Director of Community Real Estate Karoleen Feng's Speech at HUD's Asian American Pacific Islander Month Celebration

Director of Community Real Estate Karoleen Feng’s Speech at HUD’s Asian American Pacific Islander Month Celebration


Unite Our Mission By Engaging Each Other:
Inclusion, Leadership, Persistence, Relationships, Effort & Dedication

As we reflect as a community today on our Asian American Pacific Islander community’s place and future in the Bay Area, in California and across the land, let’s first remember to applaud our diversity — and our longtime contributions to this country.

I am a proud Chinese American. I was born in the United States, but at the age of six my parents chose reverse migration and moved me back to Asia so we could all be closer to my grandparents. Migration — forced or of our own volition — for three generations has figured prominently in my family’s trajectory. I grew up in Singapore, a small Asian island nation most recently known as the location for the blockbuster, “Crazy Rich Asians.” Additionally, Singapore is known for its strong government controls and regulations.

As I reflect on the ask to “Unite Our Mission by Engaging Each Other,” that ask is very relevant to how I have approached my work. I started my career in urban planning and, ultimately, community development because of what I saw in my own childhood. Growing up in a neighborhood and in a city where the Singaporean government upheld their social compact by establishing and strengthening social and economic supports translated to my being afforded a safe home, access to quality neighborhood schools and ease of transit accessibility via low-cost passes for youth.

Also, my parents had access to stable jobs in a place where the diversity of various Asian and religious cultures was not just respected, but celebrated.

These values reflect the lens through which I today define my life’s work.

In the United States, things are definitely different. While over 80 percent of Singaporeans live in social housing — quality social housing based on a compact between residents and the government — in the U.S. affordable housing, a term which I also use to include public housing, is a mere drop in the bucket.

We know while that the AAPI community stretches across many income strata, quality housing that is affordable stabilizes all lives and all communities. When you are low income — and even middle income, in many parts of this country — housing is usually your number one issue, and a source of daily stress.

While those in the audience today may have come from different paths to be here at HUD, I hope that, like me, you believe that housing should be a right and not a privilege.

Place also matters. Where we call home, and how that then continues to define our identity and allow us to celebrate our heritage, cannot be understated.

Professionally, I have been in urban planning and affordable housing for close to 20 years, with a decade of that time in a pair of AAPI-focused community organizations: East Bay Asian Local Development Corporation (EBALDC) in Oakland; and Little Tokyo Service Center in Los Angeles. While at EBALDC, we rebuilt Oakland Chinatown’s voice as a central place of that city’s cultural heritage. We were compelled to have ongoing challenging, and often long, conversations with local government and BART, who failed to understand the meaning of place for the AAPI community in Oakland — and how displacement was further destroying our community fabric. With our tireless efforts, EBALDC is now building housing directly above BART, at what used to only be known as the Lake Merritt BART Station, so our low-income families can stay rooted in the neighborhood in which they live, work and play.

We know we are many identities. I identify strongly with my AAPI heritage. I am also a resident of my community. That is what brought me beyond simply building place for the AAPI community, as I more deeply engaged in the place where my spouse, five-year-old daughter and I have chosen to live. San Francisco’s Mission District, which I have called home for over a decade, has seen the dramatic rise and loss of the Mission as a neighborhood of opportunity for our low- and middle-income families. By the 1970s, families were able to choose to come in after redlining — particularly Latino immigrants and Native American peoples as well as those seeking to define their identity. They were able to find low-cost housing in a neighborhood adjacent to Downtown. With fair housing, families could rent and/or buy homes and set up businesses with the protections of government agencies, such as HUD, calling out blatantly discriminatory practices. Conversely, in the last two economic cycles, we have lost those gains. We have seen higher-income newcomers actively use their power and privilege to push out Latinx and African American residents from their longtime homes. The numbers tell the dire story: We saw 25 percent of the Mission’s Latino population lost — that’s 8,000 residents displaced to the far-flung reaches of the Bay Area and beyond. This displacement has been well-documented and oft debated — as have the solutions to such unprecedented gentrification. It’s easy to say that urban neighborhoods inevitably change, but that is a passive response to an urgent crisis. It also conveniently overlooks the intersection of power and privilege with race and ethnicity of those who are displacing versus those being displaced.

Six years ago, I went from being a longtime Board member to becoming staff at Mission Economic Development Agency (MEDA) a nonprofit whose vision is for families and their future generations to call San Francisco their permanent home. Over time, MEDA has expanded to meet the changing needs of Latino families in the Mission District, San Francisco and beyond. For over 40 years, MEDA helped build family wealth for our over 7,400 clients; however that proved to not be enough when housing insecurity became ubiquitous for our clients. That’s why in 2014 MEDA decided to step up to the challenge and lead the response to the housing crisis in the Mission — a major pivot — by uniting with our allies in the neighborhood. Evolving from being a service provider that relied heavily on government contracts to a comprehensive community-development organization and anchor institution has required honest and hard conversations, both internally and externally. For instance, we took our first leap into affordable housing development just five years ago in response to the CIty’s request for nonprofit developers to transfer public housing from the San Francisco Housing Authority using the Rental Assistance Demonstration Program, called RAD for short. As a trusted nonprofit that was known for being innovative and meeting clients where they are at, this was also our first housing development ever. As you know, the program leverages private capital to preserve and improve public housing and address a multibillion-dollar nationwide backlog of deferred maintenance.

We had many honest and challenging conversations about not just looking at this as a housing development, but how we could truly uplift the lives of the disenfranchised seniors and disabled residents in the 439 homes in five buildings comprising what the City calls the Mission/Castro Cluster. MEDA took the taboo and potentially traumatic issue of relocation and flipped it to actively build the trust of residents.

The first step was scheduling consistent community meetings to keep all residents in the loop about what would be happening to the property’s common areas and their own apartments. There were also one-on-one consultations, on an as-need basis, to allay individual tenant concerns.

We refined the building-wide and personal interactions to our “cohort approach,” so that when a specific phase of rehab was taking place all residents in that group were convened to discuss their relocation. This created empathy for the situation, and less feeling alone. It was also the early steps to establishing a community among the tenants. To make this happen, we had to push the City and the San Francisco Housing Authority to include expenses, such as a resident engagement coordinator –something not typically in a building’s budget for capital improvements.

With the coordinator, tenants were engaged in specific issues that mattered to them, such as common areas of the property, as a way to give residents ownership. For example, we had meeting three-quarters of the way through the rehabilitation at our 255 Woodside RAD property, as residents chose new furniture for the community room and collaborated on how to optimize that space for activities. A discussion was also held around what plants should be part of the landscaping, including having an edible garden near the barbecue. The residents also provided input on alternative construction methods, building colors and artwork that now adorns common-area walls.

These simple but powerful ways of community engagement translated to community ownership. The exciting news is that all five developments have been fully rehabbed, so our seniors — the majority people of color, including many from the AAPI community — can age in place with dignity.

My role at MEDA is to spearhead such strategies that tackle housing insecurity by offering an aggressive, comprehensive and complex continuum of housing solutions that address displacement and the rebuilding of community.

Leveraging our RAD work, MEDA started preserving affordable housing another way, this time via the City of San Francisco’s Small Sites Program, which allows nonprofits to stem prospective displacement by purchasing apartment buildings with residents and commercial tenants vulnerable to no-fault eviction by speculators. To date, MEDA owns 23 such buildings, with 187 units preserved as affordable.

To complement the preservation of housing is the production of brand-new affordable housing. MEDA now has five new constructions developments in the pipeline in the Mission, with four showcasing below-market-rate apartments and one for affordable homeownership. These 557 units will become home to seniors, transitional-aged youth and families, many of these group members formerly homeless. Three developments have already broken ground, with one of those (our 94 units at 1296 Shotwell) ready by the end of this year for move-in for 94 senior households.

All told, that’s 1,183 homes preserved or produced for a low-income, immigrant community of color.

I am well aware of the challenge of the model in the U.S. necessitating a combining of a government compact with community ownership. Without community owning a “place,” it runs the risk of being disenfranchised and, potentially, displaced.

What is needed? Stable housing, especially ownership of homes. Access to non-displacement capital. Community schools as anchors.

The next step is political power, which is impossible without an established place. Making one’s voice heard is essential in all communities of color, so that entrenched systems that foster inequity can be broken down.

MEDA continues to unite with our allies for legislation locally at City Hall, statewide in Sacramento and nationally in Washington D.C. to protect the gains made since redlining for the Mission as a community of color. Throughout the Bay Area, we have that continued challenge. Sensitive communities of color, the Mission District, West Oakland, Fruitvale District, East Palo Alto … the list goes on and on … where with rapid gentrification, communities of color are being pushed out. Bold state-level moves to build more affordable housing and social supports must always be sensitive our urban, suburban and rural communities where people of color have found homes and defined place.

While my work today is focused on the low-income Latino community, I know there is all too often inequity and an opportunity gap for other groups, such as for far too many of our AAPI community members. So, let’s be sure to not work in silos; instead, let’s all promise to have our own challenging conversations, as we work together to see what solutions can be applied unilaterally so that everyone has a chance at the American dream.

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