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Victory In Chinatown: The San Francisco Community Land Trust

By: 
James Tracy
Date Published: 
April 01, 2007

When the dot-com boom imploded, many hoped that the cycles of gentrification and displacement in San Francisco would come to a grinding halt.

Unfortunately, this type of housing crisis still exists in almost every major city in the US. Property speculation and government-sponsored redevelopment are still a dangerous combination with ill effects for working-class people. Wherever there is a crisis of this magnitude, various community organizations rise to the challenge of fighting displacement.

Given the strength of the opposition and the sanctity of private property, victories of any size are rare and impressive. When a community does have a victory, usually it is to prevent evictions. Rarely is there an opportunity to model a different type of neighborhood as part of that victory. However in San Francisco’s Chinatown, a small building of immigrants have been able to do just that.

In 1998, City College of San Francisco bought what was then known as the Fong Building and announced plans to demolish it to build a new campus. The tenants immediately took action with the help of Chinatown Community Development Center and the Asian Law Caucus. After seven years of struggle and organizing, the tenants’ first victory came in 2005 when the city college announced that it had abandoned its plans.

However the college planned to sell the Fong Building to one of Chinatown’s largest for-profit developers, who publicly commented on his desire to raze the building and replace it with a high-rise tower. Faced with further threats of lawsuits and a community mobilization that threatened its funding, the college decided the best course of action was to sell the Fong Building to San Francisco Community Land Trust (SFCLT), for a price well below the market rate.

The SFCLT is an organization that pursues the collectivization of residential buildings as an anti-displacement strategy. Under a typical CLT arrangement, residents own a portion of their building but cannot profit by speculating due to equity restrictions. Residents collectively self-manage the building and share power with other community members in the larger organization. A land trust holds the land under the building, in order to preserve affordability. After meeting with the residents it was agreed that the CLT would be a good match for the tight-knit community that had virtually self-managed their building anyhow through years of neglect. As a result of the campaign, the tenants won money from the city to add basic amenities that every human being should enjoy—heat, lead removal, and an elevator.

As part of this process, residents have worked with the architects, participating in the design of what the building will look like post-renovation. While much smaller in scale, this evokes images of horizontalism of Argentina, where direct participatory democracy replaces decision-making dictated by small groups of powerful people.

Yet for residents, the benefits are far more practical. Larry Lee an 82-year old collective member remarked in the San Francisco Chronicle “I don’t know of any other place I could call home.”

James Tracy is a co-founder of the San Francisco Community Land Trust (www.sfclt.org). He is working on a book about poor whites in the New Left of the 1960's.