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End of eviction moratorium threatens SF Asian enclaves

The end of eviction moratorium spells trouble for many Asian businesses. Photo by Patrick O’Brien via Flickr Creative Commons

Bustling neighborhoods and businesses providing necessities and safe social spaces for San Francisco’s Asian communities now face an uncertain future. The city’s commercial eviction moratorium is set to end on Monday September 14th. These long-time, vibrant districts with hundreds of businesses already struggling to stay afloat amidst the COVID-19 pandemic are in danger of closing for good.

KQED reports that the moratoriums have helped keep some businesses alive. But commercial tenants will only have until Monday to pay back missed rent payments. Most businesses owe a total of six months rent, and landlords can evict them starting in October. This would result in massive displacements for those who rely on businesses for work. Yet the historical communities and beloved cultures of San Francisco would also be “irreparably harmed.”

Hang Ah Tearoom (est. 1920) is America's first dim sum house, one of many forced closures; Photo by Gary Stevens via Flickr Creative Commons
Hang Ah Tearoom (est. 1920) is America’s first dim sum house. It is still open despite the pandemic. We incorrectly reported earlier that it was closed. We apologize for the error. ; Photo by Gary Stevens via Flickr Creative Commons

Allan Low is a pro-bono lawyer helping Asian family-owned businesses in San Francisco’s ethnic enclaves. He says the “tidal wave of evictions could mean devastation to neighborhoods that have largely defined San Francisco’s unique culture, including Chinatown, Japantown, [and] SOMA Pilipinas,” KQED reports. This could further damage the larger Bay Area AAPI communities “that depend on these hubs for a sense of belonging, essential services and cultural empowerment.”

Non-profit organizations like Chinatown Community Development Center (CCDC) have attempted to “revive legacy restaurants” with Feed + Fuel, a free meal program. Other restaurants still participate in SF’s Great Plates (food delivery) and Shared Spaces (outdoor dining) programs. But KQED still reports that “less than a quarter of the Chinatown restaurants can maintain their businesses; the rest are either unsure, barely surviving or have only months left to stay open.” Struggling businesses report that xenophobia and rising anti-Asian discrimination caused huge dents in sales as early as December 2019. Most have not improved since.

The pandemic has left Japan Center in San Francisco’s Japantown largely empty. Photo from Dan Ryan via Flickr Creative Commons.

In Japantown, the closure of Japan Center’s two-building indoor mall “has severely impacted” over 50 businesses inside,” KQED reports. These are “a mix of mom-and-pop shops and restaurants.” Diane Matsuda, attorney for the non-profit organization Asian Pacific Islander Legal Outreach (APILO), says that two major landlords “control a lot of the cultural and economic hub in the area. If the landlords “don’t want to negotiate or have any kind of rent abatement, [we’re] losing literally a whole ethnic community [that’s] been here since the start of the 19th century.”

Businesses here are required to pay increasing maintenance fees on top of rent in spite of now receiving little to no income. But another huge problem comes from the fact that tenants’ attempts to reach out to property managers and landlords have largely been met with no response. Defending 40 Japan Center tenants, Matsuda says many of the business owners are native Japanese speakers with limited English proficiency. But “they don’t have to just be the quiet Americans the property manager wants them to be.”

Low says, “I think we relied too much on the good faith that landlords and tenants can work out their own problems, and what we’re rapidly realizing is this is not the case.” But the greater Bay Area’s Japanese American community would be forever changed by the permanent closure of Japan Center businesses and priceless cultural landmarks. The site of decades-long traditional celebrations including annual New Year, Cherry Blossom and Obon festivals, Japan Center provides opportunities for thousands to connect with one another. Preserving these locations is vital to preserving the history and culture of San Francisco.

While Low wrote a proposal to extend the moratorium, he says that the underlying problem is “not only stopping the evictions [but] somehow addressing the money.”

SOMA San Francisco
SOMA San Francisco via Flickr Creative Commons by Aurelie M.

SOMA Pilipinas is a much newer ethnic enclave. Established in 2016, the purpose of SOMA Pilipinas was to “encourage entrepreneurship among Filipino Americans and reclaim space in a city that has repeatedly displaced them,” KQED reports. Prior to the pandemic, the neighborhood had 18 businesses. But since the start of COVID-19, four businesses were forced to close. Over 50% of these businesses have lost more than 90% of their income due to lack of customers and clients.

According to KQED, “dreams of entrepreneurs have been thwarted by the coronavirus.” Some restaurants have since launched initiatives to feed front-line Filipino health workers. Others have turned to online marketing, teaching cooking classes, and even preparing meals to stay afloat. Still, inability to pay rent has threatened to prevent many of these businesses from reopening at a physical location once the moratorium ends.

Grants and city politicians have been mostly supportive of SOMA Pilipinas, according to Desi Danganan. One of the founders of SOMA Pilipinas, KQED reports that he “hopes [San Francisco] continues to incorporate equity in every decision.” But he still urges the importance of the community being self-sufficient. Citing strong community organization in neighborhoods like Chinatown, Danganan strongly believes that businesses and stakeholders of SOMA Pilipinas must draw strength from one another to survive in the future.

According to KQED, Danganan further explains what this means: “We’re heavily supported by our city government, as they should, but at some point, our community’s going to have to come together and support ourselves. It’s the only way to push us forward,” he says.

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  1. Hang Ah is not closed!! Please do your research before you make a false claim!! You’re hurting small business during this most difficult time!!


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