Poster by Zand Gee.
Poster by Zand Gee.

“Fight for the International Hotel; It is a Right to Rebel Against Eviction” declares a vivid, multi-lingual silk-screened poster produced by the San Francisco Poster Brigade in 1977.

That same summer, on August 4 at 3 a.m., over 300 riot police forcibly evicted the I-Hotel’s low-income tenants, mainly elderly Filipino and a few Chinese. Since 1968, the tenants and community organizations had fought to stay in their homes to preserve this last block of Manilatown from redevelopment interests that favored high-rise parking and other profit-oriented ventures.

Curtis Choy’s “The Fall of the I-Hotel” (1983) tells the tenants’ stories with narration by poet and community activist, Al Robles. The documentary opened the week of events, June 29 – July 4, 2011, commemorating the 30th anniversary of the murders of local labor activists Silme Domingo and Gene Viernes. The Tenants Union of Washington co-sponsored the film and panel discussion with LELO (Leadership, Equality and Leadership and Organizing) at the Rainier Valley Cultural Center.

The 9-year anti-eviction campaign won short-term eviction postponements, numerous court stays and various interventions by local politicians. Ultimately, the organizing by the International Hotel Tenants Association and their broad public support prevented the international Four Seas Investment Corporation from breaking ground for 20 years. Eventual purchase by the Archdiocese of San Francisco led to collaboration with community development groups and the Mayor’s office. In 2005, the community celebrated the opening of 104 low-income senior housing units (7,500 applied) and the International Hotel Manilatown Center for community use and honoring “manongs” or Filipino elders’, history.

Following the documentary, the panel discussion expanded on the significance of the struggle of the I-Hotel to the Asian American movement of the 1960s and ‘70s.

Dr. Estella Habal was active in the I-Hotel campaign and as a scholar, used her involvement to deeply analyze the issues, published as “San Francisco’s International Hotel: Mobilizing the Filipino American Community in the Anti-Eviction Movement” (Temple University, 2007).

Emil de Guzman was active in the 1969 Third World student strike at the University of California, Berkeley. He served as president of the I-Hotel Tenants Association in 1977, the summer of the evictions, and later helped to found Manilatown Heritage Foundation that continues to oversee the development of the Manilatown Center. Emil believes that the key to the struggle was the intergenerational involvement and the power of organizing a mass movement.

Bob Santos, former director of Inter*Im Community Development Association and all-around activist, noted that his father, a prize-winning boxer, hung out at Lucky’s Barber Shop and the Mabuhay Lounge, all part of the I-Hotel block. Santos recounted the struggle to save the Milwaukee Hotel in Seattle and its similar community-based support with 24/7 security watches to prevent arson, such as resulted in deaths of three I-Hotel tenants.

I had never watched Choy’s film before, even though I was one of the students evicted from the community storefront of the Chinese Progressive Association. Now I know why the police came crashing through a wall with their fire axes: it was faster than the barricaded doors. My Aunt Etta was among the few Chinese living in the I-Hotel. When tenants were allowed to return for belongings, I went with her only to find that the police had trashed the rooms so badly, there wasn’t much to recover. The I-Hotel Tenants Association was one of her proudest accomplishments.

Lessons from the I-Hotel struggle resonate today with the looming expiration of HUD (US Department of Housing & Urban Development) mortgages that have historically supported low-income housing. Over 80,000 units nationally face rent increases that would drive out low-income tenants.

TU organized tenants of the Downtowner Apartments in Seattle, one of 851 units in Washington state with imminent HUD mortgage expirations. The Downtowner tenants include seniors on fixed incomes, persons with disabilities, low-wage workers and recent immigrants from the Philippines and Ethiopia.

TU and the tenants successfully won intervention by HUD’s issuing section 8 vouchers to all residents of the Downtowner, thus averting displacement. To achieve this short-term goal, TU and the tenants organized to secure support from Mayor Mike McGinn and Senator Patty Murray. Long-term, TU is working towards preserving overall affordability of the Downtowner. National housing activists hope Seattle’s secured vouchers for their building will become a model across the country.

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