SRO families – the core of our Chinatown community

by Rev. Norman Fong

March 3, 2019

norman fong

On the bustling Stockton Street, you see a lot of people busy getting food and vegetables at grocery stores. On top of these stores, there are hundreds of families living in tiny rooms. Most of the housing stock in Chinatown are SROs (single room occupancy hotels, rooms barely fitting in a bed and a small table, with shared communal kitchens, showers and toilets). SROs are also known by the older generation as “single man’s dwelling”. In the mid 1800's, newcomers were mostly Chinese men coming to the United States to work and send money back home to support their families. They faced horrendous discrimination and unfair policies. Chinese family and village associations helped these single men with jobs and lodging in the SROs. After the 1906 earthquake, many buildings were destroyed. Some government officials and people in power attempted to drive the Chinese out to Hunters Point and Oakland. Our ancestors had to rush to rebuild Chinatown. They added Chinese elements on the buildings, such as tiled eaves, to lay claim on Chinatown as a place the community. They were determined to stay. Today, these buildings are still there, but the residents of the SROs are mostly old folks and immigrant families.

chinese miners

In the 1990s, the dot com boom negatively impacted the City’s housing crisis. SROs are the only housing affordable to immigrant families with children. Since then, more and more families with children have moved into SROs. In 2001, Chinatown Community Development Center, together with the Chinese Progress Association in Chinatown, the Coalition on Homelessness in Tenderloin, the Mission Housing Corporation in Mission (currently the Dolores Community Services Center is our partner in the Mission) and South of Market Community Action Network formed the SRO Families United Collaborative to organize families to fight for better housing and living conditions for themselves. At present, there are 383 SRO families in Chinatown, including 532 children under 18 years of age. Chinatown is the San Francisco community with the largest number of families with children living in SROs.

chinatown sro

families at prop c rally

I have invited 3 parents to share their experience with you (to protect their privacy, I used their alias):

Jia Yi:

Please talk about your housing situation.
It's hard to find affordable housing. At one time, I got picked in a housing lottery, but because my annual wage exceeded the maximum income requirement by $300, I was not eligible. I also found a one bedroom unit on Market Street, the monthly rent is $1,800, and I had to pay water and electricity. The unit was much more than I could afford. I am a single mother, although I work very hard, there are a lot of expenses: monthly, medical insurance (I joined Obama insurance, $180 for myself, $160 for my daughter), after school programs ($200 for summer, $100 for school), tutoring fees ($30). I hope the City provides a housing program for families like mine.

What do you think of the struggle for housing?
It takes all of us working together. When time permits, I often participate in public hearings and gatherings. Although I might not be able to get into the housing we won, I have to do my share. I am happy at least some families get better housing! I am now a citizen. I have voting power – that is very important.

What has helped you a lot?
We need opportunities and activities to practice English in order to improve our English. I used to have a volunteer teacher from an organization on Market Street. She came to my house and practiced speaking English with me. She also helped me review my naturalization test. I had another family join our English practice sessions. The teacher took us out to supermarkets and other places, to use our English in daily situations. Because she came to my house, I was able to take care of my daughter and learn English at the same time. Since my work shifts often change, and the community college classes require a more regular attendance, it's hard for me to find classes that fit my time. The English teacher taught us for almost a year, but then stopped because she didn't have time to volunteer again. But I learned a lot and helped me a lot. When I was in need, I was lucky to get help from community agencies and people, including help finding shelter and referrals to jobs.

grandma visits us

families at city hall hearing

Yi Li: (family of six - a couple, two sons - 3 and 4 years old, grandfather and grandmother)

Please talk about the housing situation you are facing.
A lot of things are quite bumpy. I came to the United States, pregnant with my baby. (My parents petitioned for me to come to the United States, and later, I petitioned for my husband.) During my pregnancy, I had to use the toilet often, but there were too many people using it. After my son was born, it was difficult to give him a bath. Because it is necessary to support the baby's whole body, it is difficult to move around in the small shower room. I had to carry water to my room from the communal shower room, and afterwards, I carried it back to dispose of in the shower room. It was not until the baby was 7 or 8 months old when he could sit up by himself that I could give bathe him in the shower room. The communal kitchen, shower rooms and toilets are always busy. When children are small, they like to touch everything, always bumping into pots and pans in the tight space. Having a bathroom and toilet in our own unit is a basic need for families. I hope more people join us in pushing for more housing vouchers and better housing.

What are some of your concerns?
Safety is an issue on Third Street because of the illegal guns. When I am out on the street with my sons, I often worry about getting robbed, and have no way to defend myself and my kids.

sro family

sro home

Jia Xin:

Can you share something that happened in your building?
There is this lady in my building who constantly yells, throwing dishes against walls, even in the middle of the night. After one of her outbreaks, she was hospitalized. When she returned home, she seemed to get better, but after a while the outbreaks resumed. My children try to stay away from her when they go in and out of the building. Mental health issues are really a big problem for the sufferers and other tenants as well.

There are 5 of us in our family, my husband and I, my son (2 years old), and two daughters (6 and 4 years old). My children are often bickering for space to sleep. (Like other families in SROs, Jia Xin’s family sleeps on bunk beds.) Usually my son sleeps on the upper bunk; we move a low dresser next to the lower bunk to give us more bed space for my husband, myself and our two daughters. For our meals, we push our table out and eat at the bedside.

What are some of the happy moments living in a SRO?
Cooking in the communal kitchen, we often get to try out each other's dishes. Our neighbors get along very well and we help each other. We keep an eye on our neighbors’ children when they need to step out of the building. I tell our seniors that they can look for me when they need help. Also, I am thankful for my parents helping with my children. I work in a tailor shop. My boss came from Hong Kong. Because we have many English speaking customers, I have the opportunity to practice my English. I can now have a simple conversation in English.

communal kitchen

sro kids homework

I hope that the above SRO family stories provide a picture to SRO life. SROs are housing of the last resort for families with children and old people (just imagine how seniors need to use toilets frequently, having to cook and climb up and down the stairs (only a few SRO buildings have elevators). These are just some of the difficulties in the daily life of a SRO family. SROs make up Chinatown's main housing stock! I hope our City does the right thing: provide our families and seniors with decent housing. I hope that our community continues the spirit of our ancestors when they came together to rebuild Chinatown after the 1906 earthquake. Let all of us, our community (residents, merchants, our family and village associations and community organizations) work with our family and seniors in getting more decent and affordable housing!

Originally published in Sing Tao Daily on March 3, 2019

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