Elderly Chinese Couple Takes On San Francisco’s Tech-Driven Gentrifiers

The tech-industry-driven rent explosion has radically shifted the San Francisco housing market.

By Julianne Hing Sep 25, 2013

Before their scheduled eviction today, Gum Gee Lee and Poon Heung Lee, an elderly Chinese couple who’ve lived in their San Francisco apartment for 34 years, are putting up one last very public fight. They’re the last holdouts in a building that was bought by a real estate developer whose specialty is flipping old apartment buildings into luxury condos. Elected city officials, community members and the Lees are currently in front of the apartment building ready to engage in civil disobedience to protest their eviction, said Asian Americans Advancing Justice – Asian Law Caucus’ attorney Omar Calimbas, who represents the Lees.

The Lees worked in the city for decades, raised their family in their apartment and still care for a disabled daughter in their home. When developer Matthew Miller offered buyouts to the other tenants, the Lees tried to move as well. But as seniors on fixed incomes whose daughter is dependent on care she receives in San Francisco, Calimbas said, they didn’t have the kind of leverage they needed. So they decided to stay and fight. 

In a daylong protest outside their 1840-A Jackson Street apartment building the Lees, accompanied by politicians like San Francisco Supervisors David Campos and Jane Kim and community advocates including the Chinese Progressive Association and the San Francisco Tenants Union, protested their eviction. 

The Lees don’t actually have much legal recourse; under California law a landlord may evict tenants if they are pulling the unit off the residential rental market. But in San Francisco and the rest of the Bay Area where the tech boom has forced a rent explosion, the law, called the Ellis Act, has facilitated the evictions of long-time San Francisco residents–particularly those who can’t afford to stick around in the new housing market. Ellis Act evictions and buyouts have increased three-fold since just the beginning of the year, the San Francisco Examiner reported. The Lees’ fight is about much more than just tenants’ rights. It’s also a protest against the gentrification that’s remaking the city into a luxury playground that few but the rich can afford.

"The goal here is to get the ear of City Hall and start working toward concrete proposals to set up safety nets for families like the Lees, those most at risk of being evicted," Calimbas told Colorlines. "Especially when there is a rebound that makes rent-controlled propoerties very attractive to short-term high-yield flipping strategies."

The Lees do not have a place to move to, Calimbas said.