How the insurmountable San Francisco bureaucracy took over my neighborhood aunt’s life

A few years ago, an elderly Vietnamese woman invited me to her apartment in Tenderloin. I was a teenager at the time and it was not unusual for Vietnamese children to refer to older people by their first names. For me, it was ‘Cô’, the Vietnamese word for paternal aunt – which, when used with non-relatives, was akin to ‘miss’.

Cô could barely speak English. I wasn’t sure if she understood what “Miss” meant.

That morning, I shivered in my thin hoodie while I waited for Ko outside her apartment building. A few minutes later, a plump-looking woman appeared, dressed in many layers of jackets and jackets. It was Cô, he opened the gate and let me in.

I followed her through the hallway, past the simple art nouveau lit from the back by light boxes. The lobby walls, covered in a deep raspberry colour, looked freshly painted. The cleaner was cleaning the interior sink, making sure the washers and dryers would stay pure white. By controlling rents, Koe spent less than $1,000 a month on these facilities and her home.

I was getting warm as we walked down the hall. Underneath all her layers, she must have been burning.

When Cô opened her apartment door, he hung on a bag of aluminum cans and bottles. She told me that every morning, she would replace the recyclables for 5 cents to 10 cents each, but she didn’t have time to visit the recycling center that morning. She let out a nervous laugh before quickly stuffing it into a closet.

As she entered her home, the drab aesthetic of the building’s foyer and hallways gave way to the dull, peeling gray wallpaper of her unit. Sticky mousetraps on the floor were oxidizing from white to iron-orange – an unmistakable sign of the infestation of rodents for a long time. Several light sockets in the apartment are dead. It will be pitch black at night.

Koe went to the kitchen to make a cup of tea for herself. Sensing the current, she traced the cold air to an open window behind her. I tried closing it but the rusty window didn’t budge.

The unit could not be insulated – I was cold in every room. Koe told me she loved the night because she could retreat to her bedroom, where the little fireplace warmed her.

After making tea, Koo went to her living room and sat on a folding chair. She was using the steam of hot tea to warm her palms when her wrist slipped from the layers of her jacket. Only then did I realize how meager she was. Upon closer examination of her appearance, I could see her cheeks were unnaturally hollow. With so little fat, she must have felt especially cold in her house.

Koe should have known this wasn’t a way to live, but she told me she was reluctant to report the safety violations to the building manager. She could hardly express her complaints in English, and more importantly she feared that it would lead to her being expelled – an outcome she could not afford to risk.

The city doesn’t want her to live like this. The San Francisco Rental Board recently amended the San Francisco Housing Code to force landlords to provide adequate heating systems to their tenants. Owners should also keep their apartments free of insects and turn on light bulbs. Of course, reporting these violations is not grounds for eviction, but Koe didn’t know that.

If self-calling isn’t out of the question, the city’s Building Inspection Department’s Housing Inspection Services program is sure to detect flagrant apartment safety violations and enforce the housing code. Decades ago, the department created the Law Enforcement Outreach Program to find and defend non-native English speakers in dire straits.

However, Cô could not recall any thorough inspections of the unit during its multi-decade stay. It was up to her to file a tenant petition with the San Francisco Rent Board to protest her living conditions. But the forms of government and technology were too complex for her.

What she didn’t know was that her ordeal was most likely unwinnable. The inactive department of building inspection had a history of corruption; Recently, an inspector accepted generous loans to pass building inspections and ignore the glaring fire hazards.

Money spoke of a lot in the city and Cô didn’t have much of it.

Two weeks ago, I saw Koe sitting in a hair salon just a block from her apartment. All he needed to do was take a quick look at her to understand what her life was like. Her face was more hollow than when we met years ago. Even in 70-degree weather, she was assembled in a thick beige jacket.

After a short conversation, we wished each other good luck and said goodbye. I watched her walk back to the same modern apartment block, knowing that her unit inside could not be different from the gleaming lobby and hallways.

Cô did not have many years ahead of her. With legal assistance, she can get into a fight with a stubborn building owner either through the Board of Rentals or small claims court. But she no longer had the stamina for it. The idle, insurmountable city bureaucracy has taken its life.

Danny Nguyen
Writer and recent graduate of Vanderbilt University where he studied molecular and cellular biology, medicine, health, and society.

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