Commentary: Brian Quan

The Impact of SF’s Housing Crisis

Asian Heritage Month is a time I like to spend reflecting on how San Francisco and the Asian community have developed together during its long history.

A place near Lands End that I’ve been going to for a long time to dwell on these matters is the USS San Francisco Memorial. Reading the plaque there commemorating its history as a vital ship during World War II and its key role during the Battle of Guadalcanal always reminds me of the deep history San Francisco has as a port town and how we’ve been central to many of the changes that have taken place over the past few decades.

The USS San Francisco Memorial always brings my mind back to the Merchant Marines and longshoremen that used to dominate a significant portion of our workforce and how many Asians were part of and supported those industries. While the Chinese were some of the first to come here from Asia, the Filipino sailors and “Manong” farm workers made up a significant minority here in San Francisco, too. Chinatown and Japantown still exist, but the Manilatown that was centered around the International Hotel until the 1970s was a victim of the urban renewal and redevelopment of that era. The extended battle to preserve housing for the individuals living at the International Hotel is a fight that still resonates today.

As we begin to address the current challenges facing our neighborhood, we need to recognize the root cause that bleeds out to the symptoms we are seeing. Issues facing our businesses, transportation capacity, education funding and public safety are all impacted by our collective housing crisis. Not having built sufficient housing on the west side of San Francisco and forcing development further away from our City has led to more and more of the workforce we rely on to live outside of the neighborhood. This brings the double burden of enticing workers to come here with higher wages to offset their commute cost, but also not being connected with the community and understanding its nuances. Seeing your service workers, bus drivers, teachers, firefighters and police officers as part of the fabric of the community on their off hours builds a more resilient neighborhood. While we could attempt to build more teacher housing or first responder housing, the basic challenge of bringing more affordable housing to San Francisco is not an easy solution.

Even during the last election in November, the west side of the City has shown that it is not sold on the idea of affordable housing. While Prop. D and Prop. E were dueling measures to streamline affordable housing, the majority of precincts that voted “no” to both were on this side of the City, showing either confusion over the measures or more likely a well-earned skepticism with City Hall to offer substantive solutions. With decades of well-intentioned policies around permitting and zoning to prevent the excess of the previous eras’ urban renewal and redevelopment, it has unfortunately fed into the negative feedback loop of ever increasing housing costs. This resistance to change is one that must be overcome if we want to be part of the solution to address our housing crisis.

Here in San Francisco we are entering the latest cycle of the State Housing Element that is meant to address, remove, or mitigate governmental and non-governmental constraints to housing production as part of a planned goal of producing 82,069 new units of housing. With Mayor London Breed and Supervisor Joel Engardio introducing legislation to streamline the process for housing production, we should encourage our representatives to support these efforts to help make it possible to get more of this housing built. From conversations I’ve been having, many are recognizing that we are in a housing crisis but don’t know how to be better informed on this complex topic and don’t know how to help out.

In the Richmond District we are starting to finally see progress on affordable housing with the demolition of the former Ashley and McMullen Funeral Home at 4200 Geary Blvd. with 98 units to begin construction soon. Over my lifetime here, I’ve seen new apartment complexes go up from the senior housing at the site of the old Coronet Theater to the buildings replacing the gas stations that used to be on Geary and 33rd Avenue. How can we as a community identify sites to help do our part to address this need for housing? In our need to develop more housing in our neighborhood we should avoid the mistakes of ’70s era redevelopment that displaced residents and learn from when we originally developed the west side by displacing cemeteries to Colma.

The happy ending for the west side can hopefully be foreshadowed by the outcome of the International Hotel. Through community action the site eventually became affordable senior housing. But this did not just happen without an engaged and informed electorate. We have to be aware of the consequences of not adapting to these changes in a timely manner. The best way to get involved is to learn from the groups that have been advocating for housing on the west side. The two major advocates for affordable housing here in the Richmond District are Grow The Richmond (, which I got involved with to support the Ferris Wheel in Golden Gate Park, and Richmond District Rising (, which supports tenants’ rights.

Brian Quan is a Richmond District native, co-leader of Grow the Richmond, president of the Chinese American Democratic Club, member of the Park Presidio-Sunset Lions Club and participant in monthly Refuse Refuse S.F. street clean-ups.

1 reply »

  1. Hey Brian, those buildings that replaced the gas stations on 33rd and Geary are now expensive condomiums that very few people can afford.
    You wax smoothly about having to make hard choices, but those hard choices all too often tend to be condomiums and buildings that out of town developers and building management firms make money over while not really benefiting anyone who is in the middle class that wants to stay in the city where they live and perhaps grew up.
    That’s what people are voting no against. It’s not really against housing per se, it’s about the reality of what housing gets created and who can actually afford the housing that gets created.
    I will presume that you know this and just forgot to mention this in your apparently now regular column.


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