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After 9 years, this Chinatown family moved out of their 100-square-foot home

The Yu family has finally gotten a chance to do something that nearly every other household in America takes for granted: Eat dinner at the same time. It’s something the family of six couldn’t do even once during the nine years they lived in a tiny apartment in San Francisco’s Chinatown.

“This is beyond my wildest dreams,” Muyi Yu, 47, told The Standard in Cantonese in her new four-bedroom apartment in nearby Nob Hill. “We have never been this happy since we immigrated to the U.S. in 2014.”

The family—Yu, her husband, and their four children ranging in age from 8 to 16—had been living in a single-room-occupancy building, where each unit is about 100 square feet, and tenants on each floor have to share a kitchen and bathroom.

Muyi Yu maneuvers around her son in the family's SRO unit in Chinatown in February. | Mike Kuba/The Standard

The two youngest Yu siblings, 8-year-old twin boys, had lived in the SRO their whole lives—until now.

“The most important thing is to have this better environment for my kids to study,” Yu said.

Housing Vouchers Issued After Long Pause

In order to move, the Yus received federal assistance: a Section 8 housing voucher, something many low-income families wait on for years.

In February, The Standard published a multimedia story about the Yu family’s situation, shining a light on Chinatown’s hidden poverty.

Muyi Yu told The Standard that the family’s new rent is about $4,500 a month, considerably more expensive than the $700 the couple paid for the SRO. But they need to pay only 30% of their income toward rent, and the voucher will cover the rest.

The San Francisco Housing Authority, the agency that oversees the vouchers, said 887 tenant-based vouchers have been issued by the agency since 2022, which means 887 low-income renters in San Francisco are able to move to better housing situations. The agency was blocked from issuing the vouchers until late 2021 because of a financial shortfall and fiscal mismanagement, essentially leaving families in need of affordable housing, like the Yus, in limbo.

After years of waiting, the Yus received word from the housing authority in late February that their application had gone through. The couple signed the lease on April 20.

No More Sleeping on the Floor

Sitting at the dinner table, Muyi Yu and her husband, Jianhua, can’t conceal their joy at their vastly improved living situation. The new, 1,000-square-foot home—almost 10 times bigger than where they used to live—has everything they want to make a new start.

“We spent some time to find this place,” Yu said. “When we saw this, I thought, ‘I will take this!’”

The two-story unit has a big sofa and a TV, along with a full kitchen. The four-burner stove allows Yu to cook whenever she wants for her kids, a luxury that she could previously only dream of. 

Yu proudly shows off her family's new apartment in Nob Hill. | Mike Kuba/The Standard

Back in the SRO, Yu said, the shared kitchen was always occupied by other tenants—so when her children were hungry and asking for food, she couldn’t necessarily prepare a meal immediately.

The apartment is about four blocks from their former SRO room, on the border between Nob Hill and Chinatown. Yu works as a part-time receptionist in Chinatown, so her commute is short. Her husband takes care of the children full-time.

The Yus’ daughters, ages 15 and 16, now have their own rooms. For now, the boys are still sleeping in a room with their parents. The remaining guest room is available for when they get older.

This setup is a stark difference from before, when the twins sometimes had to sleep on the floor. After Yu and one of her daughters contracted Covid, to prevent the rest of the family from getting sick, they quarantined themselves by sleeping in the stairwell.

200 Families Left

According to the SRO Families United Collaborative, a local coalition group, there are about 200 families with children under 18 living in San Francisco SRO hotels. The majority are concentrated in Chinatown.

But the actual number of SRO-dwelling families—including those who live in non-SRO buildings but with SRO units—is believed to be far higher. This may sound like bureaucratic sleight-of-hand, but some residential buildings in the city may have added units in the basement level or converted some floors into SRO units in order to house more people.

Juan Garcia, a senior community organizing supervisor from the Chinatown Community Development Center, has been helping SRO families apply for federal vouchers or local rental subsidies.

About 68 Chinatown families have been among the first to receive the vouchers this year. There are also more than a dozen SRO families citywide who are moving into project-based housing programs, referring to some new apartments that have been reserved for people in exactly such circumstances.

Yu's husband carries a bag full of his family's belongings from their old SRO unit to their new apartment located just a few blocks away. | Mike Kuba/The Standard

Garcia predicted that the housing authority will continue to issue new vouchers to SRO families, and San Francisco’s local rental subsidy programs will also help the families to afford bigger homes. Ideally, each of the currently identified 200 families will be able to move by mid-2024.

For Yu, even though she has secured a new place, her fight for new housing isn’t over, yet. She will still attend SRO family meetings and advocate for others.

“I hope there will be more opportunities for other SRO family children, too,” she said. “The children, they need more space.”