large mural of two dragons on a city street in Chinatown, San Francisco. Two young Asian girls walk by on the sidewalk below.
Image credit: Matt Briney on

This is the second article in NPQ’s series titled Building Power, Fighting Displacement: Stories from Asian Pacific America, coproduced with the National Coalition for Asian Pacific American Community Development (National CAPACD). Authors in this series highlight stories of comprehensive community development in Asian American and Pacific Islander communities across the United States.

When people think of community development, they often think of affordable housing and physical infrastructure. Community development, however, began as a movement of organizers who understood that they needed to mobilize together to protect their places of belonging. 

This shift from grassroots movement into an industry moved the understanding of community development away from its origins. Given the current threats to neighborhoods across the country and the federal opportunities on the horizon, it is critical to reestablish community development as a place-based model that allows low-income communities of color to determine their own outcomes. 

Community development…began as a movement of organizers who understood that they needed to mobilize together to protect their places of belonging.

This is an approach that San Francisco-based Chinatown Community Development Center (Chinatown CDC), which I direct, has embraced since its founding—and continues to develop today. And it has made all the difference in avoiding displacement.

Grassroots Origins

Our story begins in the 1970s—a turbulent time in San Francisco and across the country. While the Civil Rights movement had activated a generation of people to demand that equity be built into the fabric of society, cities across the country were embracing urban renewal, which harmed communities of color. 

The Manilatown and Chinatown districts of San Francisco had emerged by the turn of the century as a home for Filipino and Chinese migrant workers, where they were able to connect with their communities before returning to work, which often could be located outside of the city (many worked in the San Joaquin Valley farms or salmon canneries). The transient nature of their work contributed to the development of high-density single-room occupancy (SRO) apartments in these neighborhoods, including the International Hotel, known to locals as the I-Hotel. 

In the 1960s, San Francisco was committed to redeveloping its downtown to join the likes of New York City and Chicago; this meant the encroachment of downtown into neighborhoods such as Manilatown. As developers bulldozed through this once-thriving neighborhood, a widespread movement of tenants, students, and artists mobilized a nine-year campaign to preserve the I-Hotel, which housed predominantly elderly Filipinos who had no other home and was also the last standing SRO in Manilatown. Despite the fierce organizing efforts and community solidarity, residents were forcibly evicted in 1977 and the building was demolished in 1979. 

Although the campaign was lost, the I-Hotel struggle was a foundational political moment for Asian Americans in the United States. It galvanized Asian American community leaders and activists in San Francisco and served as a wake-up call for Chinatown which was just across from Manilatown. Chinatown Resource Center or CRC (the prequel, if you will, to Chinatown CDC) was founded in 1977 by five grassroots organizations that emerged during the I-Hotel campaign around the respective issues of affordable housing, tenant rights, open space, transportation, and community facilities—using community development as a unifying framework. Through the efforts of each of these founding grassroots organizations, the spirit of grassroots organizing in service of a collective community vision was wired into the DNA of Chinatown CDC.

The origin of the tenant organizing movement in San Francisco’s Chinatown can, in fact, be traced back to one of these organizations, the Ping Yuen Residents Improvement Association (PYRIA), which was founded in 1967 to improve conditions in Chinatown’s public housing complexes. Chinese American attorney Ed Lee (who later served as mayor from 2011 until his untimely death while in office in 2017), with the Asian Law Caucus, supported PYRIA leaders, like Chang Jok Lee, to organize the city’s largest sustained public housing rent strike in response to unsafe conditions that contributed to the murder of one of its residents. The strike was resolved with an agreement with the San Francisco Housing Authority to improve security, repairs, and services to the tenants.

Affordable housing development did not come until later in 1978, when the Chinese Community Housing Corporation was established as a subsidiary of CRC. Even then, housing was meant to advance an overall neighborhood strategy. Although CRC and CCHC worked closely together, only in 1998 did the two groups merge to become Chinatown CDC. 

Heeding the lessons learned from Manilatown and the I-Hotel, the leadership of CRC recognized the need to change the rules of the physical environment in San Francisco’s Chinatown. By bringing together organizers and planners, leaders were able to put forth, organize around, and get approval of multiple community plans, beginning in 1986 (and subsequent related plans in the 1990s), which altered zoning rules and ultimately rewrote the destiny of this place. 

Community planning—and the community organizing that made those plans a reality—is the single greatest reason why there is still a Chinatown in San Francisco today that has not been absorbed by downtown. It is why Chinatown today is still a place of residence, business, and tourism and a source of community, cultural capital, and economic mobility. 

How Chinatown CDC Supports Grassroots Organizing Today

It is evident that true community development, the kind that allows the futures of places to be determined by the people who live in and engage with them, is impossible without building people power. By places, I don’t only mean only the built environment, but the social structures and networks that support healthy and thriving communities. 

What does building people power mean? In organizing, building people power is working to ensure that people are decision-makers in outcomes that impact them most directly. Because Chinatown CDC is not an organizing entity, building people power requires supporting the development of the grassroots organizations that engage and lead in those public processes.

An example of this approach to building grassroots leadership played out in 2011 when the San Francisco Housing Authority proposed to renovate Chinatown’s Ping Yuen public housing developments by converting it into subsidized housing—a project that would be led and managed by the agency. After decades of declining federal funding for repairs, the aging structures were in desperate condition, but tenants did not trust the local agency and feared the potential for displacement and loss of affordability. After meeting with officials, a crowd of over 100 members of PYRIA (the same association that had led that famed rent strike more than 30 years earlier) vocally objected to the project as proposed.  

At PYRIA’s request, Chinatown CDC staff then provided technical support to tenant leaders to critically evaluate the agency’s proposal. A committee of tenants, including some rent strike leaders, conducted physical inspections of the buildings’ infrastructure with our housing construction manager. The tenants reviewed the conversion program rules with our tenant rights counselors. Based upon what they learned, the tenant leadership presented a counterproposal to the Housing Authority: PYRIA would support a conversion of the development only if the agency could guarantee tenant protections and affordability and PYRIA would retain a right to veto any project plans that did not meet the tenants’ needs.

The preservation of Chinatown…is not possible without the relationships built among the entities that serve the community.

Before the tenants’ objections and proposal could be addressed, the Housing Authority’s proposed conversion was shelved after the federal Housing and Urban Development department sanctioned the agency for mismanagement. A year later, San Francisco’s then-Mayor Ed Lee put forward an ambitious new city-led proposal to rebuild a majority of the city’s public housing development—including the Ping Yuen projects and two senior developments also in the Chinatown area. In contrast to the previous Housing Authority’s proposal, that troubled agency did not retain management of the sites and stronger tenant protections were built in. The city invited nonprofit organizations to apply to lead the rebuilding effort.   

After much consideration, Chinatown CDC submitted a proposal to begin planning a rebuild of the Chinatown developments on the condition that we would honor PYRIA’s demand that they would have the right to veto an eventual plan. Thus, when Chinatown CDC was selected as the developer, we worked with PYRIA not only to approve the Ping project plan but to shape the plan itself and continue to engage residents in the redevelopment process itself. Five years later, in 2020, the new 434-unit Ping Yuen developments opened with an award-winning design. At the reopening, Chang Jok Lee and other PYRIA leaders took center stage for the ribbon cutting. Empowered grassroots leadership made that project possible.

Chang Jok Lee, PYRIA tenant leader speaking with Mayor Ed Lee and others at Ping Yuen public housing in 2016. Photo courtesy of CCDC.

While grassroots demands are rightfully aspirational, community development corporations naturally veer toward the pragmatic.This is the heart of the work—the preservation of Chinatown, or any disadvantaged low-income neighborhood, is not possible without the relationships built among the entities that serve the community. A shared vision for an inclusive neighborhood that is shaped by its residents must transcend strategy and ideology to unify those working in service of this vision. Thus, the affordable housing developers, the planners, the artists, and advocates must come together—and impacted communities mobilized by grassroots organizing must be at the center. 

Challenges in Implementing a Grassroots-Led Approach

Empowering grassroots leadership is not aways an easy path. While grassroots demands are rightfully aspirational, community development corporations naturally veer toward the pragmatic. In the resource-constrained world of low-income communities, it is not surprising then that disagreements about priorities, strategies, and tactics can be common and sometimes intense.  

One such disagreement arose a few years ago between Chinatown CDC and another grassroots organization—the Community Tenants Association. CTA was founded in 1987 with the support of CRC and other community organizations. CTA today is one of the largest tenant rights organizations in the city with over 3,000 members—mostly seniors and Chinese speaking. It has a large and active board and an even larger activist core. For many years Chinatown CDC has partnered with CTA in community outreach about tenants’ rights and housing advocacy. 

About four years ago, Chinatown CDC and other housing developers began meeting with city officials about a proposed bond to fund new affordable housing. The need for more affordable housing was acute and previous bond funding was running out.  

Given Chinatown CDC’s prior work with CTA, we met with their leadership about the proposed bond. Their response was not what we expected. CTA’s leadership criticized the city’s housing programs for failing to deliver on past promises of senior housing. They noted that many of their members could not afford the rents charged at so-called affordable senior developments—including some of Chinatown CDC’s own projects. CTA leaders said they would not support the housing bond as proposed. 

This sharp criticism by one of our community’s strongest grassroots organizations was a surprise and a challenge. Rents in affordable housing are primarily set by a formula that CDCs do not control. And without passage of a bond, the prospects for any new affordable housing would be bleak. 

But our group took their observations seriously enough to do some research. What we learned was that CTA’s ground-level perspective was accurate: the city’s production of senior housing had dropped off sharply in the previous decade even as the need for affordable senior housing had grown.  

Further research also showed that rents for senior affordable housing in the city were in fact unaffordable to a majority of senior renters. CTA’s criticisms were valid, but our group also felt it was infeasible at that time to prioritize senior housing or to change the rent formula. Passage of the proposed housing bond seemed to us to be the first step toward addressing those other issues down the road after funding for affordable housing had been secured.

But CTA did not share our skepticism about the possibility of improving the housing bond measure and did not accept our gradualist approach. CTA proceeded to meet with other senior organizations across the city. Collectively they demanded a greater share of the housing bond and funding to lower senior housing rents. Their coalition met with elected officials and went to the media with criticisms of the status quo. Their activism led the city to increase the size of the proposed bond to $600 million, the largest housing bond in city history. The proposal included a firm commitment for more senior housing combined with the creation of a new pilot program to lower rents in senior housing.  

Rather than weaken support for the bond, the demands of CTA and others made the proposal more impactful and more compelling. The housing bond was approved in November 2019 with the support of 71 percent of San Francisco voters.  

 CTA leaders with other senior activists at housing bond campaign rally 2019. Photo courtesy of CCDC.

The Power of Grassroots-Led Development

The successful outcome of the housing bond campaign demonstrates the power of grassroot activist organizations. It also illustrates how disagreements over priorities and strategies between grassroots leadership and established CDCs, if approached with openness and respect, can result in positive change and new initiatives.

Community development has taken on a very particular definition in the lexicon of social change. Under the Reagan administration, the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit incentivized the privatization of affordable housing development. 

To support the specialization this required, the affordable housing “movement” became an industry of developers, attorneys, financing specialists, and so on. The conversation moved away from the people impacted on the ground to physical development and the technical tools required for said development. 

This division has often led to mistrust between CDCs and grassroots organizing groups with regard to alignment on shared goals. It is important that CDCs remind and reassure organizers and other community partners of our shared purpose to support and build the power of impacted people, while acknowledging that there are some community developers who may not be aligned. At Chinatown CDC, we practice this by playing only a supporting role for PYRIA, CTA, and other grassroots organizations, so that they each have the space needed to develop the leadership of their members and further their campaigns to preserve Chinatown, a place we are all invested in.

CDCs are not just supporting grassroots organizing efforts—they are being supported by those organizing efforts as well. I can pull any one of Chinatown CDC’s affordable housing project portfolios to demonstrate the positive impact that organizing has had on helping generate financial support for our affordable housing work and, hence, our bottom line. 

Developers, even nonprofit developers, cannot assume that they have influence or power in a vacuum. By engaging impacted communities, we can not only confront, but also solve many of the great challenges that lie ahead.