Chang Jok Lee has lived in a ground-floor apartment in Chinatown's Ping Yuen housing project since 1952.
As president of the Ping Yuen Residents Improvement Association, she has faced off with sellers of illegal fireworks and pushed for the rights of her neighbors.
Now, Jok Lee is at it again because residents say they fear crime in their buildings — the housing project consists of 433 families in five buildings spread across Chinatown. Instead of calling police, in part due to language barriers, residents come to her.
“A lot of residents are afraid to call the police,” Jok Lee said in her kitchen on a recent afternoon. She has been told of nonresidents dealing drugs in the front courtyard of her building — until the lock was fixed recently, they were reportedly coming in through the front gate — and vagrants sleeping in the laundry room.
Those concerns were also voiced at a recent Police Commission meeting in the Central Police District where the Ping Yuen buildings are located.
Last month, the Housing Authority, which manages the properties, Central district Capt. David Lazar, neighborhood Supervisor David Chiu and community activists met to discuss ways to improve security.
Thus far, these efforts have resulted in two new security guards on patrol — not because of any specific incidents or general crime problem, according to the Housing Authority, but because residents asked for more security.
There are no reliable statistics showing criminal incidents just in the Ping Yuen properties, which makes it hard to measure overall safety.
But a recent survey of residents by the nonprofit Chinatown Community Development Center — whose staff translated for resident Jok Lee in her kitchen — found that about one-third of all residents feel unsafe in their buildings. Many said their fear comes from crime, drugs and violence (61 percent) and from nonresident vagrants (51 percent). A majority said there was insufficient security. The informal survey was conducted Sept. 26 and consisted of 105 households. Despite a lack of statistics, the survey's findings are backed up by police.
“There are robberies, burglaries, theft, trespassing and drug dealing,” Sgt. Monica Macdonald said. Still, even she admitted that getting stats on how much crime happens in Chinatown, and specifically the Ping Yuen properties, is hard since many incidents go unreported.
Nevertheless, the Central Police District has assigned a liaison officer to the housing project. Additionally, police say they want to make sure there is ongoing communications between security personnel, residents and police.
Even with new security, the properties are hard to patrol since they are spread out across a number of blocks.
Lazar, the Central Police District captain, wants to increase security, Macdonald said.
“At times, crime in Chinatown is linked to the residents of the Ping Yuen,” Macdonald said. “If we can increase security, this will enhance safety overall in Chinatown.”
But, Jok Lee said, communication with security guards and police has been an issue due to the language barrier, with many residents only speaking Cantonese.
To some degree, that issue has been dealt with on the Housing Authority side. The two new security guards do speak Cantonese, as do the two building managers for the five properties, according to the Housing Authority.
But additional cameras and lights are also needed, which are in the works, say police, and Chiu's office.
Still, the changes in part came about after Chiu's office put pressure on the Housing Authority, said Amy Chan, an aide to Chiu.
“The Housing Authority has not done a great job on some of these issues and here we are trying to hold them accountable,” she said.
Barbara Smith, the Housing Authority's executive director, has been proactively meeting with police and residents on these and other issues and there is no data to show that crime is an issue in the Ping Yuen. Conversely, no data means there is no way to measure if indeed there is crime.
“According to SFPD records, there has not been a spike in crime at Ping Yuen and Ping Yuen North. There are rarely any reported incidents,” Smith wrote in an email to The San Francisco Examiner.
“When residents expressed concerns about safety,” the email continued, “we increased security guard shifts on Friday and Saturday evenings, including bilingual guards, increasing our annual costs for security guards to $200,000. Further increasing the number of shifts and going to four guards per shift would cost half a million dollars, funds that we simply do not have.”