On March 21st, the SF Housing Action Coalition along with the SF Bicycle Coalition & Emerging Leaders Peer Network hosted a bike tour of permanently affordable housing in San Francisco. Guest bloggers Matt Brezina (@brezina) and Brad Williford (@BradWilliford) provide their reflections of the tour.
If you’re like us and the majority of San Francisco residents, you have never set foot inside low income-affordable housing. Immediately, the casual mention of low income housing might set off monochromatic images of Pruitt-Igoe, and other failed projects of the 1950s and 60s. So it’s no surprise that upon departing for this journey we weren’t optimistic about what we were going to see but the reality was strikingly different. We learned, as expected, how low income housing is making San Francisco livable for individuals with disabilities and of fewer financial resources. But more significantly, we saw how new models of urban design and non-profit management are creating housing that is a welcome version 2.0 to the disappointing post-New Deal projects, which in many American minds still define low-income housing.
Our first stop was at Rene Cazenave Apartments in the rapidly changing Transbay area of SOMA. Here we learned how two non-profits, BRIDGE Housing and Community Housing Partnership, came together to provide 120 units focused on keeping at-risk individuals in stable homes and off the streets. Overall, it was impressive to see how the space promoted community. A long lobby hallway starts at the main entrance and concludes with resident elevators at the far side of the building. This internal “main street” design encourages residents to interact with the internal courtyard, laundry room, community rooms, and the onsite caseworker offices. This smart design develops a sense of community and helps residents better utilize the services provided to keep at-risk individuals healthy and housed.
Next we biked along the new Howard St’s. protected bike lane (thanks SF Bike Coalition!) to the Tenderloin to see how St. Anthony’s collaborated with Mercy Housing to provide 90 units of affordable housing for low-income seniors. This site has a great story. When St. Anthony’s set out to rebuild their dining room, a community gem that had been feeding the the hungry around the clock for generations, they realized the value of the space and sold their air rights to Mercy Housing. This unique collaboration between nonprofits was not easy, but the success of their work is evident in a truly mixed use building that serves the community better than ever before.
Around the corner we visited the 10-year-old, but exceedingly current Curran House. From our perspective, this complex represents a highpoint in the intersection of architectural beauty and community-serving functionality. We toured one of the 2 bedrooms units and experienced the small balcony. Outdoor-space is a rare but valued amenity to low-income and market rate housing alike. To our dismay, the architect David Baker (who happened to be one of our fellow bikers on the tour!) told us balconies were a hard battle to secure in this building due to cost and city regulations. The architects response was simple; he insisted on creating a building he himself would want to live in. This is evident, from the windows at the end of each hallway to the rooftop gardens and city noise abating courtyard fountain. The low-income residents of Curran house pay 30-50% of their income to house their family. The voices of over 50 children fill these apartments. Those skeptical of the merit of funding low income housing should look to this oasis of calm in the Tenderloin as an example of money well spent.
The final leg of our journey took us down Market Street, alongside idling cars on the Embarcadero bike lanes, to North Beach Place. Originally this site contained a grim state-run housing project much like what we envisioned upon starting our tour. Poor design and management made the 50’s era project a mecca for all symptoms of urban decay.
As an early pioneer of a new approach to low income housing management and design, this building hits many of the now much-accepted first principles of both disciplines. Managed from the beginning by non-profits that have to compete for their own existence, North Beach Place has been revitalized by compassionate and well-planned design.
As for the design, ground floor retail, direct-to-outdoors apartment entrances, limited blank facades keep Jane Jacob’s “eyes on the street” watchful over any threats to this community.
While North Beach Place is a drastic improvement over the project it replaced, it now feels shadowed by the refinement of principles seen in Curran House. North Beach Place is still slave to the 1960-2000 aberrative urban approach of stuffing cars into cities. Due to excessive parking, the central courtyard is raised 15 ft above street. This diminishes 30% of the potential residents this 3 story-zoned parcel can house. Additionally, the raised courtyard ruins any hope of mid-block pass-throughs, a much needed pedestrian affordance missing from the large imposing blocks found in this part of the city. And finally, given the abundance of parking, residents and their neighbors have less strength in arguing for better public transportation, like an extension of Central Subway.
This is important work we are doing San Francisco. Our diversity is our strength. It is why we love it here. And like Gandhi said, “The true measure of any society can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable members.” With the tremendous wealth and resources of the Bay Area, we have a once in a generation opportunity to build a sustainable, diverse, world class community—let’s work together to make it a reality.
Are you curious about new housing in San Francisco? Join our next neighborhood tour, The Mid-Market Renaissance, this Saturday April 4!
We’ll be putting on our walking shoes and exploring a Central Market corridor undergoing an exciting transition by adding hundreds of new homes close to the City’s job center. SFHAC tours are FREE for members and $10 for non-members.
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