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Cross-Cultural Unity for Decent Housing

east lake oakland housing tenants rights slumlord

Lessons from fights past can stir us to continue pressing for housing rights. In the late 1990s, a mixed immigrant community banded together and won a lawsuit against an Oakland slumlord.  On Saturday, Locally Grown Docs at the New Parkway Theater screened Oak Park, a short film chronicling the struggles of largely Cambodian and Mexican tenants in Oakland’s San Antonio neighborhood against extreme property negligence.  They won their suit in 2000, and the film wrapped in 2010. But the housing struggle in a landlord’s market resonates strongly today.

Oak Park, named after the collapsing Oakland apartment complex, documents the abject conditions tenants fought to resolve. These included rot, infestation, leaks, mold and their ensuing health consequences. In multiple languages, tenants recount waking up in puddles of raw sewage. (The production required ample translation to capture voices from a microcosm of Oakland’s most diverse neighborhood).

Watching the battle, I was both humbled and inspired that these tenants fought back in spite — or in the face — of traumas and fears from their different immigrant experiences.

During the post-screening Q&A, writer, director and c0-producer Valerie Soe emphasized that the win didn’t happen overnight. “It took four years. So the lesson for today is that it’s important to work at it. People can persevere. There’s no really quick answer.  I’m hoping the film can be an inspiration. Even though it was a long slog, there can be a positive outcome.” One of the organizations cited in the film as helping tenants in their struggle was East Bay Asian Local Development Corporation, EBALDC.

“We didn’t see the problems,” said Ryan, a former Oak Park resident attending the screening. It wasn’t until they learned about their rights as tenants from Oak Park organizers that they rose up. Ryan’s lesson for us: “If you work as one, you can overcome a lot of things.”

Chatting with Soe after the screening, I asked about the implications of the lawsuit. She answered that what the film doesn’t cover is how much it changed policy and practice for tenants rights. A faculty member of SFSU’s Asian American Studies Department, her films center on identity, culture, mass media, and activism, primarily within the Asian American community.

Filmmakers of another Locally Grown Docs pick, Dogs of the 9th Ward, consider turning their lenses locally with a new film idea  – the gentrification of Northwest Berkeley.

Meanwhile, Soe turns to lighter fare with her next project, the Taiwanese Love Boat, an “educational exchange” program for college students in the ’80s and ’90s “where there were a lot of hook ups.” She asks anyone who may know people who were passengers, parents or offspring or even affiliates of the love boat to contact her. vsoe@sfsu.edu

Mural photo credit – Flickr, Quinn Dumbrowki

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