Before starting this program, my perception of Chinatown was nothing pleasant: Dirty, old-fashioned, crowded, and a slowly dying community. Growing up in Beijing, one of the most developed cities in China, it was painful to see how far behind Chinatown is. From the Urban Institute program, my understanding toward this neighborhood became better, and it made me realized the real issues that is happening in this aging neighborhood. Little did I know that many elderly and children are suffering from their living condition and unaffordability in SROs. I did not know how poor some residents living conditions are because I never had to go inside those old buildings.
On Tuesday morning, we had the privilege to have Whitney Jones, the China Town Community Development Center Director of Housing Development, to present us his work in affordable housing and gave us a brief introduction of the process of building affordable housing and challenges of building them. He then quizzed us on the subject to help us understand better on the matter. I greatly appreciated him explained it in detail and simplified such complex process to make someone like me who have no knowledge on such topic really easy to process. I was always questioning why there are not enough affordable and livable apartments in Chinatown, one of the reasons is zoning, there is a height limit for buildings therefore it’s difficult to create space for residents; another reason is that it is difficult to remove the current tenants and build a new build from scratch. I had very minimum knowledge on affordable housing, and thanks to Whitney's lecture, I gained knowledge on how the CCDC apartments were build, and what can be done to improve the living condition for the Chinatown community.
We also had Malcolm Collier as the guest speaker to address issues which I was never aware of, such as store vacancy. He presented us photography of Chinatown and addressed the vacancy issue within Chinatown: There are many empty retail stores. The vacancy rate increased in a rapid speed every year and can have a major negative effect on Chinatown's economic development. One of the biggest surprises was that San Francisco Chinatown has one of the densest populations with over 10,000 residents, despite the fact that is a relatively small area. I did not know that SROs are in high demand in Chinatown despite been small rooms.
During the second week, I learned the importance of community space for the local. I now know how important Portsmouth Square is to elderly in Chinatown; it is one of the only places which these residents can socialize and do activities together because of the lack of space in their residential area. It makes me appreciate even more on the effort CCDC put to help those residents. Ping Yuen apartment is a great example of better affordable living for the local Chinatown community. With solar power installation, the whole building is capable to save up more energy and release less greenhouse gases and slowly achieving the sustainable development of Chinatown. I was a little disappointed with the lack of green space during the Alleyway tour. I also noticed that there were lack of trash cans in both the alleyway and the main street, I think it is an issue which needs to be addressed.
Overall, I really enjoyed the second week of program. I particularly enjoyed the site visit and the scavenger hunt, both of those activities helped me to become more familiar in Chinatown. The questions I still have is how CCDC is dealing with zoning and how to communicate with local tenants regarding of the affordable housing development. I am looking forward to seeing how the organization dealing with these types of issues and solve my questions in the near future.
Eric Y. Lu