Housing as Environmental Justice in the East Bay

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Historical Essay

Written by Stephanie Giles, Jerilyn Wu, and Ji-Yoon Han with Marissa Friedman and Maribeth Côté, August 2014


After major successes in Richmond responding to the disproportionate environmental effects caused by the Chevron Oil Refinery, the Asian Pacific Environmental Network and its Laotian Organizing Project spread their efforts to Oakland, where they mobilized against unfair evictions, securing affordable housing, and protecting and reclaiming spaces for the Asian Pacific Islander community in the East Bay. With housing directly impacting the quality of life and health, under their environmental justice work APEN intitiated the Oakland Chinatown Housing Initiative and Power in Asians Organizing to engage pan Asian communities around housing justice and protection of affordable housing.

The fight to win protections for affordable housing, to preserve the right for members to continue living within their communities, and to protest against unfair evictions for renters in order to fight for the basic rights to protect the communities where people live, work, and play in the East Bay were taken on as environmental justice issues by key Bay Area API environmental justice organization Asian Pacific Environmental Network (APEN) and their Laotian Organizing Project (LOP) in the 1990s and 2000s. The environmental justice movement made clear that safe and affordable housing for all was an environmental issue since it directly impacted the quality of life, health, and the general living environment of entire communities. Because API communities in the East Bay were often disproportionately affected by a lack of access to decent and safe housing conditions, APEN and the LOP became key actors in the struggle to address and resolve these inequities.

The major success of the LOP’s first campaign in Richmond, which secured an adequate emergency response system for the local Laotian community whose members were disproportionately affected by environmental contamination from the Chevron Oil Refinery, was a key turning point in the development of a broader environmental justice movement among the Bay Area Asian-Pacific Islander community. The LOP’s early success set the foundation and motivation for APEN to expand the scope of their activism on behalf of marginalized communities in the name of environmental justice. In 2002, LOP initiated their Housing Justice Campaign to address their community’s most pressing issues pertaining to housing in the East Bay. LOP believed that the campaign’s focus on the need for safe and affordable housing reflected environmental justice principles by building democratic participation, holding government and corporations accountable to the people, and demanding justice for communities of color and low-income communities (APEN: 2002, 15).

Working with the API community within Oakland’s Chinatown, the Asian Pacific Environmental Network (APEN) expanded their initial repertoire of direct organizing strategies to incorporate more regional communities in their work and to engage in greater regional policy reform strategies. Through existing familial ties and leadership connections, APEN was able to work off of the foundation LOP laid through their Housing Rights Campaign within Richmond in order to locate a niche for themselves in communities outside Richmond. At the same time LOP launched their Housing Justice Campaign, APEN initiated efforts to expand their organization and community impact in Oakland, realizing that housing was not only the primary concern for the communities in Richmond but also for many communities in Oakland, CA (APEN: 2002, 6). Like the Laotian community in Richmond, Asian communities in Oakland also had limited access to culturally appropriate services, bore higher rates of toxic exposure at work and at home, and lacked access to decision-makers who could impact change (APEN: 2003,1). Not only did Asian communities in the city lack any organizations to support environmental issues surrounding access to and quality of housing, but statistics showed that in some parts of Oakland, housing was an even more serious problem than it was in Richmond. According to U.S. Census data in 2000, while 12% of renters and 4.4% of homeowners were living in severely overcrowded conditions in Richmond, 13.6% of renters and 5.5% of homeowners in Oakland were severely overcrowded (APEN: 2003, 4). Moreover, 58% of occupied housing units in Richmond were contaminated with lead-based paints that could cause severe developmental, behavior, and health problems in children as compared to 71% of occupied housing units in Oakland (APEN: 2003, 4).

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Vivian Chang, APEN Co-founder, discusses APEN's move toward housing rights organizing. Interviewed in May 2014

APEN also recognized that there would be sufficient community resentment and sentiment about the housing situation in Oakland among Asian communities from which to draw on in order to implement a successful mobilization for their project in Oakland. In other words, APEN understood that there would be a sufficient base-building population in Oakland. One event that had already highlighted the potential for the community mobilization in the city was the community protests surrounding the BART Redevelopment Project. In 2006, BART decided to demolish its headquarters and close down the Lake Merritt station plaza, leaving the neighborhood without a vital community space for tai chi, qigong, lion dancing, and other traditional Chinese activities. In response, the community collected over 1500 petition signatures and raised $35,000 to create a public park at Madison Park where residents could continue these activities (Huang, 64). Residents’ reaction to the BART Redevelopment Project demonstrated care and initiative among Oakland residents, which were critical characteristics of a population APEN could successfully organize.

Like Richmond residents, many older Oakland residents also wanted to preserve affordable housing in the existing Oakland Chinese community consolidated around 8th and Webster Streets (Huang, 63). Housing which provided access to services and fostered community were important to recent Chinese immigrants into the East Bay. Vickie Liu, one Oakland Chinatown resident, said, “We’re new immigrants to America and I liked the easy access to public transportation so it was very convenient for me. There was a huge population of Chinese ethnic people that live [in Oakland Chinatown] and it made the adjustment easier for me” (APEN: 2003, 19).

APEN’s Oakland Chinatown Housing initiative served as an umbrella project for a number of successful smaller programs. First was the Oral History Project, where Roy Chan of the Oakland Asian Cultural Center documented the history of Oakland Chinatown. “The reason why we wanted to tell a complete story of the blocks that used to be there is because more recent immigrants do not have any idea of what happened,” said Chan. “The Oakland Chinatown Oral History Project is a way to personalize and humanize the story—to show that these were real homes that were built over the decades and taken away…. We want to equip the community to know its own history and to speak on its own behalf” (Huang, 63).

The second successful Oakland Chinatown project was the utilization and promotion of community engagement strategies. Organizations such as APEN, Asian Health Services (AHS), and East Bay Asian Local Development Corporation (EBALDC) worked to organize community members by conducting over 1000 surveys and engaging them in planning workshops to better identify and articulate community needs and concerns. “Community engagement is definitely important because of the history of these processes in Chinatown,” stated Julia Liou of AHS. “Traditionally, our communities haven’t been part of the planning process. Usually, it’s just a flyer that goes out. So, it’s important to advocate for the needs identified by the community” (Huang, 65).

These steps made by APEN and the LOP set the stage for a new development in the organizing capacity of the API community in Oakland specifically. The Power in Asians Organizing (PAO) Project emerged in 2002 as a means of uniting the varied Asian ethnic communities of Oakland, including Cambodians, Filipinos, Vietnamese, Chinese, and Laotians (APEN: 2008, 1). Notably, in November 2002, PAO registered, educated, and turned out Asian immigrant voters to win both a city initiative to protect renters against unfair evictions and Proposition 46, a state-wide housing bond that allocated $2.1 billion for affordable housing and housing assistance (Huang, 1). Through PAO's initial organizing drive, it became clear that APIs in Oakland wanted change and were motivated to get involved. Surveyed residents identified safe and affordable housing as their primary concern, resulting in a core of sixty community activists who have begun to take on tenant's rights and affordable housing in the area. In just a few years, with a membership of 400 families and thirty-five leaders, PAO has grown to be one of the largest base-building organizations in Oakland (APEN: 2008,1).

PAO has successfully protected low-income housing in Oakland through two different initiatives. The first was the Housing Justice Campaign, where, in early 2003, PAO launched their campaign for increased affordable housing rights and developer accountability in low-income communities. PAO leaders built “community support around issues of gentrification, residential conditions, and housing affordability,” and “played a critical role in stopping the Pacific Renaissance Plaza Chinatown evictions in 2003” (APEN: 2008). The Pacific Renaissance Plaza within Chinatown was built in 1993 as a redevelopment project, which provided fifty rental units. In 2003, the tenants of these fifty rental units were faced with eviction notices but many of these tenants were of old age and of poor health. APEN successfully lobbied for an end to the evictions and secured 100 low-income units in Chinatown (APEN: 2008, 1).

The second successful campaign was the Oak to the 9th Affordable Housing Project. This campaign focused on securing affordable housing at Oak and 9th, a large, local housing development project “located in the heart of PAO’s organizing area.” With 2,000 residential units proposed, “this was the largest housing development to hit Oakland since World War II. PAO recognized Oak to 9th as a key opportunity to ensure the Housing Development Project me[t] the community’s need for affordable housing and prevent[ed] further gentrification of immigrant communities” (APEN: 2008, 1).

APEN and the LOP’s role in developing the Oakland Chinatown Housing Project and the Power in Asians Organizing (PAO) Project allowed these organizations to grow their communities' membership base and create a larger impact in the Bay Area. The ever-growing network of organizations and initiatives with links to APEN and the environmental justice movement in the East Bay reveal that there remains a pressing need for more policy- and community-based solutions to the environmental justice crises in the Bay Area (APEN: 2008, 1).


APEN. “APEN Voices: Moments in a Movement.”APEN 2002 Annual Report. 6,1: 1-40.

APEN. "Power in Asians Organizing." Asian Pacific Environmental Network. APEN, 2008.

APEN. “Strengthening the Roots.” Oakland: APEN, 2003. Print.

Huang, Vivian. "Building Transit Oriented Community in Oakland’s Chinatown." Race, Poverty & the Environment 1st ser. 18 (2011): 63-88.