and doors were left open for air circulation. Residents were primarily elderly Chinese. There were few young children who seemed to be in the care of their grandparents. These residential hotels predominantly house Chinese American elderly both men and women and few held secure entrances.
The housing we found were mainly SROs and apartments. SROs ranged from 18 units each to around 80 units. We determined this by counting mailboxes or asking the manager.
From the streets we observed that every building held a store front used for the purpose of serving the community aimed at either tourists or the residential community. In our attempt to count the units we had to search for many of the housing entrances, many of which were located on the side of the buildings. We noted that a few buildings were abandoned, under construction, or for lease and many were utilized as office spaces. One building was an expansion of the Chinese Hospital and another was a Hotel aimed at non-residential guests. We were also able to find the first dwelling in the city. A small forgotten bronze plaque placed on the divide between a housing entrance and a busy store front outlined it’s significance. The first dwelling of the city began on this spot in 1823, 823 Grant street.
On average the buildings in our corridor were built in the early 1900s, right after the 1906 earthquake. A small handful of the buildings were remodeled about the 50s and 60s.
Data from SF Planning Department, SF Property Information Map