April 16, 2012

By Sam Tepperman-Gelfant

According to a recent article in the San Francisco Chronicle about the redevelopment of Oakland’s historic Chinatown, residents have two options: create economic prosperity by “going upscale” or continue to provide affordable housing for “the working folk who’ve made Chinatown what it is today.”

That’s a false dichotomy. There’s no reason why the neighborhood can’t prosper economically and continue to provide affordable homes for lower-income people. In fact, the strong and vibrant community that has called Chinatown “home” for generations provides the strongest foundation for economic revitalization. As the Chronicle article notes, the empty storefronts and closed restaurants in the neighborhood were caused by the Great Recession, not affordable housing. Ensuring that new development in Chinatown includes affordable housing and other community benefits is essential to maintaining the vibrancy and economic heart of the neighborhood.

The Asian Pacific Environmental Network (APEN), one of our outstanding partners in Oakland, effectively advocates for economic growth that lifts up all residents, including low-income Asian Pacific Islander communities. They are doing great work to maintain Chinatown as an economically diverse and inclusive neighborhood.

APEN’s work is supported by recent research by PolicyLink, a national research and action institute advancing economic and social equity. They did extensive research into the relationship between growth and equity, concluding in California’s Tomorrow: Equity Is the Superior Growth Model that:

Inequality is not only bad for those at the bottom of the income spectrum — it places everyone’s economic future at risk. Countries with greater income equality have more sustained economic growth: A recent study by International Monetary Fund economists found that every 10 percent increase in equality increased the length of a country’s growth periods by 50 percent. State and national economies are ultimately made up of regional economies, and research, including by economists at the Cleveland Federal Reserve, has shown that greater economic and racial equality in regions also corresponds with more robust growth.

Too often, these facts are overlooked. In the Chronicle article, a Chinatown real estate broker is quoted as saying, “It’s not that I’m against affordable housing … But that housing could be built somewhere else.” Unfortunately, this attitude is typical of people in all communities who are opposed to affordable housing and equitable development. It’s also completely backward — if we want to revitalize communities, encourage economic prosperity and maximize opportunity for everyone, we should be working to increase affordable housing options everywhere, not coming up with excuses about why it shouldn’t be built in our community.

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