The board members of a local Filipino heritage organization, with ties to a high-profile eviction defense battle at San Francisco’s International Hotel in the late 1970s, have declined to an accept an award that San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee had planned to extend to them as part of a Filipino American History celebration because they are angry about a growing trend of senior evictions.
In a written statement sent to media by board member Tony Robles, the Manilatown Heritage Foundation explained that it couldn't accept the award as long as “elders are being preyed upon, evicted and given a de facto death sentence thereof.”
The Manilatown Heritage Foundation board members were informed by Board of Supervisors President David Chiu that Lee had planned to recognize the I-Hotel as part of an annual cultural history celebration at City Hall, the statement noted. “Part of the occasion was to honor the I-Hotel and its many tenants and activists for its contribution to Filipino American history,” board members explained.
In 1976, the I-Hotel was targeted for demolition, prompting an historic eviction defense battle led by housing activists who rallied to the defense of the impacted tenants. A significant fixture in what was once a predominantly Filipino neighborhood known as Manilatown, the I-Hotel housed 196 tenants, predominantly low-income Filipino immigrants.
“The I-Hotel fight was for dignity and it lived by the premise that housing is a human right,” Manilatown Heritage Foundation members explained in the written statement. “The fight for the I-Hotel galvanized the community around the fight for affordable housing, particularly for seniors—who sacrificed much and on whose shoulders we stand. The fight included tenants, elders, activists, artists and students who recognized that the real estate developers and financial interests were out of control—power unchecked.”
The fight dragged on, at one point more than two thousand people surrounded the building to blockade the doors in an effort to prevent an eviction from going forward. The battle over the I-Hotel also brought on a famous San Francisco episode in which then-Sheriff Richard Hongisto served five days in his own jail for refusing to carry out the eviction order. In the end, the tenants were finally ousted. But the epic battle ultimately helped to produce a different outcome, many years later: The property became the site of low-cost senior housing, complete with a commemorative display in the interior documenting the dramatic I-Hotel fight.
As a young attorney who worked with the Asian Law Caucus, San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee was involved in that fight – as an activist defending tenants’ rights to stay. He frequently referred to this chapter of his personal history while running for mayor in 2011, to demonstrate his sensitivity to concerns about affordable housing.
But now that Lee is well into his mayoral term, a surge of evictions of low-income seniors is worsening on his watch. Tenant defense organizations such as Eviction Free San Francisco are showing up outside landlords' homes and offices to protest eviction notices that threaten to push low-income seniors with few options out of the city. Some evictions have caught the attention of mainstream media, such as the ouster of elderly Chinatown couple Gum Gee Lee and Poor Heung Lee and their disabled daughter, Shiuman Lee.
Some advocates have proposed legislative solutions ; meanwhile, the situation has evidently become so criticial that even city’s Human Services Agency is seeking outside assistance  to provide eviction prevention services for elderly and disabled tenants facing Ellis Act evictions.
And today, the board of the Manilatown Heritage Foundation drew a line in the sand to send Lee a clear message by refusing to accept the honor of recognition in the current housing climate. So far, mayoral spokesperson Christine Falvey has not responded to the Bay Guardian’s request for comment in response to the Manilatown Heritage Foundation's statement.
“Given the current state of San Francisco housing by forces out to make a killing by killing our communities, we as the torch bearers of the I-Hotel struggle and in the memory of its displaced elders and advocates Al Robles, Bill Sorro, Felix Ayson, Wahat Tampao and others, cannot, in good consciousness, accept any honor or award while elders are being preyed upon, evicted and given a de facto death sentence thereof. And it doesn’t matter if the honor is bestowed by Mayor Lee, President Obama or the pope. We have to say no.”