I was born and raised in Metn. San Francisco doesn’t care about us

I can always tell how late it is due to the cold and the sound. Like the movement of a clock, the cool San Francisco air was breezing into my family’s one-bedroom apartment in Tenderloin by 10 p.m. The breeze was seeping through the cracks of rotting wood window frames, hitting the newspapers we used for insulation.

But one November night, the sound was different. I heard a scratch – it had to be a mouse.

I rushed into the bathroom and slipped on the toilet seat cover. I looked up and cursed God who would allow people to live in these conditions. Only then did I notice strands of gray and black mold decorating the bathroom walls like strands of Christmas lights.

Our house was a biologically hazardous wasteland.

While moving around the apartment, I saw my mom in the kitchen cooking for the next day. The ground began to fall from under her as she carried the green onions a few feet from the refrigerator to the sink. It was only a matter of time before he gave up.

I ignited a piece of paper and transferred the flame to the stove. I watched the steam from the boiling water travel up the wall into the kitchen vent, in front of a mixture of orange and black mold.

At the time I was in high school. My immigrant parents didn’t see anything wrong with our apartment – it was no different than many of the ones they saw back home in Vietnam. They did not know or care about potential health complications from inadequate insulation and chronic exposure to rodents and mold. They accepted our lot – even as our daily commute took us past the original marble floors and chandeliers of the Olympic Club Hotel, just a couple of blocks away.

But I couldn’t.

San Francisco, supposedly the most progressive city in the country, didn’t bother us.

It was naive to assume that these problems were isolated from our 5th floor apartment. The older residents expressed their regrets in Vietnamese to my parents about the invasion in their homes. Occasionally, I was invited to their units. They, too, were cramped cells with slits in the walls wide enough to allow rats to pass through them. Sticky mousetraps line work surfaces and floor perimeters, but mice have grown wiser and have found other ways around the building. Some residents eventually get tired of constantly cleaning up mouse droppings. Pellets began to build up on furniture and crevices, defining the edges of the living space.

We have all generally understood that we have a legal right to a safe home. But no one in our immigrant-rich apartment complex knows how to defend themselves. They could barely speak English, and their English-speaking children were not old enough to carry the burden.

I’m past my bedtime. I went back to the bathroom and splashed my face with water. Before I dried off, I could feel something grazing at my feet. Maybe it was another mouse – or maybe it was the same one you’ve heard before.

I sighed, went back to bed and cried until I fell asleep.

Our apartment was a deadly trap but we couldn’t get out of it. It was the only option available to my low income family. With rent control, my parents paid less than $1,000 a month. Even then, they were barely earning enough to pay rent and food, so a repeller was out of the question.

My parents took no action, so I called the apartment owners and asked for help. They responded by telling me that I shouldn’t be living in my parents’ apartment in the first place.

The owners were aware of our living conditions. They have conducted regular inspections, presumably to dismiss the unit’s many violations of health and safety law. They did the same with the other apartments in the building as well.

After a few years, some of the younger residents got frustrated and walked out. They graduated from college and had an income that could support more expensive and safer apartments. Although they were aware of their right to a safe home, they knew that a protracted legal battle with building owners was not worth the time and pressure, especially when they had a way out.

It only took the owners a few months to convert those vacant units into luxury apartments that could charge double or triple the rent.

A couple of years ago, a full college scholarship got me out of that place as well—and I’m out of the bay. I want nothing more than to leave that miserable apartment behind me, just as the young men did before me.

But I can not.

My parents still live there, as do many of my childhood neighbors and friends. They all deserve better.


Danny Nguyen is a writer who grew up in the Tenderloin neighborhood of San Francisco. He recently earned a bachelor’s degree from Vanderbilt University, where he studied molecular and cellular biology, medicine, health, and society.

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