Commentary

Living with rent control, from someone who grew up in rent-controlled housing | Column

October 13, 2021 6:01 am

October 9, 2021-Saint Paul, Minnesota, USA: An apartment building at the corner of Capitol Heights and Winter Street in Capitol Heights. St. Paul will vote on a rent control measure in November. Photo by Henry Pan/Minnesota Reformer.

I grew up in San Francisco, raised by low-income Chinese immigrants in a building where every unit is rent-controlled. San Francisco has had rent control since the late 1970s. Last year, California adopted rent control statewide, covering buildings built within the past 15 years. Although I struggled with growing up in a rent-controlled unit, I appreciate its role in molding me into what I am today.

My family settled in our apartment in 1992, shortly after my mother immigrated to the United States from southern China. The apartment — which my family still rents today, is near San Francisco’s Chinatown. It was small, about 300 square feet. 

Living there was chaotic. Three of us shared a bedroom, while one of us slept in the living room. We didn’t have a lot of privacy. My parents had a tendency to throw my things away without permission. My dad threatened to move out on his own when I was in high school because of how crowded it was. My brother and I fought a lot. We haven’t spoken in over six years. 

I struggled with depression and was also desperate to leave. I not only withdrew, but I also spent my time volunteering and attending meetings without a plan, because I thought that’s how one gets into a good college. I got into one school outside of the Bay Area, but couldn’t afford tuition. So I stayed for five more years after high school, and after being dissuaded by family members from studying journalism, I studied urban planning and got involved in transit advocacy while I lived at home. I eventually moved here for a land use planning internship. 

Moving out and buying a home was part of my family’s plan, but we were quickly priced out of the San Francisco housing market during the first dot-com boom. About a decade later, with rents rapidly rising, the apartment that we lived in would be the only form of housing that we could afford. 

Leaving that apartment would mean leaving San Francisco for good because we couldn’t afford anything in the city. The city had a hard time building back housing that it lost in the 60s and 70s when it underwent a redevelopment-fueled demolition spree. It’s near impossible to build anything besides a single-family home in many parts of the city. Neighborhoods with more affluent residents preferred to build something that did not obstruct their exclusive and beloved views with the land they had. 

So developers bought longstanding rent-controlled buildings, evicted the inhabitants, gutted and renovated them, and converted them into “tenancies-in-common,” which are like condos but aren’t legally recognized as such. An elderly couple and their disabled daughter near where I lived were evicted in 2013, and many more predominately-elderly tenants of rent-controlled housing died while fighting for their right to stay in their homes. 

Meanwhile, the federal government also neglected the public housing agency, leading it to gradually downsize and eventually turn the remainder over to nonprofits that manage it today. Lately, buildings in general have also become very expensive to build.  

In 2000, my parents bought a home in the suburbs two hours away to realize their dream of providing all of us a stable place to live. 

We never made the move before I left for Minnesota. My dad wanted to stay at his restaurant job because, even though he used to spend up to 12 hours a day, six days a week, commuting to and working at a restaurant far north of the city in Marin County, the pay was steady and reliable. My mom later found union hotel work downtown that made up the lion’s share of my family’s income, which could tank if we were to move and work in the suburbs. Both still work those jobs today, and they spend part of their time in the suburbs.

I remembered visiting my family out there for the first time this May. As I wandered into the big, airy, echoey home with new cherry wood floors, I wondered what life would have been like if we moved out here growing up. Would I even be here today, writing this story for you to read? I’ve always been eager to move around and see different things, so I think I would probably be bored easily, perhaps even more depressed. But my parents appear to be relieved that they have more room, as well as a garden to grow vegetables. 

I’m thankful for growing up in San Francisco, and that rent control allowed me to do that for the first 23 years of my life. Without rent control, I never would have been able to develop an appreciation for the transit system I grew up riding, or the hills I grew up hiking, or understand the values for which people protest on the street, and bring those experiences to bear on the reporting I bring to you.

I’m also thankful for never having to experience homelessness growing up, let alone moving around frequently, because our family, despite our meager earnings, were able to afford to stay for as long as we could amid rising housing costs.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Henry Pan
Henry Pan

Henry Pan (pronouns: They/He/佢/他) is a Twin Cities-based journalist, cartographer and photographer passionate about human interests and all things transportation. They have a background in urban planning, a disdain for Minnesota Nice, and a penchant for solitude, transit and bicycle joyrides.

MORE FROM AUTHOR