The Proposed 2550 Irving St. Development – A Chinese Neighbor’s Perspective
By Robert Ho
My wife came to San Francisco in 1965 when she was six years old. She, along with three older siblings, were brought over by their parents who immigrated to the U.S. looking for better educational opportunities for their children, a more stable and better life for their family.
Upon arriving in San Francisco, they all stayed in the grandparents’ small Chinatown apartment with eight people crammed together. Father earned a good living for his family in Macao, but because he could not speak English, he only qualified for menial jobs here. He started work as a cook during the day and as a janitor at night.
Father worked hard, made friends, and eventually found a better job working as a janitor in an office building. The family purposely saved their money and avoided the disposable income spending that other families took for granted. Five years after arriving in the U.S., the family was able to purchase a modest house in the Sunset, becoming the first Chinese family to live on their block located at 22nd Ave between Irving and Judah. Buying a house was very important to the family because it gave them a stable base upon which the entire family could feel secure and grow.
The story of my wife’s family is not unique. In fact, it has happened over and over again with other Chinese families who bought homes in the Sunset. Today, according to census reports, Asians, at 46%, make up the largest racial group in the Sunset. In addition, the Sunset has the highest rate of owner-occupied housing units, at 62%, of all the districts in the City. The mid-Sunset business corridor along Irving Street has a distinctive Chinese character and reflects the stable presence of Chinese middle-class homeowners in the area. Irving Street is known as the third Chinatown among the Chinese community, after the original Chinatown and Clement Street in the Richmond. None of what happened in the Sunset District was planned or concocted by anyone. It merely reflected the desire and will of an immigrant people to better their lives, buy their own home and live the American Dream. And the Sunset District, with its zoning for small single-family homes, was fertile ground for what has become a vibrant, middle-class Chinese-American community.
However, today, the success story of the Chinese-American community in the Sunset is being attacked. And the motivation behind the attack is the proposal to build a 7-story, 98-unit low income housing project on 2550 Irving St. The proposed development would be the first affordable housing development of its kind in the area, and it would tower over the surrounding small single-family homes, bring in approximately 300 new residents into the neighborhood, and profoundly change the neighborhood forever. The proposers of the development are the developer, the Tenderloin Neighborhood Development Corp, and their allies in City government. Using two pieces of recent legislation passed in Sacramento, they plan on building this structure as large and as dense as they possibly can, and fast-track the project to construction, bypassing any local and environmental review and avoiding any reasonable chance for the neighbors to influence the size and density of the building.
In their effort to push the proposed 2550 Irving St. project through, the affordable housing advocates have vilified the residents of the Sunset and have resorted to distortions in order to promote their cause. The advocates blame the City’s housing affordability problems on the lack of affordable housing development in the Sunset. They call the single-family homeowners selfish and use words like NIMBYs (Not In My Back Yard) and, even worse, racist to describe them. They say that the Sunset has neglected its responsibility to build affordable housing developments in the district, and Sunset residents can no longer afford to live in their district. Accordingly, they must build 2550 Irving to the maximum allowable density.
There are several problems with this tainted picture that has been painted by the affordable housing advocates. First of all, there is the developer’s unyielding determination to maximize the size and density of the project, and its high proposed budget. Using the State Density Bonus Program that was created by state legislation in 2019, the developer was allowed to increase the proposed height of the building from 4 stories to 7 stories, and to maximize the allowable density to 98 units. The reason for the State Density Bonus Program has always been to encourage the building of affordable housing by making large scale projects possible, and thus, more financially feasible for the developer. But should a project of this size be built on Irving Street?
A multi-racial coalition of Sunset neighborhood groups has voiced major concern about the size and density of the proposed building, and its adverse effects on the neighborhood and the small single-family homes that would surround it. The coalition proposed a more reasonable plan of 4 stories and 50 units. After all, wouldn’t a smaller structure be easier to build on the sandy soil conditions of the Sunset? The concrete foundation would not need to be as large and the building could be wood-framed instead of steel. Therefore, would it not be less expensive and the construction less disruptive to the adjacent houses? However, the developer has steadfastly replied that the project must be 7 stories and 98 units or else it would not be financially viable to build. When asked to provide more financial information to support their assertion, the developer has always stonewalled and refused to provide any details to the coalition. However, the proposed cost of nearly $1 million per unit would cause any reasonable person to suspect that the price tag of the project far exceeds the threshold of financial viability.
Second, the affordable housing advocates have reduced the housing affordability problem to an over-simplified contention that there has been a lack of housing construction due to NIMBYism, and we need to build more. The mantra of “we must build more” has been chanted by the pro-development interests in San Francisco and Sacramento to the point where people have stopped questioning whether it is always the best course of action. If we’re willing to further study the problem, we can see that the housing affordability problem in the City can also be tied to the huge income divide that has occurred within the last 10 years. Our economy has been undergoing massive changes in a very short period of time and high-tech is leading the way. The City’s economic policies have contributed to the huge income divide by inviting high-tech companies and their employees to move into the City. Building a massive low-income development like the proposed 2550 Irving Street project would not resolve the huge income divide, but the hard-working families who will live near the project will pay the price by seeing the livability of the surrounding neighborhood get dramatically reduced. Hard-working families who have saved and sacrificed to able to buy a modest home of their own deserve better than to be called “NIMBYs”. They have abided by local zoning laws and have done nothing wrong.
Unfortunately, there are some affordable housing advocates who also feel that it is necessary to pull out the race card for the purpose of distorting the issue. They accuse the existing residents, who are predominately Chinese and White, of racism for fearing that the 2550 Irving St. project will bring in black and brown people into the neighborhood. However, anyone who is willing to truly listen to the multi-racial coalition of neighbors opposing the proposed project will know that it is the excessive size and density that is the concern, not the racial makeup of the future tenants.
San Francisco has had a history of massive low-income housing projects that were riddled with violence, vandalism and drugs. The problems with massive low-income housing projects extends across neighborhoods in the City and includes the six-story Ping Yuen housing project in Chinatown where I grew up. I can personally attest to the stigma and shame that develops within a young person’s mind while living in a dehumanizingly large building that warehouses the poor. A young person is constantly reminded that “my family is poor” because we would not be living here if we weren’t. It’s a negative mindset that I was only able to overcome through the uncompromising love from my parents, but not all young people I knew were that fortunate.
Around 30 years ago, the City recognized that this model of building massive housing projects for low-income people created as many problems as it attempted to solve. They stopped building these massive structures and even went through some notable demolitions. On the other hand, the City and developers found success when they built smaller-scale affordable housing developments, such as the Valencia Gardens in the Mission. It was an affordable housing development whose height and density reflected the surrounding neighborhood and was not in striking contrast against it. The common sense rule for me is: if you didn’t know that the building is low income housing unless someone told you, then the development is a success – for both the tenants and the neighborhood.
Lastly, there is no entitlement to living in the Sunset or anywhere else. If supply and demand factors result in the Sunset becoming too expensive, then it would be best to look elsewhere. People within the Chinese community know that reality very well and have started communities in other areas of the City and Bay Area. There is no reason to vilify existing residents and seek measures to “correct the sins” of a community in order to justify your thirst to maximize the height and density. The Sunset became what it is today because it was precisely intended to be a place in the City where common people can own their own homes and not be in the shadows of massive real estate development. If people in our community love Irving Street and the Sunset, they need to stand up and demand that any affordable housing development in their neighborhood must pass the test of common sense. It’s not too late, but time is running out.