A City Without Ice Cream Makers?

 Chris and Rica Kwan

Chris and Rica Kwan

By Joel P. Engardio

At seven months pregnant, Rica Kwan stood for five hours serving ice cream to nearly 1,000 people on a hot afternoon. Rica pushed the waffle cone maker and her ankles to the limit. Her husband Chris Kwan’s right bicep bulged and burned as he scooped non-stop through a dozen tubs.

The couple works hard because they need to save for better housing. One room in the back of their landlord’s garage isn’t enough space for a family expecting their first child. But when $1,500 for 400 square feet in the Outer Sunset is considered a deal, they are daunted by the fact that one-bedroom apartments in San Francisco rent for $3,300 on average and the median home price is $1.1 million.

Rica and Chris, both in their early 30s, must decide whether to try to make it in San Francisco or leave like many of their friends already have.

“Everyone I grew up with moves to the suburbs for cheaper and bigger housing when they have kids,” Rica said. “I feel pressure because they think it’s irresponsible for a new mother to stay in the city in such a small place. But I’m adamant about staying.”

Rica doesn’t want to compromise her dreams. The ice cream Rica serves is her own — and it’s a hit.

A thousand people clamored for flavors like Roasted Banana Pudding and Chai Chocolate Cardamom on a recent afternoon. Getting a taste wasn’t easy. Fans had to trek to the western edge of San Francisco where Rica sets up a cart inside Andytown Roastery at Taraval Street and 40th Avenue every Saturday.

Rica dreams of opening a physical store, hiring employees and manufacturing her brand of ice cream in San Francisco: Churn Urban Creamery. For now, she rents a commercial kitchen in Concord to pasteurize the eggless base for her flavorful creations. Chris transports their 12-tub capacity ice cream cart in a small pick-up truck to farmer’s markets and various pop-up locations.

“I’m the muscle of the operation,” said Chris, who works full-time during the week as a facilities coordinator for a tech company in addition to the 20 hours he spends scooping ice cream on the weekends. In his spare time, he is a high school basketball coach for KIPP College Preparatory.

The annual salary for Chris’ day job is about $70,000 — what many teachers, firefighters and construction workers make in San Francisco. Rica doesn’t have an income because everything she makes selling ice cream goes back into growing the business.

“I make too much to get housing assistance or food stamps for my baby, but I don’t make enough to afford a home big enough for my family,” Chris said. “The people in the middle are left out — and that’s everyone I know. It’s about time we got some help.”

Good thing one of Rica’s customers is Supervisor Katy Tang, author of the proposed HOME-SF legislation. It allows developers to build two additional stories above zoned height limits on transit and commercial corridors if a percentage of permanently affordable units are offered to middle-income families.

Critics say the program focuses too much on middle-income residents at the expense of those with the lowest incomes.

“I have been very unapologetic about the fact that HOME-SF is not for low-income households,” Tang said. “We already have tons of housing production and funding for that need. But we have done almost nothing for middle-income households.”

Others fear the added height could block the views from existing homes. But Tang said she agrees there shouldn’t be towers at the ocean and her program applies mostly to transit corridors like Taraval Street.

“This is absolutely where more housing should happen. I’m not willing to shut people out of the city,” said Tang, who grew up in the Sunset district with immigrant parents and attended Lowell High School one year ahead of Rica. “I want others to have the same opportunity I had.”

Rica and her family landed in the Sunset from the Philippines when she was nine. Rica had to share close quarters with her two siblings in a small in-law apartment for years — not getting her own bed until she was a teenager.

Rica’s child might have a similar experience. But the ability to remain in San Francisco will be tougher for Rica than it was for her parents if longtime residents continue resisting necessary change.

We must build more housing at all price points if we’re going to keep the next generation of families, teachers and small business owners in San Francisco.

“I hope people realize,” Rica said, “that it’s their own children and grandchildren who will suffer the consequences of not building more housing now.”

Also published in San Francisco Examiner May 14, 2017