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Chinatown Tenants Take On Landlord Harassment

September 8, 2021 Perspective

Author

Winifred Kao

Winifred Kao

Senior Counsel, Impact Litigation & Senior Staff Attorney, Workers' Rights

Winifred Kao

Senior Counsel, Impact Litigation & Senior Staff Attorney, Workers' Rights

Winifred Kao is Senior Counsel for Impact Litigation at ALC. She also leads ALC’s Workers’ Rights Program. She served as ALC’s Litigation Director from 2011 – 2020 during which time she helped provide direction and support on ALC’s impact litigation across program areas. Prior to coming to ALC, Winnie worked at a union-side labor and employment law firm where she primarily represented hotel, restaurant and food and commercial workers and unions in a wide variety of labor, employment, constitutional, and class-action cases. Winnie was previously a trial attorney for the United States Department of Justice Civil Rights Division where she litigated housing and public accommodation discrimination cases. She also served on detail as a Special Assistant United States Attorney in the Sex Offense and Domestic Violence Section of the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Washington, DC, and was an extern for the Honorable Gladys Kessler in the US District Court for the District of Columbia. Winnie has worked as a community organizer for labor and civil rights groups. She is a graduate of Yale College and the University of Michigan Law School where she was a member of the Michigan Law Review.

She has won commendations and awards for her work from numerous organizations including the National Asian Pacific American Bar Association, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum, the U.S. Department of Justice, and the University of Michigan Law School.

Lolita Fernandes

Lolita Fernandes

Program Manager and Staff Attorney, Housing Rights

Lolita Fernandes

Program Manager and Staff Attorney, Housing Rights

Lolita Fernandes is Staff Attorney and Program Manager of the Housing Rights program at ALC. Prior to joining ALC, Lolita worked at Bay Area Legal Aid as a Senior Staff Attorney in their Housing Preservation team that focused on the representation of subsidized housing tenants in unlawful detainer actions and administrative hearings. Lolita has provided trainings for law students, attorneys and housing providers in topics like eviction defense, and VAWA protections for survivors.

Lolita began her legal education in India and immigrated to the United States in 2010 and completed her LL.M. at the University of Southern California. Lolita then served several years as volunteer counsel with legal aid nonprofits before joining the Eviction Defense Collaborative as a Staff Attorney. She received the 2012 volunteer of the year award from Eviction Defense Collaborative and the 2016 pro-bono attorney of the year award from the California State Bar for providing direct legal services to low-income tenants in SF.

Going all the way back to our origins in 1970s, we’ve represented San Francisco Chinatown tenants, many of whom are elderly immigrants, in major cases against racial profiling, unconstitutional arrests, and illegal landlord harassment and displacement.

Fast forward to today: We're still standing by low-income residents and tenants, and fighting to preserve affordable housing in Chinatown, an indispensable gateway haven for immigrants and their families. With it now taking four times the local minimum wage to afford a two-bedroom apartment in San Francisco and ongoing gentrification citywide, low-income tenants who are forced out of their homes have few, if any, options. Yet, even in the face of seemingly insurmountable barriers to justice, our clients' tenacity powers through.

Since 2018, we’ve been representing the Community Tenants Association and tenants from two single-room occupancy (SRO) buildings, 1350 Stockton and 371 Broadway. All are low-income Chinese immigrant tenants. All but one are seniors. All are Cantonese or Mandarin speakers and do not speak or read English well. Some have lived in the building for more than a decade.

Our case alleges that Valstock Management, one of the largest SRO landlord in Chinatown, has carried out a years-long campaign to intimate, harass, and push our clients out of the buildings. The landlord misled tenants by claiming that they didn’t have current leases on file, tried to force residents to sign onerous 40-page English-only leases, threatened and imposed arbitrary and exorbitant fines for practices that were previously permitted like hanging laundry, and provided services such as a 24-hour maintenance line only in English. During the pandemic, Valstock even refused to translate a circulated notice about a positive COVID-19 case in one of the buildings into Chinese for Chinese-speaking tenants to be able to read.

We believe Valstock’s actions are unlawful and unconscionable. The case is going to a jury trial later in early 2022 and we look forward to our clients receiving the justice and peace they deserve.

Learn more about how Chinatown tenants are standing up to the neighborhood’s largest SRO landlord: