Immigrant tenants led years-long fight to assert San Franciscans’ rights to harassment-free and non-discriminatory housing and language access
Landmark settlement sends message of accountability to San Francisco landlords to respect low-income residents
SAN FRANCISCO – Amid a citywide reckoning with the urgent lack of affordable housing and a growing movement of tenants forced to organize to protect their rights, eight Chinatown Single-Room-Occupancy (SRO) tenants at 1350 Stockton and 371 Broadway and the Community Tenants Association (CTA) have won an unprecedented settlement that asserts their right to live peacefully in the neighborhood and buildings they call home. With support from Advancing Justice – Asian Law Caucus, Legal Assistance to the Elderly, and pro bono counsel, global law firm Ropes & Gray, a small group of low-income Chinese immigrant tenants, all but one of whom are seniors, have won a collective fight to remain in their long-time rent-controlled homes, free from discrimination and harassment by one of San Francisco’s largest SRO management corporations.
As part of a settlement reached in August, the plaintiffs’ side will be paid $618,000 by Samantha Seto, Kelvin Yee, the property management organization Valstock Management, and its related corporations. Valstock Management and the other defendants also committed to changing building management practices that precipitated the lawsuit.
“Many of us have lived in the buildings for a decade or more. We moved there because it was what we could afford. It has also been important for us to live in Chinatown, where we can go about our lives in a community that understands us and where we feel more at home,” said Shao Yan Chen, a 76-year-old resident in 1350 Stockton and one of the plaintiffs. Mr. Chen and his wife rent a small 8 x 10 foot room and share bathrooms and a kitchen with 50 households on their floor. The quarters, although tight, have been their home for almost 13 years. “The harassment started after current management took over the building in late 2016. We were scared we were going to be pushed out. The community showed up to rally with us, but the harassment didn’t stop. I don’t think the landlord thought we would stand up, but we did. I’m proud we spoke out and that the building practices are being corrected moving forward.”
The plaintiffs had alleged that the defendants harassed and discriminated against them, including by:
- threatening and levying $200 fines for longstanding practices like hanging laundry outside windows or leaving shoes outside their doors;
- installing shower timers;
- posting notices telling tenants they had no current lease when they actually did and instructing them to sign new, onerous 40 page leases they could not read or understand;
- confiscating and throwing tenants’ hung laundry in the dumpster, including one tenant’s son’s baby blanket;
- installing surveillance cameras in shared living areas like the kitchen and hallways;
- posting English-only notices on tenants’ doors and refusing to translate or explain them, apart from one line in Chinese that told tenants to go see a lawyer if they did not understand;
- posting notices about supposed rule infractions that included photos of tenants taken with the surveillance cameras;
- and creating a climate of fear in which tenants were scared that anything they did could be used to evict them.
As part of the settlement, Valstock Management committed to ending many of their management practices complained about by the plaintiffs. The settlement stipulates that Valstock must:
- prospectively provide all tenants who have bilingual English and Chinese leases with Chinese translations of all material notices affecting their tenancy;
- end their practice of imposing the disputed $200 and $50 fines on tenants in the two buildings;
- allow plaintiffs to hang dry laundry in their windows so long as they are not fire escapes;
- ensure at least one Chinese-speaking staff member is available at the property management office for all Chinese-speaking tenants who are seeking assistance during office hours;
- provide Chinese-speaking tenants with a dated, written, and bilingual English and Chinese receipt acknowledging their requests for repairs when such a request is made;
- ensure that all management and staff at 1350 Stockton and 371 Broadway attend trainings every two years on fair housing anti-discrimination and anti-harassment requirements, among other measures.
“It has been a long road for these tenants. At every turn they have contended with systems that have operated to shut them out, wear them down, and discourage them from asserting their rights and getting relief. The pandemic didn’t make things any easier,” said Winnie Kao, senior counsel at the Asian Law Caucus. “This case shows that despite all those hurdles, when tenants stand together and persevere, they can win.”
“This case is about the most basic of human needs – being able to live in peace in your own home. Landlords throughout our city should be on notice: you can’t surveil tenants, throw out their clothes, levy exorbitant fines, or engage in other tactics to intimidate and harass,” said Shelby Nacino, staff attorney at Legal Assistance for the Elderly.
“These plaintiff tenants are underdogs. Faced with outright harassment and discrimination, they mustered the courage to sue their landlord, which is daunting for anyone. The tenants’ dedication and hard work in this litigation carried the day, led by a simple message: people should feel safe to live their lives in their own homes. While this result does not fully right a wrong for our plaintiffs, we are pleased with the outcome and are grateful that they were able to persevere through this challenging case,” said Daniel Richards, counsel at Ropes & Gray LLP, who served as co-counsel to plaintiffs.
“Whether we speak Chinese, English, or Spanish, were born in San Francisco or have made it our home, we can join together and make sure all of us have a welcoming, safe and peaceful place to live,” said Mr. Wing Hoo Leung, president of the Community Tenants Association. “From the settlement with Valstock Management to San Francisco tenants’ new union rights, we’re turning the tide and putting people’s well-being ahead of unchecked displacement, discrimination and harassment.”
In 2017, more than 100 people rallied outside the apartment building managed by Valstock Management at 1350 Stockton Street, bringing citywide attention to the corporation’s alleged discrimination and harassment. The Community Tenants Association continues to help Chinatown tenants advocate with their neighbors and hold landlords and management corporations accountable to their rights. In April 2022, San Francisco tenants won their right to form unions at home, and since then tenants at more than 30 buildings managed by another property management company, Veritas, have submitted petitions to form unions.