Japantown community discusses potential impacts of San Francisco Housing Element

With the San Francisco Housing Element due to be finalized in January of next year, the Japantown Task Force hosted a community meeting Nov. 30 to discuss how the ethnic enclave will likely be affected by the latest “road map” for housing in San Francisco.

The Housing Element is a document that is updated every eight years to guide the city’s housing policy. Compared to previous iterations, however, the most recent Housing Element process has deliberately paid attention to racial and social inequities that have disproportionately affected communities of color.

Lisa Chen, a representative from San Francisco’s Planning Department, said the update adheres to the state of California’s demands to have San Francisco build its “fair share” of housing, while also seeking remedial policies to help disenfranchised groups stay or move into the city, especially to neighborhoods where people of color have been kept out due to racist policies such as redlining.

For the city’s Japanese American community, these policies also include the wartime incarceration of people of Japanese descent and urban renewal, which twice uprooted the community.

Glynis Nakahara, president of the Japantown Task Force, presented on the historical impacts racist policies have had on the city’s Japanese American community. According to the 2009 Japantown Historic Context Statement written by Donna Graves, some 5,000 residents and 400 businesses were uprooted through the forced removal of Nikkei during World War II. Of those removed, only a third returned to San Francisco after the war.

The city’s Japanese American community had recovered to around the pre-war population in 1950, but they were once again removed during the urban renewal process.

“This led to pretty much the evisceration of much of Japantown’s urban fabric, which at that time was about 40-some blocks,” Nakahara said. “We’re about six or so blocks today. And this time it was policies through the city of San Francisco.”

Nakahara estimates some 8,000 residents were evicted during the A-1 redevelopment process, which built what is now the Japan Center Malls and the Kinokuniya Building, as well as the Peace Plaza.

The second forced removal adversely affected the Japanese American community as many of the neighborhood’s residents were renters — primarily because racist alien land laws kept immigrants from owning any land in the first place — and those that remained faced “a dramatic increase in property values and rents” after the malls were developed, preventing many small businesses from returning.

As part of the efforts to remediate the impact of redevelopment on Japantown, the city designated Japantown as a part of the Priority Equity Geographies, “areas with a higher density of vulnerabilities as defined by San Francisco Department of Health.” While the Environmental Impact Report for the plan submitted to the city suggested the Japan Center Mall’s “super-blocks” be considered for an up-zoning up to 240 feet high from its current 50 feet height limit, as they sit on a major transit thoroughfare, the city’s most recent proposal for citywide zoning changes does not include any changes to those blocks.

“Japantown itself was considered for rezoning in the plan’s environmental impact report, but the draft rezoning proposal the city sent to the state to review currently does not include them. If there is a wish to rezone anything in Japantown, it would be initiated by a community-led planning process,” Chen said.

While proposed zoning changes do not directly affect Japantown, Japantown Task Force leaders said they would like to look at changing the zoning rules in accordance to community needs and concerns. According to Nakahara, the task force found, through its Japantown Cultural District outreach, that affordable housing and policies that addresses past harms from redevelopment are seen as a necessity to sustain Japantown.

“Some of the key initiatives includes determining housing needs and developing a strategy, identifying priority groups that would benefit from affordable housing — particularly, … there was a lot of discussion about certificates of preference holders — as well as younger families and youth and nonprofit and culture bearers such as our artists. And also just to maximize affordable housing development in general,” Nakahara said.

The city issued certificates of preference to former Japantown residents and business owners during redevelopment, but many could not use them to move back in due to slow reconstruction and other technicalities.

Lori Yamauchi, vice president of the task force, said to achieve those goals for more housing, zoning rules must change, but they would change in accordance to community wishes.

“The housing element also calls for community-led processes to provide defined community benefits that would mitigate or reduce the effects of redevelopment. Such community benefits could include affordable housing for Japanese and Japanese Americans, community space, job training, protections for existing merchants and the like,” she said.

While the specifics of what sort of zoning changes the community desires have yet to be defined and there is no deadline to develop these plans, Yamauchi told the Nichi Bei Weekly the community should organize over the next year to define what kind of development it wants.

While the city expects major changes to create a more diverse and equitable city, Chen said these changes will not come overnight. She called the Housing Element a “road map” that includes 42 policies and 300 actions the city must enact over the next year after the city and state adopt it.

“I think there’s a lot of kind of misunderstanding about what the housing element does. … It helps us prioritize and define our values around housing and how we’re going to match that with our funding investments in our programs,” Chen said. “But it does not change the land

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