To Japanese Americans who oppose using empty hotels as permanent housing for homeless people: Don’t rewrite our history to increase profits for the real estate industry.
By Toshio Meronek, housing activist and journalist, and Miya Sommers, Coordinator with Nikkei Resisters
On October 19, real estate developers and some Japantown residents slid a knife into plans for permanent, supportive housing for homeless people. Instead of converting the failed 131-room tourist Buchanan Hotel into long-term housing for people who need it, the city is backing off thanks to a misinformation campaign spread in part by other Japanese Americans.
According to a statement that has been shared by many Japantown nonprofits, San Francisco’s Japantown is under attack by low-income San Franciscans. In a petition also promoted in the LA-based Japanese American paper Rafu Shimpo, they claim that potentially creating permanent housing for elders and disabled people who are homeless would lead to “irreparable harm on the SF Japantown neighborhood.” Despite its claims, the anti-homeless campaign will not preserve Japanese American culture in the city. And if the campaign is successful, more elders and people with disabilities on the street will be on the streets of Japantown.
We are Japanese Americans who are longtime residents of indigenous Ohlone-Lisjan and Ramaytush land (a.k.a. the Bay Area). We need other Japanese Americans and allies to understand the dangerous, anti-homeless misinformation campaign began in August that will increase suffering for the majority of San Franciscans. Ultimately, it’s a campaign that will make the rich richer, as it cynically misuses the recent attention around racist, anti-Asian violence, and also rewrites the history of racist Redevelopment policies of the 1960s, policies that not only threatened to level Japantown to the ground, but also bleached the Fillmore of many Black residents, and all but demolished the area called Manilatown, where Filipinx people were evicted to make way for today’s Financial District and its big banks.
If it accomplishes its goal, the anti-homeless campaign will benefit landlords and real estate developers most of all. If leaders in Japantown are truly concerned about the loss of Japanese American culture or small businesses, they are choosing the wrong target, and erasing the fact that there are Japanese American and/or hafu/hapa (half-Japanese) homeless people living here right now.
Thousands of luxury condo units sit empty, while construction continues on new condos that will be affordable to almost no one. Mayor London Breed continues to sweep homeless encampments, moving people with nowhere to go around the city, causing havoc and tragedy, rather than solving the problem of wealth-hoarding in a city that is also home to more billionaires per capita than any other. Breed’s anti-homeless policies make it impossible for people to gain stability, as tents and other possessions are taken away during a pandemic with no end in sight.
Not all Japanese American believe that poor people are the problem. Some of us actually understand that the real estate industry is the true predator and villain in this story. However, board members and some staff of Japantown nonprofits don’t agree, and they’re making it seem like there is only one voice in Japantown. The statements they’ve made co-opt the very real concern of anti-Asian violence, and the haunted histories of Japanese American World War II incarceration and Redevelopment, egregiously using these issue to stop supportive, permanent homeless housing in the neighborhood. They also erase Japanese Americans who are currently or formerly homeless–like Japanese American World War II incarceration survivors, who often left the camps after the war with nowhere to go, having been evicted from their homes by landlords and local sheriffs departments at the onset of internment. As descendants of incarceration survivors, we refuse to see our community’s trauma used to harm other communities.
Another actual threat to the community are the investors in Beverly Hills who own the Japan Center mall. In 2006, two Southern California-based companies purchased much of the mall. They signed a 15-year agreement, brokered by the city, stating that they would not attempt to convert the space into condos during that time. However, that agreement expires this year and has not yet been renewed. Even before COVID-19, Japan Center’s owners were slowly bleeding the place empty. The owners are not interested in preserving community: Langdon Street Capital “seeks to acquire, manage, develop and finance value-add urban infill real estate through syndication of equity and joint venture partnerships,” and its partner 3D Investments “prides itself on providing attractive investment options for investors from all over the globe.” Langdon and 3D have refused to negotiate rents with small businesses, resulting in the nearly-dead mall that Japan Center is today. In 2007, Japan Center owners began working with architects to draw up plans for condos to replace the mall.
Because of the mall owner’s unwillingness to provide more than six months rent forgiveness for small businesses, we saw a number of these community shops shut down. So who is truly a threat to the culture of Japantown?
During the early days of the pandemic, the city only partially followed guidance from medical pros who advised that the spread of the virus and its stronger variants. The city set up contracts with companies like Urban Alchemy to turn empty parking lots into campsites, and hotels into temporary housing, promising to offer permanent housing to all. The resources spent on these public-private partnerships has resulted in placing few houseless people in permanent homes. Our community cannot rely on corporations like Urban Alchemy or the owners of Japan Center, either.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, San Francisco’s rents have stayed unaffordable–never dipping below $3,000. And since July, rents have actually gone up, despite a boom in building over the past decade. Corporate landlords are just getting bigger since the pandemic began, buying up buildings as quickly as they can while corporate media outlets run stories that push the false message that “mom-and-pop” landlords are victims of the pandemic. Sheriffs continue to evict San Franciscans in spite of the “eviction moratorium” that is set to end November 30.
We’ve seen time and again that real estate is a predatory industry quick to betray local communities—including Japanese Americans. Join the groups who are working to stop landlord consolidation and evictions, such as the Coalition on Homelessness, Anti-Eviction Mapping Project, Gay Shame, Housing Rights Committee, and Western Regional Advocacy Project. Likewise, 4DalyCity is battling the plan to turn over public school land to developers who promise to build a few “affordable” housing units while building hundreds of luxury condos; in Los Angeles this past February, a real estate developer called Pacifica Companies began a wave of evictions at senior care facilities that served Japanese and Japanese American elders. Organizers (through a coalition called Save Our Seniors) are battling Pacifica now to stop more evictions.
The state has budgeted $300 million to purchase buildings for permanent housing for people experiencing homelessness, and a few Japanese Americans are out here trying to send back the cash. The SF Homelessness and Supportive Housing department identified a few hotels such as Japantown’s Buchanan Hotel as solutions. The Buchanan was a failing tourist hotel owned by a British corporation, the InterContinental Hotels Group (IHG), and previously the Phoenix, Arizona-based Best Western Hotels & Resorts. At the beginning of the pandemic, IHG leased the building to the city as a shelter-in-place (SIP) hotel for homeless people to curb COVID-19’s spread. IHG has no plans to reopen the Buchanan, and it could easily renovated into a space that would mean hundreds of supportive housing units, and living-wage jobs for people who work there. We desperately need the rooms, because the city has already started to evict people from SIP hotels, acting like the pandemic is over. We also can’t depend on tourism returning and providing a source of living wages for people here, and until our unhoused neighbors have access to a permanent roof to sleep under, we aren’t interested in recreating the “Disneyfied” Japantowns designed by mid-1900s urban planners to appeal to tourists.
Corporate real estate investors like 3D and Langdon are buying up available housing units and leaving them empty, while some of these same landlords are getting ready to mass-evict tenants. If anti-homeless campaign leaders are interested in stopping violence, helping small businesses, and preserving local Japanese American culture, then demand that the city help homeless and low-income San Franciscans, Japanese American or not, by purchasing as many empty buildings as possible to give people somewhere to stabilize their lives. For example, the owners of the Majestic Hotel, a couple of blocks east of the Buchanan, are also ready to sell to the city. Before Redevelopment, the block where The Buchanan Hotel now stands was residential housing. Back then, the city used “eminent domain” policies to take Japanese American (and Black and Filipinx) homes. The city could also use eminent domain, only this time, use it to take back land from rich tax-evaders and use it to shelter the city’s most vulnerable residents.
By saying that permanent supportive housing will destroy the community rewrites the history of Japanese American activism and tenant organizing, twisting it to push a pro-real estate industry message. In the 1960s, the SF Redevelopment Agency (SFRA) was run by a notoriously cruel leader, Justin Herman, who called the land “too valuable to permit poor people to park on it,” and backed by groups like SPUR, he urged politicians to move the city’s population “closer to standard white Anglo-Saxon Protestant characteristics.” They succeeded in displacing hundreds of Japanese Americans, not to mention destroying Black community in the nearby Fillmore District, and almost completely leveling the Filipinx neighborhood once known as Manilatown. The City promised anyone displaced would be promised financial help to relocate, but failed to live up to that promise. It took grassroots tenant groups like the Committee Against Nihonmachi Evictions (CANE) to save Japantown from total demolition by the SFRA and a Japan-based investment company, Kintetsu Enterprises. CANE stepped in where the city failed, managing to rehouse some of the Japanese American residents who were made homeless through the city’s racist policies.
In the 1980s, Japanese Americans became the only ethnic group to receive significant universal financial reparations from the US government, after a 30-year campaign resulted in $20,000 in reparations for incarcerees. Those who say they want to preserve Japantown’s culture need to start with the people first, and we could learn a lot from the struggles of CANE did in the 1970s, movements like Save Our Seniors in LA, and the J-Town Action and Solidarity Network. (LA, San Francisco, Seattle organizers repped West Coast Japantowns on a September panel on displacement, and released its own statement demanding “the immediate commandeering of unoccupied hotel units and their conversion into free housing for all who lack housing.”) There’s also the work of indigenous Lisjan-Ohlone people who are currently working on projects like the Sogorea Te’ Land Trust, to rematriate some of the Bay Area that was taken from native tribes that were killed and enslaved by European settlers during their brutal colonization of the West Coast.
Stable housing is a basic need, and permanent housing could be a form of reparations for people who are currently unhoused, and who have suffered, and continue to suffer because San Francisco’s government, and the real estate industry that funds local political campaigns, is very intentionally causing more suffering. We hope that other Japanese Americans will join us and already existing movements to end the silence around this. Speak out with us and our homeless friends, family, and neighbors.