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Chinatown Evictions Roil Oakland

Activists threaten to sue the city and the owner of a downtown complex unless low-income residents are allowed to stay.

June 24, 2003|John M. Glionna | Times Staff Writer

OAKLAND — Tiny and frail, 90-year-old Yen Hom was wheeled into City Hall here Monday to question officials about the fate of 50 fellow low-income Chinatown residents whose futures hang in doubt: Why won't the city stop a developer's efforts to banish them from their affordable housing?

Earlier this month, Hom, who for years ran an East Oakland grocery store with her now-deceased husband, received a notice from developer Lawrence Chan to vacate by July 31 the tiny apartment where she has lived for eight years.

Like many others, Hom fears being uprooted from the neighborhood she calls home, a place where people speak her language and where she has made a connection with friends, doctors and neighbors that she says she could find nowhere else.

"This is life and death for my mother," said Art Hom, an Alameda County social worker. "The landlord may think that kicking these elderly people out of their apartments is for them just a lifestyle change, and that's just so insensitive. For my mom, this is a death sentence. If she has to move, she's not going to survive."

Activists joined with a City Council member and other politicians Monday to demand that officials stop the evictions and launch an investigation into Chan's business dealings, including an unpaid $7-million city loan the developer insists has been forgiven.

Counting interest on the outstanding debt, activists say, Chan owes Oakland taxpayers more than $16 million. They also claim that the developer, who owns several luxury hotels in San Francisco and Oakland, overcharged Chinatown residents more than $2 million over the 10 years he agreed to maintain the units as low-income apartments. Residents also say they were never informed -- by the city or the developer -- that they might one day be forced to vacate.

In an interview, the 48-year-old Chan said he has done nothing wrong. "The activists are using these elderly residents to put forth their agenda," he said. "They are blowing this out of proportion."

He acknowledged that the city lent him $7 million in 1991, but would not discuss the repayment agreement. "My business arrangement is with the city and I have not heard from the city that we have done anything wrong," said Chan, who identified himself as the chief executive of a consortium of investors.

Today, activists will present to the City Council a report detailing Chan's reportedly broken agreement with the city and his alleged rent gouging. They have threatened to sue both Chan and the city if the council does not announce its intention by next week to halt the evictions and develop a plan to recoup the money.

Activists say the money is critical to a city forced to cut police and other services due to a multimillion-dollar budget deficit. "There are lessons here for other cities," said Vivian Chang, an organizer for the Asian Pacific Environmental Network. "Officials have a responsibility to assure adequate affordable housing and they should be held accountable to monitor any agreements they make with developers like Chan."

The loan was part of a package the developer hammered out with city officials that included establishing 50 affordable housing units in the Pacific Renaissance Plaza, a complex of 250 units that opened in 1993 as the second phase of a massive city redevelopment project in the downtown Chinatown district.

Chan said he agreed to keep the units low-income for 10 years and, as part of the agreement, offered them for eventual sale to the city.

"They sent us a letter this March saying they would not be able to exercise that option," Chan said. "I believe the city has a responsibility to deal with its own citizens." He said the rents for the low-income units -- between $1,000 and $1,250 a month -- were in alignment with his agreement with the city.

Roy Schweyer, director of Oakland's Housing and Community Development office, agreed with Chan's version of events. "As part of the loan agreement, we were required to buy the project or forgive the loan," he said. "When we could not afford to purchase the units, the loan was considered repaid."

He said the deal with Chan was made by City Manager Robert Bobb on the advice of his staff and city lawyers. "The advocates are suggesting there were untoward things going on," Schweyer said. "But city lawyers are looking into this and so far they haven't found anything wrong."

At the City Hall news conference Monday, however, a spokeswoman for the Oakland city attorney said her office takes the charges "very seriously" and asked for public input on any possible irregularities in Chan's dealings.

Anthony Iton, an Alameda County public health officer, said at the news conference that many elderly residents like Yen Hom would face serious health risks if they were moved from their apartments. Advocates say the waiting list for affordable housing for seniors runs from two to four years.

Residents say the recent death of an 86-year-old neighbor could be attributed to the stress from the evictions.

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