Designing Affordable Housing in SF’s Mission District

Construction has started on the new park at Folsom and 17th streets. The 100 percent affordable housing development at 2060 Folsom Street will be built next door. Photo by Sonner Kehrt

In the small, bright patch of sunlight that filters down between the buildings, a woman in a pink shirt pauses to admire a mural. It’s bold, with brightly colored shapes that are accentuated by the nearby flowers and another colorful painting on an opposite wall. In the small alleyway between the two pieces of artwork, a small group plays guitar while a couple strolls by, arm in arm.

It’s not the scene that immediately comes to mind when discussions about affordable housing come up, and to be fair, it’s not even actually a real scene—yet. It’s depicted in an architectural rendering of the Paseo Artista, a public pedestrian alley that will define one side of the new 100 percent affordable housing development at 1950 Mission St. near 16th Street, which is tentatively scheduled to break ground in early 2018.

Seven fully affordable housing projects are scheduled to be built in the Mission in the next several years. Together with community organizations, architects are confronting the challenges of integrating 100 percent affordable housing developments into the larger neighborhood, working to create buildings that take advantage of their location in the Mission but also seek to offer something to the Mission in return by drawing on the best ideas in design.

Over the last several decades, planners, architects, and policy-makers have sought to move affordable housing design away from the concentrated, isolated, and impoverished communities that characterized American public housing through the 1980s.

“That didn’t turn out too well,” says David Baker, whose firm, David Baker Architects, is designing the 1950 Mission St. development.

The proposed mural alleyway at 1950 Mission St. Design by David Baker Architects.

The proposed mural alleyway at 1950 Mission St. Design by David Baker Architects.

In the 1990s, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development began a campaign called HOPE VI to redesign affordable housing communities across the country. The program drew on the urban design concept of New Urbanism, which argues for neighborhoods that are diverse, both demographically and in terms of use, with layouts promoting walkability, public open spaces and human-scale buildings. In the Mission, Valencia Gardens and Bernal Dwellings — public housing projects — were both rehabilitated in part with HOPE VI funds.

Several hundred HOPE VI grants have since revitalized some of the most impoverished and crime-ridden low-income housing communities across the country, replacing towering housing projects with scaled-down developments that often incorporate mixed-income units. The intent is to provide safer neighborhoods, economic opportunities and better overall well-being for low-income residents.

Mosaica Apartments between Florida and Alabama streets, while not built with HOPE VI funds, showcases some of the ideas behind the concept: It’s a five-story building with apartments for low-income families and seniors, below-market and market rate condo units, space for residential services and commercial opportunities, and safe green space.

But San Francisco is facing a severe housing shortage, and while smaller, mixed-income developments may be touted as an ideal solution, there’s a problem of practicality.

“There’s a certain amount of pressure to address a really egregious problem, which is people living on the streets,” says Baker. “Ultimately, when we get that pretty much solved, we have to rethink affordable housing so that it’s more diverse in income.”

He says that the reality of designing affordable housing is that “there are sort of philosophical directions, and then there’s what works for funding things.”

Where the Affordable Projects Will Be Built

But Baker and other architects around the Mission are trying to meld the two, working to design buildings that are legally required to offer all of their apartments at below-market rate while continuing to employ many of the best practices of mixed-income housing design. The result, at the intersection of design and public policy, may ultimately ease the Mission’s housing pressure while simultaneously enhancing community development.

The first thing the architects note is that while the housing developments they are designing are designated as 100 percent affordable, they do serve diverse populations.

Herman Coliver Locus Architecture is designing the building going in at 1296 Shotwell St., which will provide 94 affordable apartments to seniors — and even in that group the seniors come from different backgrounds.

“[It’s] partly low-income seniors and party formerly homeless seniors. So that is a mix of incomes,” says Susie Coliver, one of the firm’s principals. “And frankly, those communities are not the same.”

The site of the planned affordable senior housing at 1296 Shotwell Street. Photo by Sonner Kehrt

The site of the planned affordable senior housing at 1296 Shotwell Street. Photo by Sonner Kehrt

The project at 1296 Shotwell St. The white box on the right is the heigh of the proposed development at 1515 South Van Ness Ave. Design by Herman Coliver Locus.

The project at 1296 Shotwell St. The white box on the right is the heigh of the proposed development at 1515 South Van Ness Ave. Design by Herman Coliver Locus.

“There’s plenty of integration,” says Baker, referring to the nine-story building to be constructed at 1950 Mission St. Of the 157 units, 20 percent will be reserved for formerly homeless residents. Other apartments will be offered to families making between 45 and 60 percent of the area median income, or between $48,400 and $64,600 a year for a family of four.

The 60 percent tier, Baker says, is essentially working middle-class housing. “They’re really mixed-income, effectively,” he says, “even though they’re called affordable.”

As with more traditional mixed-income communities, which typically offer market-rate apartments alongside below-market rate ones, the developments are structured to help ensure that there is no sense of segregation between groups within the buildings themselves.

The units are intentionally designed to be similar, says Coliver. And in both projects, units for various income tiers are spread equally throughout the buildings.

The exception, says Yakuh Askew, principal at Y.A. Studio, is when particular groups may require certain support programs. His firm, in conjunction with Mithun/Solomon, is designing the 127-unit affordable family housing building that will be going up at 2060 Folsom St. between 16th and 17th streets.

Some 20 percent of the units will be reserved for young adults, typically between 18 and 24 years old, who are aging out of the foster care system and often have no home or support system. In 2006, San Francisco identified this population as particularly vulnerable to homelessness, with fewer than 350 units dedicated to housing some 1,600 young adults.

About 25 of the building’s studio and one-bedroom units will be set aside for these so-called transitional age youth. Askew adds that the building will also offer support services and community rooms dedicated to the group. The remaining apartments will be offered to families making up to 60 percent of the area median income.

Support services will also be available to people previously living in shelters or on the street.

People who have not recently had a home of their own will receive many of the basic necessities for setting up an apartment, like cooking utensils and cleaning supplies, says Coliver. “[They’re] things that most people already moving into a home would already own, especially by the time you’re a senior. But there’s a recognition that those living on the streets usually don’t.”

These services are coordinated by the non-profits working with the design teams.

Herman Coliver Locus Architects and Y.A. Studios are both partnered with the Mission Economic Development Agency and Chinatown Community Development Center to ensure a support system for residents at 1296 Shotwell St. and 2060 Folsom St. and to develop ways to connect them to the larger community. David Baker Architects has been working with BRIDGE Housing and Mission Housing Development Corporation at 1950 Mission St.

“Mission Housing is a great asset in the mix,” says Baker. “It really pushed to make the building really listen to the community and really integrated into the community.”

That idea—integration in the community—is at the core of the concepts guiding the new developments. Being centrally located within a bustling urban center can, in itself, help to alleviate many of the problems historically faced by tenants of affordable housing.

“Where you place affordable housing and support services right in the center of the city, you’re basically opening up a lot more opportunities in terms of just socialization, access to transit, and other core services and community services,” says Askew.

But there should not be an assumption that the developments have nothing to offer in return. Rather, the designers say, affordable housing communities can provide services not just to residents but also to the community at large. This not only helps the neighborhood, but also encourages a rapport that may insulate against the problems of isolation that plagued earlier fully-affordable housing projects.

At 1296 Shotwell St., a 1200 square foot community space will provide room for resident gatherings. But, says Coliver, it “will also be available to the broader community to hold different events or meetings.”

The 2060 Folsom building also aims to serve both its residents and the larger community.

“The ground floor is basically about 50 percent community-focused and about 50 percent building-focused,” says Askew. “We have building systems in there, but we also have PODER, we have Jamestown, Mission Neighborhood Center is providing childcare services,” he says, listing community development organizations within the Mission.

Such services help to ensure a connection between residents of affordable housing and the larger community.

“The day care that gets put in affordable housing, it’s available to the greater neighborhood, so you get a lot of mixing,” says Baker. In the ground floor of the 1950 Mission St. development, a Head Start program will join Mission Girls, a Mission Neighborhood Centers program that focuses on empowering young women, along with other non-profit programs.

But the give-and-take between a neighborhood and a building can be even subtler. Community value is enhanced by aesthetic choices and the way neighbors experience the building on a daily basis.

“There are ideas that have become standard, which are you don’t, you know, put a parking garage on the ground floor,” says Baker.

At 1950 Mission St., the ground floor is designed to serve as an extension of neighboring ground-level space. In addition to housing residential and community services, it will also provide retail space. And, in keeping with the character of the Mission, the building’s design encompasses street-level artist studios and gallery space. Baker says these spaces will be rented at affordable rates, but will be an asset for the entire community.

And then there’s the Paseo Artista.

“It’s not for cars,” he emphasizes. Instead, it will be an art-lined pedestrian passageway, which will run along the base of the building. The alley will offer public daytime access to the artist studios and connect Mission Street with Weiss Street, while providing a literal nexus between the affordable housing community and the surrounding neighborhood.

For the development at 2060 Folsom Street, the designers saw a similar relationship between the building and the new park at 17th and Folsom streets. Although the park and the housing project were developed separately, the new green space was a central focus for the building’s architects.

The park allowed for “a sort of front porch approach to the design,” says Askew.

The team worked to create a seamless integration between the park and the building, with the development’s central courtyard open to the park, and gates that allow access between the park and the pedestrian plaza at the base of the building. Some retail space in the ground floor will encourage further integration.

Several of the non-profits that will be located in the ground floor of the building were also involved in planning the new park, says Karoleen Feng, the director of community real estate at Mission Economic Development Agency. The organizations’ plans to use the park for their own community programming will help further connect the building with what Feng predicts will be a very active park.

“Even the design of the spaces within the park are based on what the community would actually use,” she says.

A mock-up of 2070 Folsom Street from Shotwell and 16th streets. Design by Mithun Solomon and Y.A. Studio.

A mock-up of 2060 Folsom St. from Shotwell and 16th streets. Design by Mithun Solomon and Y.A. Studio.

The park will become even more important within the community as the area around 2060 Folsom St. changes. Multiple market-rate and affordable housing properties are slated for development in the area, including at 1990 Folsom St., where Mission Economic Development Agency, along with Tenderloin Neighborhood Development Center, recently secured funding for another fully affordable building.

Fitting in well with the surrounding community is key to designing 100 percent affordable housing, says Coliver. “We work very hard to make sure it’s not isolated, that there’s nothing about it that suggests lesser or poorer or subsidized.”

And she says, good design should actively honor the character of the neighborhood. The senior housing her firm is designing at 1296 Shotwell St. near Cesar Chavez St. is the first new development to be built since the area was designated a Latino Cultural District two years ago.

“We’re excited,” says Coliver. “We don’t yet know how it’s going to play out, but we’ve been talking to Calle 24 [the community association that advocated for the designation] about what that might portend for this project.”

That recognition, that a building and its neighborhood are inherently a part of each other, is a critical component of designing affordable housing in the Mission. Many of the characteristics of New Urbanism—diversity, walkability, character, community—are a natural part of the Mission. It’s old urbanism, the very ideas that the planning concept strives to replicate in places where it hasn’t naturally occurred.

“There’s a lot sort of built in by doing projects in the Mission District,” Askew says.

Construction has started on the new park at Folsom and 17th streets. The 100 percent affordable housing development at 2060 Folsom Street will be built next door.

Julian Mark contributed the map to this article. 

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6 Comments

  1. Bob Evans

    I for one, am so happy to see massive amounts of public funds ( $948,000 a unit on S. Van Ness) go to to shower a few lucky lottery winners with expensive subsidized housing, in close in, trendy areas. Why should the rich get all the perks, when we can spend lots of obviously excess, unneeded public money to give a few of the poor, a taste of the good life. Makes you want to PRAISE JESUS …

    • Chad Russo

      How dare the poor lead a decent life. They should be punished, nay, PERSECUTED, eh, Bob?

      • Bob Evans

        Yeah, it’s so nice to lift a few up, so all the rest can dream of the long odds of possibly their turn, before they die…… Lost of crushed dreams after those subsidized lotteries. But like the LOTTO says, NOT FOR INVESTMENT PURPOSES…..

      • Bob Evans

        I feel “shamed” now…. How about starting luxury subsidized dining to assuage my guilt ? Affordable high end dining ! It’s the “compassionate” thing to do ! PRAISE JESUS !

  2. Bob Evans

    “New park at Folsom and 17th streets”

    Great, another lovey location for the homeless pitch their tents. Who wants to take bets todays “urban planners” will not be anymore successful than yesterdays ?

  3. Robert D. Finney Ph.D.

    Evidentiary Analytics is investigating Bridge Housing Corporation’s violations of federal/California law, resident abuse, pay-to-play donor relationships, and lax government oversight by the IRS and California Tax Allocation Committee (substantiated by multiple GAO reports).
    Evidentiary Analytics’ principal investigator has decades of U.S. HUD prosecution experience and has discovered undisputed evidence that justifies a 20% decrease in Bridge Housing’s funding.
    Evidentiary Analytics’ final report will be published upon investigation completion.
    Evidentiary Analytics’ mission is the strategic linkage of disparate information to discover and investigate corporate and government malfeasance.

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