Sakura Gardens campus in Boyle Heights. Photo from Pacifica Senior Living website.

For nearly eight years, Ken Nakayama’s mother Tomiko, who is 93, has been living at Sakura Intermediate Care Facility in Boyle Heights along other Japanese and Japanese American elders. It is a unique facility, Nakayama said, that not only cares for its residents but also provides them with a sense of community in a culturally sensitive environment.

Although Sakura ICF has been a safe and trusted place for Japanese elders since its inception in 1977, the future of residents like Tomiko is now uncertain.

Five years ago Keiro, the company that owned and operated the facility, sold Sakura ICF to a large, for-profit real estate developer called Pacifica Companies that owns and operates dozens of senior homes around the country. At the time, Keiro said it could not manage the projected costs associated with running the facility under Obamacare.

As part of the Feb. 2016 sale agreement with the state, the residence was to remain the same for at least five years. Now that the time has expired, Pacifica intends to redevelop the space as a multifamily townhome complex.

A poster announcing community action at Sakura.

According to Aug. 13 filings with the City Planning Department, Pacifica intends to convert the 48-unit facility to a 50-unit multifamily complex with a parking garage. (The company intends to maintain the separate Sakura Gardens Skilled Nursing Facility at the Boyle Heights property, as well as two other similar facilities outside of the neighborhood that were part of the Keiro sale.)

Pacifica’s plans drew swift criticism from members of the community who fear for the safety of the residents being displaced –particularly in the midst of the COVID pandemic– and from local activists who claim the proposed development will only add to the ongoing gentrification of Boyle Heights.

Save Our Seniors, a network of volunteer individuals and organizations formed in 2015 to oppose the sale to Pacifica, has staged a number of protests and press conferences at the facility on North Boyle Avenue. The group has called for a Community Public Action against the eviction of residents at the site on Saturday, May 1, from 2 to 3 pm.

“This event is being held to bring attention to the continued efforts of Pacifica Companies to coerce Japanese American and Japanese seniors aged mostly from their 90’s to 100’s out of the safety of their Sakura ICF home so that Pacifica Companies can realize their desire to transform the facility into high-rental income property,” according to the SOS website.

In January, a month before the Sakura agreement was to expire, a Community Advisory Board set up by the California General Attorney as a condition of the sale raised concerns about the closure of the facility and potential transfer of patients. The group, which was supposed to be a liaison between Pacifica and the community, noted that there had not been a single case of COVID-19 among patients at the ICF.

The board asked  the California Attorney General to block the Pacifica proposal to close the facility.

In spite of the advisory board’s apprehension, a letter sent on February 26 by Sakura ICF administrator Beverly Ito informed families that they would need to start looking for new care facilities. According to the letter, on March 1 “the leadership team at Sakura ICF will start discussions with residents and family members to review placement options based upon resident and family choice and medical, cultural and psychosocial needs.”

The letter, which noted that the Attorney General had not responded to the advisory board’s request, caused concern for residents’ families unsure of when the facility woul shut its doors or what the plans were to ensure equitable care.

Notably, the letter suggested residents might find comparable care at another former Keiro facility in nearby Lincoln Heights. Kei-Ai Los Angeles, an SNF facility that cares for Japanese seniors, has seen the highest amount of COVID-19 infections in California.

According to data released by the state, Kei-Ai has had a cumulative total of 173 COVID infections and at least 97 COVID related deaths. The Los Angeles Times called it the state’s deadliest nursing facility. On top of that, Kei-Ai Los Angeles is also one of 27 facilities that is accepting COVID-19 positive patients through a county program.

Traci Imamura, a member of SOS, said that besides the threat of COVID infection, the network is concerned about the loss of the specialized care that patients receive at Sakura  ICF.

 “We were trying to make sure that the same quality of care and the cultural sensitivity, the language needs of these elderly residents, initial civilities were maintained,” said Imamura.

It is the small things that make the difference, Imamura explained, like the food and religious services.  According to her, at Sakura ICF, “the menu is catering toward their tastes. They have religious functions, their sermons delivered by Japanese speaking ministers and priests. All the functions they have, they’re catering toward their language needs and their cultural needs.”

There is also the issue of community. Many residents have known each other and been lifelong friends. said Nakayama. “It’s as if you have kind of a community already there, of people who know each other, who trust each other. Who have known each other for decades, and now they’re living together as kind of a real community.”

Further, activists complain, Pacifica Companies has not communicated directly with families, residents or members of the community or community leaders.

Pacifica Companies did not respond to multiple requests for comments.

According to David Silvas, chairperson of the planning and land use committee on the Boyle Heights Neighborhood Council, Pacifica has not communicated or responded to requests by the NHC.

“They’ve totally ignored council district 14, the neighborhood council planning and land use committee,” said Silvas. “They’ve ignored Assemblyman Al Muratsuchi in Torrance, and Miguel Santiago who are writing a bill about removing seniors during the COVID pandemic, and it’s getting attention from Hilda Solís. So they continue to totally disregard not just the local community but civic leaders as well.”

AB 279, the bill by Muratsuchi and Santiago which would make evictions and downgrading of services at facilities like Sakura ICF illegal during the pandemic, was scheduled to go Wednesday before the Assembly’s appropriations committee, which will decide if the proposal gets a full vote by the legislature.

A number of local elected officials have expressed opposition to Pacifica’s plans. Earlier this month,  County Supervisor Hilda Solís urged the California Department of Public Health to reject a proposal submitted on March 29 by Sakura, to close the facility and move its elderly residents.

Separately, the County Department of Public Health responded to the proposal with a rejection letter dated April 19 that has halted the transfer of residents from Sakura for the time being. Among other reasons, the county says’ Pacifica’s proposal lacks “the measures that the facility will take to mitigate COVID-19 infection risk associated with resident transfers.”

Some activists have also pointed out the construction of market value homes on the Sakura site will see senior residents displaced by higher income families – a feared effect of gentrification.

Even if the transfer may be halted during the pandemic, families of residents at Sakura acknowledge that they have no legal ground to stop Pacifica from eventually developing the housing complex.

Still, in the midst of the battle, Tomiko and Ken Nakayama are holding out hope that something will work in their favor.

“My mom is still at Sakura ICF and I plan to hold out as long as I can,” said Nakayam. “I have to also be looking for other alternate facilities just in case, but I want Pacifica to know that there are many who are willing to ‘stick it out’ until absolutely necessary.”

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Albert Serna Jr.

Albert Serna Jr. is a queer Chicano journalist from the San Gabriel Valley. He has a passion for news, politics, and investigative reporting. On his free time he reads about true crime and does drag.

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