Chinatown - Urban Displacement Project

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Carlos Romero Barceló
Carlos Romero Barceló

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Christopher Lee
Christopher Lee

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Ricardo Sanchez
Ricardo Sanchez

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Community Organizing amidst
Change in SF’s Chinatown
Nicole Montojo
Partner Organization:
Chinatown Community Development Center
Project Manager:
Miriam Zuk
Project Advisor:
Karen Chapple
Additional research support was provided by Teo Wickland. Additional advisory support was provided
by Carlos Romero. This case study was funded in part by the Regional Prosperity Plan1 of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission as part of the “Regional Early Warning System for Displacement”
project and from the California Air Resources Board2 as part of the project “Developing a New Methodology for Analyzing Potential Displacement.”
The Center for Community Innovation (CCI) at UC-Berkeley nurtures effective solutions that expand
economic opportunity, diversify housing options, and strengthen connection to place. The Center
builds the capacity of nonprofits and government by convening practitioner leaders, providing technical assistance and student interns, interpreting academic research, and developing new research out
of practitioner needs.
June 2015
Cover Photograph Source: Ricardo Sanchez,
The work that provided the basis for this publication was supported by funding under an award with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The substance and findings of the work are dedicated to the public. The author and publisher are solely
responsible for the accuracy of the statements and interpretations contained in this publication. Such interpretations do not necessarily reflect the views of the Government.
The statements and conclusions in this report are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the California Air Resources
Board. The mention of commercial products, their source, or their use in connection with material reported herein is not to be construed as actual or implied endorsement of such products.
Community Organizing amidst Change in SF’s Chinatown
Case Study on Gentrification and Displacement Pressures in
Greater Chinatown of San Francisco, CA
As one of the oldest ethnic enclaves in the US, San
Francisco’s Chinatown has been a major immigrant
gateway as well as a cultural, economic and residential hub for the Bay Area’s Chinese American and
Asian American communities for over 150 years. Since
establishment in 1848, it has experienced constant
transformation as nexus of complex transnational sociopolitical forces—from immigration laws and trends
to global movements of capital—that have evolved
alongside Chinese American identity in the San Francisco Bay Area (Tan 2008; Li 2011).
Chinatown’s current location (Map 1) was established
after the original neighborhood was destroyed in the
1906 earthquake and fire that razed over 80 percent
of San Francisco. To this day, the official Chinatown
neighborhood remains a relatively small land area of
approximately 30 city blocks. With the rapid growth
of the Chinese American population beginning in
the 1960s, neighborhoods adjacent to the core area
became home to many Chinese American families,
and businesses and institutions serving the Chinese
American community likewise began establishing
themselves beyond the boundaries of Chinatown.
directly North and Northwest of the official Chinatown
boundaries, including portions of North Beach and
Polk Gulch. The area officially
recognized as Chinatown is referred to as “Chinatown
Core” in this case study. Though each of these areas
has maintained their own distinct character and identity, each of their individual neighborhood changes have
been deeply informed by development and market
pressures in the others. As we analyze this intricate relationship between the Chinatown core and peripheral
communities throughout this case study, we examine
this entire geography as “Greater Chinatown.” 3
Historically, tensions between Greater Chinatown’s
core and periphery have manifested through competing demands on the City’s limited housing stock – in
particular, the vast need for affordable housing for
low-income residents in Chinatown and the ever-increasing desirability of San Francisco real estate. The
following case study explores the roots and impacts
of this dynamic, seeking to elucidate possible implications for future neighborhood change and residential
displacement throughout the different communities
within Greater Chinatown.
With this expansion, Chinatown has deeply influenced
the evolution of these neighboring areas, which include portions of the historically affluent neighborhoods of Russian Hill, Nob Hill and Polk Gulch, as well
as tourist hotspots like North Beach, which is known
as San Francisco’s Little Italy. For the purposes of this
case study, we use the term “Polk Gulch” to refer to
the western portion of Greater Chinatown, which includes sections of Nob Hill and Russian Hill between
Van Ness Avenue and Leavenworth Street. We also
use the term “Chinatown North” to refer to the areas
Greater Chinatown is a term that we use specifically to refer
to the case study area. It should be noted that this is term is
not colloquial. Though neighborhood boundaries and names
are varied and contested, San Francisco residents generally use
neighborhood names of Nob Hill, Polk Gulch and North Beach
to refer to the geographies that we include in the term Greater
Map 1: Greater Chinatown Boundaries
Center for Community Innovation, University of California, Berkeley
Greater Chinatown Case Study
Overview and Historical
Since the 1960s, Greater Chinatown’s population has
included a large percentage of foreign-born, low-income Chinese American and Asian American families. Elderly residents have also consistently made up
a significant share of the population; between 2009
and 2013, approximately 17 percent of Greater Chinatown’s residents were age 65 and over (US Census
Bureau).4 While the Asian population’s overall number
has decreased over time, its influence remains present to varying degrees within all three neighborhoods.
In 2009-2013, 55 percent of households within Greater Chinatown were Asian (Geolytics 2014).
er Delta. These men arrived in California in search of
wealth during the Gold Rush and later also took on
jobs in the railroad industry (Yip 1985). Few arrived
with the intention of permanent settlement; rather, San
Francisco, “was merely the point of arrival” (Yip 1985).
Instead of a residential community, Chinatown initially
functioned as a “provision station” for Chinese workers
(Li 2011).
Within this context, much of Chinatown’s housing was
built as single room occupancy (SRO) residential hotels or small rooms in commercial structures or community spaces. Chinese immigrants, who were barred
from property ownership, were subjected to discriminatory housing practices by absentee landlords seeking to maximize profits. Housing was thus poorly maintained and often overcrowded (Yip 1985).
Greater Chinatown is situated at the center of San
Francisco’s booming real estate market, with close
proximity to the Financial District, Downtown, and affluent neighborhoods such as Russian Hill. Due to its
prime location, it has consistently endured pressures
of development and speculation that have transformed
surrounding areas and much of San Francisco. Differing land use regulations between Chinatown Core and
the rest of Greater Chinatown have led to varied patterns of neighborhood change throughout the area.
While the Chinatown Core community has largely
resisted displacement and gentrification, increasing
market pressure and ongoing neighborhood improvements, such as the construction of the Chinatown
Central Subway Station that is scheduled to open in
2016, may profoundly impact the area’s affordability
and further shift its demographics.
After the US Civil War, anti-Chinese sentiment driven
in part by labor disputes led to thousands of Chinese
immigrants relocating to Chinatown for protection
from racialized violence, which resulted in the neighborhood transforming into a permanent residential
community (Li 2011). The Chinese community’s spatial segregation and social isolation contributed to the
development of “an impenetrable social, political, and
economic wall” between Chinatown and the rest of
San Francisco (Wang 2007). While the neighborhood’s
insularity allowed for the formation of strong social
networks and a self-sufficient system of community
institutions, small businesses and cultural activity (Yip
1985), it also reinforced a language barrier that still
presents a challenge for socio-economic integration
and contributes to persistently high poverty and unemployment rates (Wang 2007).
Chinatown’s History
The area’s built form is rooted in the early history of
discriminatory policies directed at Chinese immigrants
in the late 1800s, including the 1882 Federal Chinese
Exclusion Act, which prohibited further migration of
individuals from China until it was repealed in 1943
(Yip 1985). With this institutionalized halt in migration
for nearly an entire century, Chinatown’s built environment did not evolve from the influence of its earliest
cohort of settlers, who were predominantly male contract laborers from Chinese provinces near Pearl Riv-
When Chinatown was rebuilt after the 1906 earthquake, Chinese immigrants were able to lease land
from white landowners, who dictated the parameters of
building design and construction (Asian Neighborhood
Design 2008). With the goal of attracting tourists and
outsiders, new Chinatown buildings were deliberately
designed by white architects using elements intended to signify the community’s heritage, with the hope
that Chinatown would generate increased revenue for
the City through commercial activity (Li 2011). During
this period, much of the housing was reconstructed as
SROs, which were considered economically efficient
This percentage of residents age 65 and over is a bit higher
than in San Francisco as a whole, where 14.2 percent of residents were age 65 and over between 2009 and 2013 (US Census
In the 1960s, the liberalization of US immigration policy led to a population boom and subsequent shortage
of affordable housing. Chinatown quickly became one
Center for Community Innovation, University of California, Berkeley
Greater Chinatown Case Study
of the densest neighborhoods in the country, with an
overwhelming majority low-income renter population.
SROs and other small residential units were often
overcrowded, in poor condition, and yet still expensive
for very low-income residents (Tan 2008).
surrounding neighborhoods, North Beach (“Chinatown North”) and Polk Gulch. Chinatown Core consists
of tracts 113 and 118; Chinatown North is defined by
tracts 106, 107 and 108; and the Polk Gulch area consists of tracts 109, 110 and 111.5
The influence of Chinatown Core on portions of North
Beach (Chinatown North), Nob Hill, and Russian Hill
(Polk Gulch) manifested between 1970 and 1990,
when the Chinese American populations, mostly made
up of families with US-born children, in these areas
grew as previous immigrant communities moved out
(Fujioka 2014). The incremental dispersal of the Chinese community during this period was informed by
social changes brought about through the Civil Rights
Movement, which facilitated challenges to norms of
racial segregation (Li 2011). By 1990, the large proportions of Asian households in Chinatown North and
Polk Gulch—73 and 49 percent, respectively—signified the establishment of the areas’ connection to the
Core Chinatown community.
The geographic boundaries for each of these communities were determined with guidance from the
Chinatown Community Development Center (CCDC),
a community-based organization that has led efforts
to improve the quality of life for Chinatown residents
through organizing, advocacy and affordable housing
production since 1998. CCDC served as a core partner in the development of this case study, providing
valuable insight into the dynamics of change throughout the neighborhood.
Today, Greater Chinatown is still primarily renter-occupied, though the share of owner-occupied housing
units has grown in recent years. With an estimated
residential density of 85,000 people per square mile
in the Chinatown Core (Tan 2008), overcrowding and
housing affordability remain pressing issues for the
community. Although most of Greater Chinatown has
maintained its relative affordability in relation to the
rest of San Francisco, the dramatic rise in real estate
values and the cost of living in surrounding neighborhoods has driven increasing “rent gaps,” or disparities
between what existing residents pay and the amount
landlords could charge in the current market (Smith
1979). This has spurred a resurgence of concern over
possible residential displacement. This case study
seeks to address these concerns by deconstructing
the unique forces that have allowed the neighborhood
to remain affordable and analyzing the implications
that these factors may have for potential displacement
and gentrification.
Case Study Methods
The case study relies on mixed methods to examine demographic and housing changes in Chinatown
since 1980. The data presented is derived from eight
census tracts that comprise “Greater Chinatown.” They
cover the core of what is traditionally defined as Chinatown (“Chinatown Core”) as well as portions of two
The indicators selected for this case study to represent this change are those associated with processes
of gentrification and residential displacement, and/or
thought to influence susceptibility to such processes
(Chapple 2009).
Quantitative data are from the decennial Census for
the years 1980, 1990, 2000 and 2010, and from the
American Community Survey for the period 20092013. Data from 1980 to 2010 is from the Geolytics
Neighborhood Change Database, normalized to 2010
Census Tracts, which allows for standardized comparisons across the years.
Data regarding real estate sales trends are based
on records from the San Francisco County Assessor’s Office, which were obtained through Dataquick,
Inc. Validity of these data was evaluated through a
“ground-truthing” methodology that involved a systematic survey through visual observation of all residential
parcels on a sample set of three blocks within the case
study area. The data gathered through ground-truthing
was subsequently compared to Census figures and
sales data from the San Francisco County Assessor’s
Office, which was obtained through Dataquick, Inc.
Polk Gulch is not recognized by San Francisco Planning neighborhood boundaries and overlaps with the official neighborhoods of Russian Hill and Nob Hill. The research team found it
challenging to define Polk Gulch’s boundaries by census tracts
and debated the inclusion of Tract 109, which presently has very
different demographic characteristics from Tract 110 and 111.
However, given its immediate proximity and significant Asian
population in 1980 (34%), the decision was made to include it.
Center for Community Innovation, University of California, Berkeley
Greater Chinatown Case Study
This comparison showed that of the sample blocks’
161 parcels recorded in the assessor dataset, field
researchers were able to match the parcel numbers
of 89 percent.64Of the matched parcels, land use designation matched for 85 percent and total number of
units for 71 percent. These results suggest that some
error may exist in either the Census or Assessor’s reported count of housing units and unit type, likely due
to rapid or unpermitted changes to parcels that may
go unaccounted for within either dataset such as condominium conversions. In order to account for possible errors, we cross-referenced our analyses of these
datasets with qualitative field observations, archival
research, and interviews with key informants.
The Changing Chinatown
Chinatown residents make up approximately 4 percent
of the San Francisco population. Though its density
remains incredibly high, Chinatown’s population decreased slightly since 1980, in contrast to a 21 percent increase in the overall San Francisco population
(Table 1). This can be explained by the growing densification of other San Francisco neighborhoods, while
by the 1990s, parts of Greater Chinatown were largely
built out, with high rates of overcrowding.
Table 1. Total Population in Greater Chinatown and
San Francisco, 1980-2013
San Francisco
% Change,
1980 to
Source: US Census 1980, 1990, 2000. (Geolytics, 2014). 20092013 American Community Survey 5-Year Estimates.
However, as shown in Table 2, the population decline
was not distributed evenly throughout Greater Chinatown. While Chinatown North experienced a population decline of 8 percent, Polk Gulch and Chinatown
Core’s populations increased by 4 and 12 percent, respectively, between 1980 and 2009-2013.
This discrepancy exemplifies a broader difference in
degrees and types of neighborhood change between
Chinatown North, Polk Gulch and the Chinatown
Core, which will be explored further throughout this
case study.
Greater Chinatown’s general population decline coincides with a drop in its average household size between 1980 and 2009-2013, which fell across all three
neighborhood areas, as shown in Table 3. In contrast,
San Francisco’s average household size increased
Table 2. Population Change in Chinatown by Area,
1980 to 2009-2013
% Change,
1980 to 20092013
Polk Gulch
Greater Chinatown
Source: US Census 1980, 1990, 2000 (Geolytics, 2014); 20092013 American Community Survey 5-Year Estimates.
Table 3. Average Household Size in Greater Chinatown
and San Francisco, 1980 to 2009-2013
San Francisco
% Change,
1980 to
Source: US Census 1980, 1990, 2000 (Geolytics, 2014); 20092013 American Community Survey 5-Year Estimates.
The discrepancy between assessor records and what we
observed through ground-truthing is primarily due to assessor
entries for condominiums that did not appear in the dataset
we used to map parcel numbers. Excluding these cases, the
percentage of parcels matched is 86 percent.
Center for Community Innovation, University of California, Berkeley
Greater Chinatown Case Study
Figure 1. Households in Greater Chinatown,
1980 to 2009-2013
Source: US Census 1980, 1990, 2000 (Geolytics, 2014); 20092013 American Community Survey 5-Year Estimates.
Figure 2. Overcrowded Households in Greater
Chinatown, 1980 to 2009-2013
Source: US Census 1980, 1990, 2000 (Geolytics, 2014); 2009-2013
American Community Survey 5-Year Estimates.
This trend also correlates with the slight growth in the
share of non-family households in Greater Chinatown.
Between 2009 and 2013, 61 percent of the neighborhood’s 17,457 households were non-family households, up from 59 percent in 1980.
Greater Chinatown also saw a drop in the share of
overcrowded households between 2000 and 20092013, as shown in Figure 2. Despite this decrease, its
rate of overcrowding in 2009-2013—defined as more
than one person per room—was still over twice that of
San Francisco, which had 3 percent overcrowded and
3.3% extremely overcrowded units.
Combined declines in family households, average
household size and overcrowding are often associated
with the process of gentrification, and changes in Chinatown’s racial/ethnic composition, further reinforce
that possibility. Between 1990 and 2013 , the share of
Asian households in the neighborhood decreased by
11 percentage points, corresponding with a growth of
5 percentage points in the share of white households.
The largest change, however, occurred between 1990
and 2000.
Though the concentration of Asian residents between
Chinatown North, Polk Gulch and Chinatown Core
varied greatly during the baseline year of 1980, all
three areas reflected a broader trend of a declining
share of Asian households in the following decades.
Figure 3. Racial/Ethnic Composition of Greater
Chinatown Households, 1980-2013
Source: US Census 1980, 1990, 2000 (Geolytics, 2014); 20092013 American Community Survey 5-Year Estimates.
By 2010, the share of Asian households dropped by
10 percent in both Chinatown North and Polk Gulch,
alongside a 7 and 6 percent increase, respectively, in
the share of the white households. Chinatown Core
showed a much slower rate of decline in the share of
Asian households; by 2010 it fell by only 5 percentage
points to 83 percent. Maps 2 and 3 depict these varying rates of change in concentration of Asian households across Greater Chinatown’s census tracts.
Center for Community Innovation, University of California, Berkeley
Greater Chinatown Case Study
Figure 4. Educational Attainment in Greater
Chinatown, 1980 to 2009-2013
Source: US Census 1980, 1990, 2000 (Geolytics, 2014); 20092013 American Community Survey 5-Year Estimates.
Map 2: Asian Households as a Percentage of all
Households in Greater Chinatown by
Census Tract, 1980.
Since the increase in educational attainment was concurrent with significant shifts in the population’s racial/
ethnic composition, this increase may signify new residents moving in, rather than existing residents achieving higher levels of education.
Data also show another key difference among the
areas regarding the change in proportion of foreignborn residents. Between 1980 and 2013, the percentage of foreign-born individuals decreased by over 10
percentage points in Chinatown North and Polk Gulch.
Meanwhile, the same figure decreased by only 4 percentage points in Chinatown Core. This suggests that
the Chinatown Core has served as the primary immigrant gateway in Chinatown as the other two areas
have become less accessible to first generation immigrant households.
Map 3. Asian Households as a Percentage of all
Households in Greater Chinatown by
Census Tract, 2010.
Source: US Census 1980, 2010 (Geolytics, 2014).
Educational attainment among Chinatown residents
also increased as the share of white households increased, as shown in Figure 4. By 2013, 48 percent
of the population 25 and older had a college degree
or higher. Polk Gulch is driving this figure; there, the
same figure was 61 percent, compared to 21% in Chinatown Core.
This shift is likely attributable to changes in rental
prices, which have deviated significantly by area. Figure 5 shows that in contrast to other areas and San
Francisco overall, median rent in the Chinatown Core
has remained exceptionally stable since 1980. This is
primarily due to the large number of subsidized and
rent-controlled units in Chinatown Core. By 2013,
median rent in Chinatown North and Polk Gulch had
approximately doubled the median cost of rent in the
Chinatown Core.
Center for Community Innovation, University of California, Berkeley
Greater Chinatown Case Study
Figure 6. Poverty Rates in Greater Chinatown and San
Francisco, 2000 to 2009-2013.
Figure 5. Median Rent in Chinatown and San Francisco
(in 2010 dollars), 1980 to 2009-2013.
Source: US Census 1980, 1990, 2000 (Geolytics, 2014). American
Community Survey 2009-2013.
An even closer look at the spatial differentiation in
rental prices shows wide disparities within each of
Chinatown’s three areas at the tract level. The spread
of Chinatown North’s distribution is most notable; in
2013, Tract 107’s median rent was only $575, compared to $1,455 in adjacent Tract 108.
Although Greater Chinatown’s rental prices on average have maintained their affordability, data suggest
that its community was deeply impacted by the recession, and as a result, the neighborhood has grown
increasingly unaffordable for its residents. Between
2000 and 2009-2013, Greater Chinatown’s median
household income fell by 36 percent, and its poverty
rate increased by 4 percentage points to 18 percent.
Again, disaggregation by area shows that the recession’s impact varied significantly by geography. As
shown in Figure 6, Chinatown Core’s poverty rate had
more than doubled the rate of Polk Gulch’s by 20092013.
Figure 7. Median Household Income in Greater Chinatown and San Francisco (in 2010 dollars),
1980 to 2009-2013.75
Source: US Census 1980, 1990, 2000 (Geolytics, 2014). American
Community Survey 2009-2013.
Polk Gulch is the only area that saw an overall growth
in median household income from 1980 to 2013.
Amidst increasing income stratification in Chinatown,
low-income residents are very vulnerable to displacement. The extreme rise in percentages of rent- and
mortgage-burdened households between 2000 and
2009-2013, as shown in Figure 8, serves as an indicator of this.
Figure 8. Rent- and Mortgage-Burdened Households in
Greater Chinatown, 1980-2013.
Source: US Census 1980, 1990, 2000 (Geolytics, 2014); 20092013 American Community Survey. Burdened means paying more
than a third of income towards housing costs.
Data for 1980 is the average rent rather than the median rent.
Center for Community Innovation, University of California, Berkeley
Greater Chinatown Case Study
Given the lower cost of housing in Chinatown than the
City on average, displaced residents from Chinatown
would likely struggle to find more affordable housing
elsewhere in San Francisco and thus be forced out of
the City as a whole.
The threat of displacement, which appears to have already impacted portions of Polk Gulch, seems to be
rising in Chinatown North and inward toward Chinatown Core, which has largely resisted gentrification
up to this point. If patterns of change in Polk Gulch
and Chinatown North continue to diverge from those in
Chinatown Core, the geography of what is considered
Greater Chinatown may shrink as residents’ connections to the Core community weaken.
Chinatown Housing Policy
and Planning
In the face of external pressures of gentrification, a
number of key policies and planning efforts have
uniquely allowed Chinatown Core to maintain its historic character and accessibility to low-income San
Franciscans. One of the most influential and comprehensive policy changes took place in 1986, with
the adoption of the City Planning Department’s official Chinatown Rezoning Plan as an amendment to
the General Plan, which resulted in the designation
of Chinatown as a mixed use area distinct from the
CCDC’s predecessor, the Chinatown Resource Center, led this planning effort with the Chinese Chamber
of Commerce and Asian Neighborhood Design. In the
years prior, Chinatown Resource Center had worked
tirelessly to stave off infringing developers, many of
whom sought to purchase land for office uses (Chinn
2014). Between the mid-1970s to mid-1980s, approximately 1,700 residential units in Chinatown were converted to office use, and at the same time, an influx
of capital from Asian firms drove up both commercial
and residential rents (Li 2011). As these factors exacerbated the threat of displacement, the Chinatown
Resource Center realized the unsustainability of this
project-by-project approach and switched course toward advocating for structural changes to the neighborhood’s land use policy in an attempt to slow development (Chinn 2014).
They organized residents behind oposed set of zoning
regulations that were originally conceived of as part
of a Chinatown community planning process that took
place over several years prior (Chinn 2014), during
which the San Francisco Planning Department had
proposed a new Downtown Plan and housing advocates across the city sought to limit the proliferation
of office buildings to preserve affordable housing (Li
2011). With the growing threat of speculation and encroaching development from the downtown, residents,
community-based organizations, and City officials all
exhibited political will for policy change, agreeing that
action must be taken to preserve Chinatown’s character and culture for its existing residents (Chinn 2014).
The proposal, which specifically addressed the core
portion of Chinatown, sought to downzone the neighborhood by setting lower height limits that would curb
the neighborhood’s development potential. Previous
zoning had set limits at much higher than the prevailing scale of most existing buildings. This was due to
the fact that Chinatown had originally been zoned as
“a creature of downtown,” resulting in regulations that
did not align with the neighborhood’s distinct character
(Chinn 2014). The community’s proposal was broadly
viewed as a necessary, sensible shift toward land use
policy that was indigenous to Chinatown (Chinn 2014).
The 1986 Rezoning Plan’s central aim was to protect
what the Planning Department acknowledged was a
“virtually irreplaceable” resource of affordable housing
in Chinatown. The plan effectively prohibited demolition, allowing it only “if that is the only way to protect
public safety or for a specific use in which there is a
high degree of community need,” and furthermore
banned conversion of residential buildings into different uses (San Francisco Planning Department).
Chinatown’s large stock of SROs was granted further
protection by the 1980 citywide Residential Hotel Ordinance, which made it very difficult for developers
to convert residential hotel rooms to commercial use
by requiring replacement of lost affordable units and
mandating that 80 percent of the replacement cost be
paid by developers to the City for conversions or demolitions (Fribourg 2009).
With these requirements in place, approximately 50
percent of the Chinatown Core’s housing stock has remained SRO hotels (Tan 2008), and an estimated 92
percent of units are protected by the 1979 San Francisco Rent Control Ordinance (San Francisco Department of Public Health).
Center for Community Innovation, University of California, Berkeley
Greater Chinatown Case Study
Nearly 30 years later, the 1986 effort can thus be
considered to have essentially achieved its policy objectives to “preserve the distinctive urban character
of Chinatown” and “retain and reinforce Chinatown’s
mutually supportive functions as a neighborhood, capital city and visitor attraction.” (San Francisco Planning
Department) However, some would problematize the
lack of new development in Chinatown Core amidst
the City’s affordable housing shortage (Tan 2008).
County Assessor data shows that since 1987, only 22
residential buildings have been constructed in Chinatown Core (Dataquick 2014). By comparison, 65 buildings in Chinatown North and 353 residential buildings
in Polk Gulch have been built within the same time
frame (Dataquick 2014). Construction of affordable
housing in Chinatown Core has also been limited; the
small stock of 342 subsidized and public units has not
increased since 1990, despite increasing need (CHPC
2014). Thus, the neighborhood’s land use policy has
given rise to other unresolved challenges of supplying
sufficient housing in San Francisco.
With few new housing units built in Chinatown Core
after 1986, the vast majority—75 percent, compared
to 61 percent in San Francisco overall—were built
before 1949 (pre-World War II). A combination of age
and weak code enforcement has led to many buildings falling into disrepair (Chinn 2014). Consequently,
two mutually reinforcing phenomena have emerged in
Chinatown Core: a shortage of supply and a declining quality of housing as buildings have deteriorated
(Chinn 2014). With low profit potential, particularly for
rent-controlled units, and exceedingly high demand
throughout the neighborhood, owners are dis-incentivized to rehabilitate their rental units (Chinn 2014).
In some cases, they have opted to take units off of the
market to avoid necessary maintenance costs, which
has further contributed to the broader housing crisis
that most severely impacts lowest income individuals
(Tan 2008).
Further pressure was placed on the housing stock
as developers often opted to build commercial rather than residential buildings. By 1992, an estimated
25 percent of land was used for commercial activities,
which led to a lack of parking and open space, while
50 percent was used for residential purposes. Landscape architecture scholar Chuo Li notes that these
proportions differed greatly from New York and Chicago’s Chinatowns, which had dedicated 70 percent of
land to residential uses and 20 percent to commercial
uses (Li 2011).
These constraints surrounding both redevelopment
and rehabilitation have made Chinatown Core somewhat less desirable to residential real estate speculators (Chinn 2014). Since many buildings would likely
require major rehabilitation and potentially demolition
to allow for conversion into condos or tenancies in
common (TICs), a conversion project would be a
much more difficult and costly undertaking in Chinatown Core compared to other San Francisco neighborhoods that have been systematically impacted by such
types of redevelopment. In some senses, then, Chinatown Core has avoided gentrification because other
areas were—and continue to be—more susceptible to
gentrification and/or lucrative for speculators seeking
to flip residential properties (Chinn 2014).
Signs of Displacement
Despite Chinatown Core’s ability to resist gentrification in the past decades, the threat of displacement
looms large for the share of residents facing unemployment, poverty and rent or mortgage burdens. Gen
Fujioka, Public Policy Manager at CCDC, notes that
even the modest increases in rents for SRO units have
led to both economic and exclusionary displacement.
Though occurrences of eviction have been rare, these
other factors suggest a tenuous future for the Chinatown Core.
Trends in other areas of Greater Chinatown present
a starkly different picture of change. Fujioka explains
that the Chinatown North and Polk Gulch communities
have experienced “reoccurring waves of evictions,” including Ellis Act and Owner-Move-In evictions, as well
as “many more under-the-table evictions that are unrecorded” (Fujioka 2014). With a growing number of
accounts from Chinese American residents of informal
threats of buyout or eviction in these areas, anxiety
over displacement runs high.
Without the force of the 1986 rezoning policy that applies only to Chinatown Core, the Chinatown North
and Polk Gulch areas have not been immune to the
proliferation of TIC or condo conversion. Tract level census data suggests that much of this activity is
primarily occurring in Polk Gulch, where the share of
owner-occupied units has gone from 9 to 16 percent
between 1980 and 2013. According to an analysis of
the San Francisco Department of Public Health of nofault evictions during the period 2009-2012, approximately 34 no-fault evictions – which include evictions
due to the Ellis Act, owner move-in and demolition—
Center for Community Innovation, University of California, Berkeley
Greater Chinatown Case Study
have occurred in Polk Gulch, compared to 12 in Chinatown North and 1 on the border of Chinatown North
and Chinatown Core (San Francisco Public Health Department 2014).
Census figures also show that this trend has generally corresponded with declines in the number of
Asian households and increases in the number of
white households. For example, in Tract 110 (in Polk
Gulch), the number of Asian households decreased
from 3,519 to 2,527 between 1980 and 2013—a decrease in share of total population of 22 percentage
points. This corresponds with an increase in the share
of white residents by 17 percentage points over the
same time period (Geolytics 2014).
In addition to the pressure of evictions and conversions, changes to the culture and dynamic of the Chinese American community have contributed to the
shifting demographic composition of Greater Chinatown. As the foreign-born population that moved to
Polk Gulch and Chinatown North in the 1970s has
aged and passed on, some second generation Chinese Americans are not returning in adulthood to the
neighborhood to establish their own homes (Chinn
2014). It is unclear whether this is due to exclusionary
displacement or simply shifting preferences and/or circumstances among the second generation. Many are
deciding to sell their parents’ properties, which have
often appreciated enormously in value, and are thus
regularly purchased for conversion into condominiums
or TICs (Chinn 2014).
Resistance to
Multiple layers of transformation signify a changing
social fabric throughout Greater Chinatown. Nevertheless, a profound sense of community identity persists
among Asian American residents as well as a broader
set of Asian American individuals who live outside the
area yet remain deeply connected to Chinatown’s culture, institutions, and spaces. The driving force behind
this sense of cohesion is a high rate of civic engagement, which has continued to shape Greater Chinatown’s built environment since the 1986 rezoning victory. (Fujioka 2014)
Map 4: Instances of No-Fault Evictions and Percentage
of Rent-Controlled Units in San Francisco by
Census Tract (zoomed in to case study area).
Source: San Francisco Department of Public Health
With affordable housing as an unceasing concern in
Greater Chinatown as well as all of the Bay Area, the
Chinatown Community Development Center and other community-based organizations have formed resilient organizing networks with citywide reach. They
have also brought their resident base into the broader
movement around the right to the city. Recent campaigns have taken on the uptick in owner-move-in
evictions that singled out elderly residents as well as
Ellis Act evictions. Informed by a commitment to community-based neighborhood planning from the ground
up, CCDC, together with tenant groups such as the
1,000 member Community Tenants Association, have
won new eviction protections for seniors and residents
with disabilities.
Center for Community Innovation, University of California, Berkeley
Greater Chinatown Case Study
In preserving community spaces and connections
throughout Chinatown, strong political engagement
has also preserved tight social networks among Chinese American residents. These social connections
have also played a key role in the neighborhood’s
ability to resist gentrification. For example, with apartment vacancies often posted only within local Chinese
language newspapers rather than more broadly utilized forums such as Craigslist, information on housing availability is not widely accessible to the public.
Property sales also typically occur within existing social networks, resulting in many real estate ownership
turnovers occurring within the Chinese American community. Within Chinatown Core, these dynamics have
maintained the racial and ethnic composition in spite
of many other neighborhood changes.
The unique history of land use politics and policy in
Chinatown—from the earliest days of forced segregation through to recent years of housing rights activism—has given rise to a complex set of challenges as
well as community assets to address them. New infrastructure initiatives, such as the Chinatown Central
Subway Station construction project, alongside ongoing work by community based organizations, will have
a major impact on the community’s future.
Data and information from residents suggest that
while housing in Chinatown Core has been preserved
for low-income individuals, many of whom are foreign-born Asian Americans, all of Greater Chinatown
faces significant pressure as rates of rent- or mortgage-burdened households have skyrocketed since
Different factors within each area have driven this
pressure. In Chinatown Core, they include internal circumstances such as high rates of poverty and unemployment among residents. On the other hand, pressures in Chinatown North and Polk Gulch appear to be
rooted in external market forces, which have caused
significant increases in rental costs.
While part of the broader picture of San Francisco’s
affordability crisis, the unduplicated factors that shape
Chinatown’s built form require a locally-tailored approach to preserving the neighborhood’s livability and
As with the 1986 Rezoning Plan, the neighborhood’s
effectively mobilized resident base allows for potential solutions to be indigenous to the community. Continued organizing efforts by community groups like
CCDC will be critical as both the population and the
neighborhood’s infrastructure continue to evolve.
Center for Community Innovation, University of California, Berkeley
Greater Chinatown Case Study
Works Cited
Asian Neighborhood Design. 2008. “A Station for Chinatown: Community Design Guidelines for the Central Subway Chinatown Station.”
California Housing Partnership Corporation. 2014. Affordable Housing Database.
Chinn, Alton. 2014. Interview (22 October 2014).
Dataquick, Inc. 2014. San Francisco County Assessor Data.
Fribourg, Aimée. 2009. “San Francisco’s Single-Room Occupancy (SRO) Hotels: A Strategic Assessment of Residents and Their Human Service Needs.” University of California, Berkeley.
Fujioka, Gen. 2014. “Chinatown and Adjoining Neighborhoods.”
Geolytics. 2014. Geolytics Neighborhood Change Database in 2010 Boundaries. Somerville, NJ: Geolytics, Inc.
Li, Chuo. 2011. “Chinatown and Urban Redevelopment: A Spatial Narrative of Race, Identity, and Urban Politics 1950--2000.” Ph.D., United States -- Illinois: University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. http://search.
San Francisco Planning Department. “Chinatown Area Plan.” San Francisco General Plan. http://www.sf-plan
San Francisco Public Health Department. 2014. “No-Fault Evictions, San Francisco, CA | Data | San Francisco.”
San Francisco Data. August 17.
San Francisco Public Health Department. 2014. “Proportion of Housing Stock That Is Rent-Controlled or Af
fordable, San Francisco, CA | Data | San Francisco.” 2015. San Francisco Data. Accessed February 27.
Smith, Neil. 1979. “Toward a Theory of Gentrification A Back to the City Movement by Capital, Not People.” Journal of the American Planning Association 45 (4): 538–48. doi:10.1080/01944367908977002.
Tan, Bryant. 2008. “New Housing in Old Chinatown : Barriers and Incentives to Affordable Housing Develop
ment.” Thesis, Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
US Census Bureau. Amercian Community Survey Population Estimates, 2008-2012.
Wang, L. Ling-chi. 2007. “Chinatown in Transition.” Amerasia Journal 33 (1): 31–50.
Yip, Christopher Lee. 1985. “San Francisco’s Chinatown: An Architectural and Urban History (asian, California).”
Ph.D., United States -- California: University of California, Berkeley.
Center for Community Innovation, University of California, Berkeley
Greater Chinatown Case Study
Appendix: Ground-Truthing
Methodology and Results
Because visual indicators of neighborhood change
most likely vary from block to block – and even parcel
to parcel – the three blocks selected as a sample for
visual observation were chosen based on the likelihood that we would be able to systematically observe
indicators of neighborhood change and/or vulnerability to gentrification.8 Criteria used to select blocks
included higher than average percentage change in
tenure (from owner-occupancy to renter-occupancy or
vice versa),99percentage of white residents, and percentage of parcels sold since 2012.107Researchers
further narrowed the sample pool by working with the
project’s CBO partner, Chinatown Community Development Center, to identify specific blocks that, based
on the organization’s work with the Chinatown community, staff know have experienced recent change.
Finally, logistical considerations, such as land area as
well as number of parcels on each block, were also
taken into account.
On December 11, 2014, one researcher from the Center for Community Innovation (CCI), along with one
staff member of CCDC surveyed one block, Block 3002
in Tract 108. On January 15, 2015, the CCI researcher
went back to survey two additional blocks, Block 2003
in Tract 113 and Block 2001 in Tract 110. As part of
the ground-truthing exercise, researchers observed
and recorded a range of variables for all parcels11 on
three different Census blocks in three different tracts
within the Greater Chinatown case study area. These
include the primary land use, building type (multi-family, single-family, business, etc.), the number of units it
appears to hold, and indicators of recent investment
such as permanent blinds and updated paint. ReThe same survey tool (Appendix, page 18) was used to groundtruth all nine case study areas. Prior to observation in the field,
researchers refined the tool and calibrated their responses by
conducting two rounds of pilot observations.
According to 2000 and 2010 Census data.
According to County Assessor Data.
The parcel numbers used to organize this data come from the
Boundary Solutions data set, which is current as of March 7,
searchers also looked for signs of concern over safety,
such as security alarm signage or barred windows, as
well as signs of disinvestment, such as litter or debris,
boarded windows, or peeling paint. The data gathered
through this process is referred to in this memo as
“ground-truthing data.”
The ground-truthing exercise is meant to provide an
additional set of data to verify conclusions reached
through analyzing assessor and Census data. Complicating this effort is that the data sets do not have
the same set of parcels (Table 1). All data reported
from the assessor data (Dataquick) includes all parcels in that set; likewise, all data reported from the
ground-truthing data collection includes all parcels
in that set (which is based on parcels from Boundary
Solutions). For two variables—land use and number of
units—comparisons are made on a parcel-by-parcel
basis; only parcels that appear in both data sets are
used for this comparison. Census data is not provided
on a parcel level, and so includes all households surveyed by the Census.
Table 1: Parcel Mismatch Among Datasets
Block and Tract
# Parcels in Assessor But
Not Ground-truth
Block 3002
Tract 108
4 / 47
Block 2001
Tract 110
2 / 49
Block 2003
Tract 113
12 / 66
Table 2: Sales History of Parcels since
Year of
Year of
Last Sale
Median Sale
Price Per
Source: Dataquick, 2014. These figures refer to all parcels in the
area, including non-residential uses.
Center for Community Innovation, University of California, Berkeley
Greater Chinatown Case Study
Table 3: Sales History of Parcels Sold Since 2007 and 2010
Percent Sold
Percent Sold
Median sales price
per square foot if sold
2007 or later
Median sales price
per square foot if sold
2010 or later
Source: Dataquick, 2014. These figures refer to all parcels in the area, including non-residential uses.
Table 4: Summary of Parcel Matches and Primary Land Use
Primary Land
Use, based on
Groundtruthing data
Percent Land
Use Matched
Assessor Data –
Multi-family and
Total Number of Units on Block
Observations on
Census Data:
Total Housing
Units – 2010
Percent of Parcels
whose Number of
Units match
Assessor Data and
Visual Observation
Multi-family mixed
use and condos
Condos and mixed
Note: Percent Land Use Matched and Percent Units Matched take as their denominator only those parcels for which a land use or number of units was indicated by both assessor data and ground-truth data.
Center for Community Innovation, University of California, Berkeley
Greater Chinatown Case Study

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