A walk through San Francisco with architect David Baker
Perhaps more than any other city in the United States, San Francisco is now the flashpoint for how expensive urban living has become. The city’s population has been increasing by nearly 10,000 people every year, and housing supply is not meeting demand. Restored earthquake shacks, the minuscule cottages used to shelter residents after the 1906 temblor, are selling in the seven figures. The cost of building a unit of “affordable” housing is hovering close to $500,000 for 800 square feet. Throughout the Bay Area, NIMBYs are ascendant, throwing their weight against new development.
If the reins of San Francisco’s housing policy were handed over to architect David Baker, the problem might be less intractable. For more than 30 years, he has been a champion of affordable housing in an unaffordable city. Although his firm, David Baker Architects, designs market-rate and luxury homes, it’s known for some of the most innovative and striking affordable housing found anywhere.
On an Indian summer day, I met Baker at his home at 18th and Shotwell streets in the Mission, a neighborhood where fierce battles over gentrification have been waged recently. Taquerías, auto-repair shops, and bodegas now coexist, often tenuously, with clothing boutiques, bespoke barbers, and pricey pizzerias. “San Francisco has always been a boom-bust, crazy town,” Baker says. “We had an earthquake; the city burnt down; we rebuilt. We had another earthquake. The hippies started here, and the dot-com started here. This is another chapter, and the world isn’t ending.”
An ardent cyclist and bike advocate, Baker is 64 years old and as fit as the dancers practicing at the studio next door. He sports a salt-and-pepper soul patch and favors skinny jeans and chunky scarves he knits himself. He bought his property in 1999 — during the first high-tech boom. “It was an appliance-repair shop,” he says. “There was a guy living in the 3-foot-high crawl space above the bathroom. They fixed slot machines, Venetian blinds. They had attack dogs in the back. Chickens. Real mixed-use.”
The attack dogs and crawl-space tenant are long gone, but an array of uses remains. He and his partner, Yosh Asato, live in a compact, solar-powered cottage on the top floor, rent the back unit out through Airbnb, and funnel the profits from that into StoreFrontLab, the street-level commercial space, which hosts events ranging from skill-shares (beer-making, lamp-wiring, bike repair) to salons that discuss issues affecting the city.
Baker and I head toward Valencia Street, just a few blocks over from where an especially strident — and symbolically loaded — gentrification fight is brewing. At 16th and Mission streets, a notoriously crime-ridden intersection, a ten-story luxury high-rise has been proposed. “Developers,” he says, “took the attitude, ‘Why talk to the neighbors? We’re just going to do what we’re going to do.’ That’s a lesson in how to get people against something that’s probably a good idea. But the activists started out with, ‘You evil developers should give your land to the people.’ That’s a hard starting point. There are a lot of things that are more likely to happen — like just about anything.”
Baker has strong, often contrarian views on almost any subject, and as we continue west, he alights on one after another. On the extremes of Bay Area NIMBYism: “There are people who show up at community meetings who are just insane, like the guy who said, ‘If you build that affordable housing you’ll have a bunch of single mothers who will leave their kids at home, and those kids will sneak into my backyard and wring my chickens’ necks.’ True story.” On the complaints against micro-units: “I wish some of the affordable-housing folks would visit the SROs when they’re kvetching about whether 220 square feet is too small for human habitation — they should see the 80-square-foot squalor people are living in now.”
Baker agrees with many housing advocates that building luxury apartments won’t solve the affordability crisis, but he also knows that not building luxury units won’t, either. Because of the city’s policy of “set-asides,” the building of market-rate units requires that a percentage of the project budget be used for affordable housing. On a recent project that David Baker Architects designed, the developer had $14 million to spend on affordable housing. “So, yeah, a luxury building went up,” he says. “But so did 170 affordable units.”
We cut through a pocket park near a U-Haul store to cross Market Street en route to Hayes Valley, a once down-and-out enclave that has been transformed over the past 20 years as the city removed the Central Freeway. The current incarnation of the neighborhood, says Baker, is an example of enlightened city planning. “The city’s getting affordability in all the buildings,” he says, “and they’ve managed to get good architects to design them. It’s either the exception to the rule or it’s the future. I’d like to think it’s the future.”
We pass a new luxury condo building by architect Stanley Saitowitz, another by architect Owen Kennerly, and then stop at Ritual Coffee, one of several stylish, friendly businesses operating out of shipping containers as part of Proxy, a much-loved, often-copied temporary retail project. The site is slated to become affordable housing. When that happens, Baker predicts that most, if not all, of the existing businesses will be incorporated into a ground-floor market hall.
Hayes Valley is where one can find a range of Baker’s projects: 300 Ivy (million-dollar flats and townhomes) on the west side and Richardson Apartments (120 micro-units for a low-income, formerly homeless population) to the east. Richardson Apartments is an example of how Baker’s firm has rethought low-income housing. A building like this one — with its strong geometric forms, unabashed use of color and texture, high-quality materials, and private green spaces — puts to rest the misguided, yet often ascribed to, theory that affordable housing should look affordable.
The way the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development used to work in the mid-20th century, Baker says, was great for architects. “You got a tremendous fee. You didn’t have to do anything good. You just had to make the roof slope and take the bureaucrat out to lunch. The message they were sending was, ‘We don’t care how much it costs. Just don’t do anything that makes it look expensive.’”
We stroll over to a bike-share rack, so Baker can ride to his office in the Clocktower building on Second Street. He offers one last thought. “People advocate for some things and against others, but the reality is if you don’t provide a luxury unit, a rich person will buy your cheaper unit. You need a balance. You can’t just say, ‘You can’t live here.’”