Block Party

Rose Tsai, Julie Lee, and the Neighbors' Association are set to tuck into a heaping helping of Willie Brown's majority

But after the votes on Proposition H were counted, it became clear that the strongest support for the measure had come from heavily Chinese-American neighborhoods -- Visitacion Valley, and the Sunset and Richmond districts. Clearly, Chinese-American political power had moved to other parts of the city.

And just as clearly, the SFNA had been planning its strategy with extraordinary care. But the women at the forefront of the group still claim they're just regular folks.

"We're just housewives," Lee and Tsai insist repeatedly. Both are mothers -- Lee has four grown children, Tsai's son is 9. But Lee, 51, is also a successful realtor who owns First National Realty on Taraval with her husband Lucas and has several properties in San Francisco, including an apartment building. Tsai, 43, also a property owner, has a degree from the Hastings College of Law and works with her husband David, a Taiwanese businessman.

Anger, Tsai says, is what first prompted her to get involved in city politics. In 1984, she bought a house in the Sunset at 11th Avenue and Lawton. She planned to tear it down and build a two-unit building. But several neighbors opposed the plans and protested outside the house, claiming that the new building would block cherished views and upset the "character" of the neighborhood.

After battling with her neighbors and fighting her way through the city Planning Department, Tsai was able to build her house.

But she claims the zoning laws are a clear example of the city taking away the rights of Chinese-American property owners to build on their own land. Like many other Chinese-Americans whose renovation plans have been restricted by the Planning Department, Tsai felt that city zoning laws were discriminatory because the people who wanted most to build were Chinese-American.

And, she says, the racism was overt. "At the very same time, someone across the street was building an even bigger house, and he had no problem. He was white."

Water and sewage rate increases are just another way that the city is treating Chinese-American property owners unfairly, says Tsai. "Most of us in SFNA are homeowners, and we're sick and tired of all these tax increases," she says. "This is totally outrageous. You would think that in times like this we would be getting better services and less taxes."

"We want good government," says Tsai. "The government needs to be held accountable."

For someone with strong feelings about fiscal accountability, however, Rose Tsai has some odd financial practices. According to public records, she still owes the state of California $21,000 in back taxes from 1993.

And it's not the first time Tsai has run into trouble with her taxes. In April 1991, the state notified Tsai that she owed $95,000 in back taxes from 1988. She paid the debt -- eight months later.

Julie Lee describes herself as a "typical immigrant."
Born in China, Lee moved to Hong Kong with her family when she was a teen-ager. At age 23, she arrived in San Francisco. She took courses at City College to become a dental technician, but later decided to become a real estate agent and got her license in 1979.

The real estate market is booming, and every few minutes, Lee's cellular phone rings. The 51-year-old realtor is busy and profiting nicely.

She is the virtual opposite of her partner, Tsai. While Tsai is serious and intense, Lee is gregarious and talkative. Every so often, in conversation, she will nudge a listener with her elbow for emphasis.

But beneath the affable exterior, Lee is angry too.
Like Rose Tsai, Lee ran into opposition from neighbors when she wanted to build on a property at Second and Clement. The two women met at a public hearing on the zoning laws five years ago. Shortly afterward, they organized other homeowners to form the San Francisco Neighbors' Association.

The group's message hasn't changed much since then: Chinese-Americans -- particularly taxpaying Chinese-American property owners -- are getting a raw deal. The issues the SFNA takes on are almost exclusively those affecting property owners -- like sewage and water rates -- or, occasionally, other causes the group considers significant to Chinese-Americans.

But despite this apparent focus on homeowner issues, important people are starting to take the San Francisco Neighbors' Association very seriously. Three weeks after the victory on Prop. H, investment banker and multimillionaire F. Warren Hellman gave the group $2,500. And Hellman, whose financial coups have included the $1.8 billion leveraged buyout of Levi Strauss in 1985, is decidedly not in the habit of financing losers.

Lee and Tsai like to claim the Proposition H campaign was funded by $5, $10, and $20 donations. "All the money for the campaign was from small donations. You should see our list of contributions -- it looks like a phone book," says Tsai.

"We're just small neighborhood people," says Lee.
Public records indicate otherwise. Campaign disclosures show the Committee to Save the Central Freeway received tens of thousands of dollars in large-sum donations and loans -- loans with no repayment schedules and no interest rates.

These "small neighborhood people" themselves loaned the campaign thousands of dollars of their own money. Tsai and Lee each put up $5,000. Another business owned by Lee and her husband Lucas, First Financial Services, loaned the campaign an additional $5,000.

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