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Xiu Min Li Headshot

Live Together or Die Lonely and Mean

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January marks my 10-year anniversary of living in my lovely rent-controlled apartment in the Mission in San Francisco. Given all the heat around the tech boom and the housing crisis lately, I feel the need to jump in as a San Francisco old-timer (I've been living in the city for 20 years) and contribute my two cents on affordable housing.

I've always had nonprofit/NGO jobs. First as a union organizer and then environmental advocate, I was always on the lower end of average income in the city (why people who are trying to do good must be underpaid is a whole other can of worms I shall get into some other time). The fact that matters is that I knew early on that finding and maintaining affordable housing is the only way I could stay in the city and still work for my ideals and not for money. So when I found my current apartment, I fought hard to keep it.

The most important outcome for my being tied to my apartment is the fact that I am invested in my community. I believe in the need to be involved in issues affecting my friends, my neighbors, and even the stray cats. That could range from shopping locally for handmade jewelry to reporting potholes to the Department of Public Work through DIY Democracy apps on my iPhone, to voicing my concerns about pollution and congestions caused by all the tech busses coming through our commercial corridors.I could do more and I should do more for the sake of my community.

If city is what generates ideas and innovation, community is what brings us social cohesion and keeps us happy. No number of social media platforms can replace the human interaction we crave. All of these platforms, be it Facebook, OKCupid or LinkedIn, in the end are designed to bring us closer, make it easier for that first face-to-face interaction and make that interaction more enriching. We should not lose sight of that. The communal living that is often the start of our entry into the city is the most important part that will shape the kind of life we will lead.

In the 10 years I've lived in my apartment, I've lived with a Philippino environmental justice activist, a Kennedy School graduate and editor for Colorline Magazine, a transgender co-op baker from Guatemala, a real estate lawyer, a Palestinian artist, two interracial couples (still happily married), so on and so forth. I've had housemates of various age, race, class, gender and sexual orientation. I've learned my own strengths and weaknesses as a roommate and communicator and am constantly learning new ways to interact with people from vastly different backgrounds and lifestyles. The diversity and richness of my living experience is what made me appreciate San Francisco. Most importantly, my living experience prepares me to grow and thrive in our multicultural and globalized world.

Over the years, I've sublet my room twice, once to study Spanish in Guatemala, another time to pursue a graduate degree in the UK. If I hadn't been able to keep my apartment because of rent-control regulations, I would have been priced out of the city by now. Without rent control and the commitment for affordable housing from our city officials, San Francisco will become a playground for people who can afford to come and go without being invested in the communities that make San Francisco unique and cool. The city can become like these ghost towns in China where wrongheaded city planning not only destroyed the environment and communities, but also failed to meet housing needs.

Preserving the communities and neighborhoods we live in is the responsibility of all of us. We must recognize the kind of society and community we wish to build. Do we want a vibrant community of people from diverse backgrounds who bring diverse perspectives and ideas into our lives? Or do we want to go to parties and talk only to people who think and talk the same as us? Politics and ideals are integral to our identities as social and conscientious citizens. You can be a tech worker or an activist. A banker or a janitor. We live together in one society and our actions have consequences for each other. Policies and politics are simply the embodiment of these consequences. Investing in the community we live in and the diversity of needs and of people is therefore not just a matter of lifestyle choices but of our ability to live and thrive together. It requires us to recognize our privileges as they existed in our current, highly unequal society and the responsibilities associated with it. I shall end by appropriating a Lost episode title, live together or die lonely and mean.