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How San Francisco’s unnavigable forms sucked the life out of my neighborhood auntie

A few years ago, an elderly Vietnamese woman invited me to her Tenderloin apartment. I was a teenager at the time and it wasn’t customary for Vietnamese children to refer to elders by their first names. So to me, she was “Cô,” the Vietnamese word for paternal aunt — which, when used with nonrelatives, was more of an equivalent to “miss.”

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

That morning, I shivered in a thin hoodie as I waited for Cô outside her apartment building. After a few minutes, a plump-looking woman appeared wearing many layers of sweaters and jackets. It was Cô, opened the gate and let me in.

I followed her through the lobby, past minimalist modern art backlit with light boxes. The hallway walls, covered in deep mulberry colour, looked freshly painted. A janitor was cleaning the in-house laundromat, making sure that the washers and dryers would remain pristine white. With rent control, Cô spent less than $1,000 a month on these amenities and her home.

I was getting warm as we walked through the hallway. Underneath all her layers, she must have been scorching.

As Cô opened her apartment door, it clanged against a bag of aluminum cans and glass bottles. She told me that every morning, she’d exchange the recyclables for 5 cents to 10 cents each, but hadn’t enough time to visit the recycling center that morning. She let out a nervous laugh before quickly stuffing them in a cabinet.

As I stepped into her home, the pricey aesthetic of the building’s lobby and hallways gave way to the faded and peeling gray wallpaper of her unit. Adhesive mouse traps on the floor were oxidizing from white to ferric orange — the unmistakable sign of a long-time rodent infestation. Many of the light sockets in the apartment were dead. It’d be pitch black at night.

Cô moved to the kitchen to make herself a cup of tea. Feeling a draft, I traced the cool air back to an open window behind her. I tried closing it, but the rusty window wouldn’t budget.

The unit couldn’t have been insulated — I was cold in every room. Cô told me she loved the nighttime because that was when she could retreat to her bedroom, where a small space heater kept her warm.

After making her tea, Cô went to her living room and sat on a fold-out chair. She was using the steam of the scalding tea to warm her palms when her wrist slipped out of her sweater layers. It was only then that I realized how gaunt she was. Inspecting her appearance more closely, I could see her cheeks were abnormally hollow. With little fat, she must have felt especially cold in her home.

Cô had to know that this was no way to live, but she told me she was hesitant to report the safety violations to the building manager. She could barely verbalize her complaints in English and more importantly, she feared doing so would get her evicted — an outcome she couldn’t afford to risk.

The city didn’t want her to live like that. San Francisco’s Rent Board recently amended the San Francisco Housing Code to force landlords to provide adequate heating systems for tenants. Landlords must also keep their apartments vermin-free and the light fixtures functional. Of course, reporting these violations aren’t grounds for eviction, but Cô didn’t know that.

If self-advocacy was out of the question, surely the city’s Department of Building Inspection’s Housing Inspection Services Program would catch the apartment’s egregious safety violations and enforce the housing code. Decades ago, the department even created the Code Enforcement Outreach Program to find non-English speakers living in squalor and advocate for them.

However, Cô couldn’t recall any comprehensive unit inspections during her multi-decade stay. It was up to her to file a tenant petition at San Francisco’s Rent Board to protest her living conditions. But government forms and technology were too complex for her to navigate.

What she didn’t know was that her plight was likely unwinnable. The inactive Department of Building Inspection had a history of corruption; Recently, an inspector accepted generous loans to allegedly pass building inspections and ignored blatant fire hazards.

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

A couple of weeks ago, I saw Cô sitting in a hair salon only a block away from her apartment. A quick glance at her was all I needed to understand how her life was going. Her face was more hollow than when we last met years ago. Even in the 70-degree weather, she was bundled up in a thick beige jacket.

After a short conversation, we wished each other well and said our goodbyes. I watched her walk back into that same modern apartment building, knowing her own unit within couldn’t be any more different from its gleaming lobby and hallways.

Cô doesn’t have many years ahead of her. With legal help, she could enter a battle with the stubborn building owner either through the Rent Board or small claims court. But she no longer has the stamina for that. The city’s inactive, unnavigable bureaucracy has already claimed her life.

Danny Nguyen is a writer and recent graduate from Vanderbilt University where he studied molecular and cellular biology, and medicine, health and society.

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