In Defense of Asian American Neighborhoods

How do you address a history of anti-Asian housing discrimination? Not by destroying Asian American communities.

Demonstrators protest evictions in Oakland. Photo courtesy of Just Cities

In May, Stop AAPI Hate reported a 74 percent jump in hate incidents against Asian Americans from the previous year. Most of these incidents occurred in public spaces—streets and parks—and have even resulted in the tragic deaths of elders who were killed as they were walking while Asian American. Media reports of this rising violence has awakened many Americans to the racism Asian Americans face. But racial violence, including expulsion from one’s home, against Asian Americans is not a new phenomenon. It has been part of the defining experience of Asian Americans for 170 years. 

For instance, in 2003, 50 predominantly low-income Asian immigrant seniors in Oakland, California’s Chinatown received eviction notices and had no place to go.

In 1986, 21 Cambodian Americans in Revere, Massachusetts, were burned out of their homes by hate crime arson.

In 1977, San Francisco riot police entered San Francisco’s I Hotel to forcibly evict all of its tenants, most of whom were low-income elderly Filipinos.

In 1942, 120,000 Japanese Americans, most of whom were U.S. citizens, were forcibly removed from their homes and incarcerated in prison camps, without any due process.

From the 1900s to the 1960s, racially restrictive housing covenants in many cities including throughout California, Seattle, Minneapolis, and Boston, targeted Chinese and Japanese Americans along with Black Americans.

In 1880, an angry mob violently destroyed Denver’s Chinatown and attacked Chinese residents, including lynching one person.

That our summary listing from the annals of Asian American experiences of racist exclusion and violence may be news for some readers speaks to the erasure of Asian Americans from U.S. history and our collective racial consciousness.

As our nation embarks on the current iteration of racial reckoning, understanding the long history of racial exclusion against Asian Americans should not be left out of the discussion. That long history of racialized oppression forced our ancestors into ethnic enclaves, both by law but also for community and self-preservation. Today the laws are different, as they should be, but for many Asian Americans, ethnic enclaves still provide essential places, especially in the context of periodic rises in anti-Asian American hate, as we’re sadly experiencing today. The ability to access the sense of belonging as well as concrete services is under attack by the forces of displacement and well-intentioned but misguided “race-neutral” housing policies.

Why Ethnic Enclaves Are Essential Places 

Racist and misogynistic laws excluded and denied Asian Americans the right to home and belonging from their first day in America. The first federal immigration law, the 1875 Page Act, specifically targeted women and laborers from “China, Japan, or any Oriental country.” Seven years later, the Chinese Exclusion Act and later the Immigration Act of 1924 suspended immigration of all Chinese and other Asians. These racist laws were not fully eliminated until the 1965 Immigration Act.

[RELATED ARTICLE: How CDCs Are Fighting Back Against Anti-Asian Harassment]

At the local level, racist ordinances and planning practices forced Asian Americans into overcrowded enclaves—forming Chinatowns, Japantowns, and Manilatowns. Local racial segregation laws and their progeny, racial housing covenants, targeted Asians, along with Black and Latinx people. In fact, in analyzing racial housing covenants in Oakland, California, we at Just Cities found that Asians were the only racial group targeted by 100 percent of the covenants. Subsequent redlining practices affected Asian Americans residing in neighborhoods deemed “less desirable”—a historical fact rarely mentioned.

While these neighborhoods were originally created, devalued, and kept by racist practices, they also in many ways protected their residents from constant subjection to anti-Asian American racism. Residents had cultural and language access to basic needs like health care, books, food, and cultural art; a jobs network; and gathering places to meet friends. This is why, even after racial segregation laws were overturned, latter day immigrants and refugees have continued to form ethnic enclaves, including Little Saigons, Koreatowns, and Thai Towns.

Ethnic enclaves also serve as essential cultural touchstones for people of color who may not physically live in them but come for the food, cultural events, and people that connect them with their cultural heritage. They function as the roots of belonging for people who are told 1,000 times a day through micro and macroaggressions that they will always be foreigners in a strange land, regardless of their service to America or how long our families live here.


Today, Asian American people are still not safe in public spaces, and in fact the danger has heightened. And yet, the spaces that our ancestors created to claim our right to belong in this country that we helped build and the spaces of sanctuary for people escaping war and violence are becoming extinct. According to a 2012 Pew Research Center report, only an estimated 11 percent of Asian Americans live in a census tract in which Asian Americans are a majority.

Housing policies and advocates that focus solely on the financial bottom line to the exclusion of community and history are making things worse.

“Race-Neutral” Policies Can Cause Root Shock, Racial Displacement

Across our nation, as once abandoned urban centers have become “discovered” by a wealthier and whiter population, the community development world has rightly concerned itself with gentrification and racialized displacement of Black and Latinx residents. However, rarely is the displacement of low-income Asian Americans discussed or prioritized by our field. The erasure of the following stories and others perpetuates the history of racial exclusion of Asian Americans.

Activists used bright fliers such as this to raise awareness of evictions occurring in Chinatown against elderly tenants. Photo courtesy of Just Cities

In 2003, when Oakland was going through its first dot-com housing boom, the low-income elderly and predominantly Asian American (Chinese and Vietnamese) residents of Pacific Renaissance Plaza’s affordable housing units in the heart of Oakland Chinatown all received eviction notices from their landlord, a multinational corporation. These 50 units of affordable housing had been a concession from the City of Oakland to community organizing after the loss of 30 percent of Chinatown’s affordable housing stock to public and private development projects. Because of its proximity to downtown Oakland, housing in Chinatown was becoming scarce and unaffordable due to then-Mayor Jerry Brown’s plan to develop downtown as a haven for San Francisco tech workers.

The Pacific Renaissance tenants were terrified of having to move from their homes and their community. Living under the stress of potential evictions tragically contributed to the deaths of several of the elderly tenants who were trying to remain in their homes: they experienced root shock. As Dr. Mindy Fullilove’s research reveals, just like plants that die when they are uprooted from the ecosystems they once thrived in, so too are the physical and mental health of vulnerable people at stake when uprooted from the communities in which they feel safe, seen, and valued.

Many of the Pacific Renaissance elderly tenants relied on the culturally and linguistically accessible health care, food, and other services of that community for their basic human needs. They were also surrounded by friends and people who treated them with respect and dignity, rather than the racism they experienced in mainstream society. Community leaders, including co-author Margaretta Lin, who understood the life-or-death consequences for the elderly immigrant tenants, organized and fought for the human rights of the Pacific Renaissance elders to remain in their homes and community.

However, some affordable housing finance leaders opposed public funding to preserve the affordable housing units in Chinatown. Instead, they argued that it was cheaper to move the Pacific Renaissance tenants elsewhere or build new units at a cheaper location, far away from Chinatown. Opposition from these housing leaders, who had influence with city government, undermined community efforts. Though well-intentioned, these people did not understand how the race-neutral positions they took based solely on the financial bottom line perpetuated a long history of racial exclusion and dehumanization, and the associated human costs.

It took four years of protracted litigation, the support of leaders at the East Bay Asian Local Development Corporation, and political change in City Hall, before justice was finally realized. The 50 units were preserved as long-term affordable homeownership and additional public funds committed to build new affordable rental units in Chinatown. However, justice delayed is justice denied. By then, only 1 of the original 50 families remained. All the other tenants had either died or left, too scared by the prospect of being evicted overnight.

Unfortunately, the story of Oakland Chinatown is not unique. Other Asian American ethnic enclaves across the nation have experienced erosion due to changes that have attracted higher-income residents into historically disinvested neighborhoods, making it harder for existing residents to remain.

In San Francisco, California, the predominantly low-income, elderly, Filipino tenants of the International Hotel (I-Hotel) fought a nine-year anti-eviction battle including against City Hall. The development of San Francisco’s financial district throughout the 1960s had displaced once-thriving Filipino enclaves, with the I-Hotel remaining as a symbolic last stand. Despite community organizing, in 1977 all of the residents—196 people—were evicted through police force. Later community organizing resulted in the site ultimately being developed for affordable housing in 2005, but by then many original residents had already been displaced from San Francisco.

In the 1980s, many refugee Cambodians had settled in Revere, Massachusetts, but were met with racial discrimination, hate, and violence, including the burning of their homes. The local government failed to adequately respond to their problems. Despite community organizing efforts including protests at City Hall, the violence and racism did not stop. The lack of institutional support continued when Revere underwent land redevelopment, which priced out and displaced Cambodian Americans from their homes. In 1990, there were 3,000 Cambodian Americans residing in Revere.  By 2000, more than half of Revere’s Cambodian American population had left.

Uptown Chicago, a historically diverse neighborhood with a significant Southeast Asian American population, has undergone gentrification and displacement of people of color because of the lack of affordable housing and the new market-rate housing developments that increased rents in the area. Today, Southeast Asian businesses in the West Argyle Historic District, also known as Asia in Argyle, are struggling to stay open amid a combination of COVID-19 and disruptive transit modernization projects in the area.

Housing industry practices that are “race neutral,” meaning they do not acknowledge any differential conditions or needs that have resulted from a history of racism, contribute to the displacement of longtime residents in ethnic enclaves, including Asian Americans.

First, as the Oakland Pacific Renaissance housing example demonstrates, when determination of “feasibility” for locating or preserving affordable housing projects prioritizes the financial costs, and not strong considerations of the human impacts and cultural needs of a community, the outcomes can result in racialized harm to low-income communities of color, including Asian Americans.

Second, as evidenced by an Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF) study, market-based housing strategies pursued by local governments and CDCs that allow for luxury housing development with inclusionary zoning policies that result in negligible affordable housing units “has often weakened existing housing and networks rather than strengthening current resources and infrastructure.” The AALDEF study found that from 1990 to 2010, Asian Americans went from a majority to a minority of the Chinatown populations in Boston, New York, and Philadelphia. While housing costs skyrocketed in all three Chinatowns, the median household income of Asians in Boston and New York City Chinatowns actually declined while the median household income of non-Hispanic whites increased. In Boston’s Chinatown, the median household income of Asians decreased from $16,820 in 2000 to $13,057 between 2005 and 2009 while the median household income of non-Hispanic Whites increased during this time period from $40,554 to $84,255. Meanwhile, rents had escalated by 103 percent during this time period. In NYC Chinatown, the median household income of Asians decreased from $31,368 in 2000 to $29,524 in 2006 to 2010 while the median household income of non-Hispanic Whites increased during this time period from $35,904 to $58,265. Meanwhile, rents had escalated by 59 percent. As the AALDEF study concluded, justifying the development of luxury housing projects on the basis of “inclusionary” zoning only perpetuates racialized displacement.

Third, the prevalent use of “metropolitan area” median household income, instead of utilizing “neighborhood level area” income, in determining affordability levels for new housing projects, results in longtime lower-income residents being priced out of “affordable” housing in their own communities. This is a problem for affordable housing developments in all low-income neighborhoods in gentrifying/gentrified cities, including Asian American ethnic enclaves that are physically located near downtowns or other desirable locations. For example, in San Francisco in 2018, rents for affordable housing units were being set to be affordable to a family of four making $80,000 when families in Chinatown were only making $30,000 or $20,000.

Housing and planning leaders must also address structural racism against Asian Americans along with other communities of color, including the failure to disaggregate Asian American population data at the ethnicity level, which lumps in low-income Cambodian refugee families with higher income East Asian tech workers. It masks the unknown reality that Asian Americans have the highest growing rate of income inequality of any racial group in America. Removing this racial blind spot would result in prioritizing the housing needs of low-income Asian Americans.

How Restorative Justice in Planning Can Help 

In the search for solutions that advance racial inclusion and belonging, we turn to the framework of restorative justice and apply it to the housing and planning arena. We do this because America’s long and ignoble history and present-day existence of racism require tools that account for history, understand today’s manifestations of that history, and repair—rather than perpetuate—harm.

According to Restorative Justice for Oakland Youth, restorative justice asks three main questions:

1. Who was harmed?

2. What are the needs and responsibilities of all affected?

3. How do all parties affected together address the needs and repair the harm?

In answering the first question of who was harmed, we need government and housing and community development organizations to understand and care about the history, housing conditions, and needs of lower-income Asian Americans. Our exclusion from “the circle of human concern” must end.

In understanding “the needs and responsibilities of all affected,” government and housing planners should utilize transformative planning principles to safeguard against planning blind spots. This would mean inviting low-income residents of all races and ethnicities to co-design the types of housing and community development projects, the affordability levels, and ultimate locations. For those who may argue that investing in ethnic enclaves furthers racial segregation, we say that there is a profound difference between historic racial segregation laws and today’s ethnic enclaves—it boils down to the human right to choose where one lives. We can both build low-income housing in more affluent neighborhoods and also preserve and build in ethnic enclaves.

Responding to the third question of “all affected parties working together,” public and private collaborations are key. 

For instance, in south Los Angeles, Esperanza Community Housing Corporation’s transformative planning initiatives have resulted in projects like the Mercado La Paloma Project, which provides a home for local businesses, business development assistance, a public health center, and affordable spaces for cultural and community organizations and events.

California’s Strategic Growth Council’s recent $28.2 million Transformative Climate Communities grant awarded to East Oakland neighborhoods also exemplify the practice of transformative planning. The recent state grant will invest in priorities identified by longtime Black residents in Oakland California’s East Oakland ethnic enclaves—affordable housing, anti-displacement strategies, and other community priorities.

We should consider restorative justice in planning as a form of reparations for a long ignoble history of racial exclusion and government-sanctioned violence against communities of color, including Asian Americans.

 In the words of Asian American musicians Magnetic North and Taiyo Na:

We’re still here.

We’re going strong.

And we’re getting tired of proving we belong.

We Belong ’21, Magnetic North and Taiyo Na

Margaretta Wan-Ling Lin is the founding director of Just Cities, an urban justice planning and policy firm. She also teaches racial and restorative justice in planning and public policy at the University of California, Berkeley.
Kelly Wong is the project coordinator at Just Cities. Wong was born and raised in the Bay Area, and graduated from UC Berkeley with degrees in urban studies and Asian American and Asian Diaspora Studies.
Victoria Haworth currently serves as a research associate at Just Cities. Haworth holds degrees in urban studies and economics from UC Berkeley.

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