“We support supportive housing. But just not in this neighborhood.”
Rarely does one see such honesty in the debate over housing and homelessness. Yet these words from Japantown Merchants Association President Richard Hashimoto, as reported in the San Francisco Chronicle, undoubtedly reflect the sentiments of many. After all, they’re just a longer way of saying “not in my backyard.”
NIMBY resistance has now disrupted plans to convert a Japantown hotel into 131 units of supportive housing for homeless people. The proposed project at the Kimpton Buchanan Hotel on Sutter Street is part of The City’s plan to create 368 new units of homeless housing with local funding and help from Project Homekey, which provides state and federal funds to convert hotels into permanent housing. Approximately 100 formerly homeless people have been housed at the Japantown hotel during the pandemic, and the hotel’s owner has expressed an interest in selling.
But the idea has met opposition from some neighbors who don’t want homeless housing on their block. Outcry against the project has spurred city leaders to “slow down” the proposed project in a city with more than 8,000 homeless people at last count.
District 5 Supervisor Dean Preston, who represents Japantown, telegraphed defeat last week.
“Japantown has endured a painful history of racist state-imposed decisions that left a legacy of distrust,” Preston wrote on Twitter. “From internment to redevelopment, we need to recognize that making decisions for, instead of with, the J-town community can reopen generational wounds.”
His remark drew strong rebuke from housing activists who slammed him for invoking historical traumas to justify opposition to the project.
“Abusing the history of racism towards Japanese Americans in order to block *homeless housing that disproportionally helps non-white people* is peak SF ‘progressive’ hypocrisy,” wrote Joe Goldman.
“Hi, Japanese person here,” tweeted Jennifer Bradshaw, a housing activist who chimed in from Vancouver, “internment destroyed the Japantown of my city. This is absolutely 0 reason to delay desperately needed supportive housing.”
The S.F. chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, which endorsed Preston, called on him to “stand up for the unhoused working class.”
Preston’s controversial comments mirrored arguments made recently by some members of the Japantown community.
“You guys are railroading Japanese Americans again,” wrote David Ashizawa in comments during a public meeting on Aug. 26, according to Nichi Bei Weekly. “The last time this happened we ended up in camps.”
Others referenced the trauma of redevelopment’s complicated history in the Japantown area. In the 1960s, some members of both the Asian and Black communities organized protests against the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency’s plan to raze homes and businesses, displacing residents and businesses, for a tourist-oriented Japantown project. At one point, Black activists even stood in front of bulldozers to demand more affordable housing.
When the new Japanese Trade and Cultural Center opened in 1968, Mayor Joseph Alioto crowed that the project sprang “out of what was an ugly ghetto,” wrote Meredith Oda in “The Gateway to the Pacific: Japanese Americans and the Remaking of San Francisco.”
In September 1974, over 100 Japanese residents marched to protest evictions related to a second phase of the redevelopment.
“The group complained the agency had been evicting tenants from the four-block area — called Nihonmachi — between Post and Bush, Laguna and Webster streets, and their buildings left unoccupied,” wrote The Examiner at the time.
“We have seen over 1,500 small businesses, residents and workers pushed out of our community,” said Saichi Kawahara, president of an organization called Committee Against Nihonmachi Eviction. “The Redevelopment Agency is changing our community into a tourist trap.”
Tensions flared again in 1979, when The City considered a proposal to demolish Victorians on the 1600 block of Laguna despite opposition from some Black leaders and preservationists. One proponent of the demolition argued that Victorians didn’t belong in the neighborhood because they were “products of European culture.” The proposal passed the redevelopment agency’s board by a vote of 6-1, with a Black pastor casting the only “no” vote.
The debate over the Kimpton Buchanan Hotel is the latest chapter in the saga. Redevelopment in the Western Addition, along with the creation of today’s Japantown, displaced many people of color in the 20th century. In the 21st century, some Japantown residents and business leaders are now fighting to keep The City from converting a tourist hotel into housing for residents displaced by poverty and a chronic lack of affordable housing.
Clearly, some Japantown community members felt blindsided by this proposal. Some blame the hotel’s current residents for a perceived increase in litter and parking violations. Others suggest that the presence of formerly homeless people in the area might cause parents to pull their children out of a nearby preschool.
On a recent weekday, however, the atmosphere outside the hotel was calm and clean. One block away, an unhoused man — clearly not a hotel resident — slept in a doorway.
The blowback shows the challenge facing San Francisco’s leaders as they try to solve the human misery endemic in our streets. Should they champion the poorest and most disenfranchised among us by boldly pushing for tangible solutions? Or will they cave to NIMBY arguments if they invoke progressive concepts like racial justice in the service of reactionary positions?
The internment of Japanese Americans during World War II is universally recognized as a terrible racist stain on America’s history, but it has no relation to The City’s current efforts to shelter the homeless. Japantown, after all, is not the only neighborhood where such projects are planned — or where they may meet opposition. NIMBYs in SoMa are agitating against a homeless housing project slated for the Panoramic SoMa building at Ninth and Mission, according to Hoodline. In a city with an ugly history of disenfranchisement dating back to the Spanish oppression of the Ohlone, will other neighborhoods also invoke historical traumas to exclude the unhoused?
Preston now suggests moving the homeless project to two different hotels outside of Japantown. In a letter to Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing Director Shireen McSpadden last week, Preston said the two hotels “would bring at least 174 units of supportive housing for formerly homeless individuals.”
Preston rejected any suggestion that the presence of supportive housing would harm Japantown, but he also said he would also reject “a zero sum game that pits marginalized residents against each other.” The Japantown hotel, which was chosen because it was deemed the property best suited for supportive housing, is still a possibility. But Preston is clearly looking for a way out.
How unfortunate. If The City’s elected leaders don’t have the guts to stand up to NIMBYism, they ought to at least be honest about it. Absurd posturing over painful historical issues irrelevant to the homeless crisis only makes San Francisco look ridiculous.
Perhaps The City should have done a better job of community outreach, but Preston and Mayor London Breed should not allow anti-homeless attitudes to push the project elsewhere. If they cave to discrimination against the unhoused in Japantown, they will provide every NIMBY in The City with a simple strategy to block housing for its most vulnerable residents.