Oct 3, 2017 0 Comments in Event Recap, HOME-SF, Land Use by

On Friday, September 8th, SFHAC members saw an informative presentation from Eugene Lew, the mind behind Dom-i-city. Along with co-presenters Joel Engardio (author of the Examiner’s coverage), and Eric Dew, he explained how he intended to solve some of the hardest issues facing San Francisco, namely, rising housing prices pushing out families, the elderly, and the middle class at-large. Following the holistic framework of Dom-i-city, the presentation described how the three prongs of Lew’s approach — the Product, the Strategy, and the Program — would solve San Francisco’s unique housing shortage and its cascading issues.

Engardio had everyone picture the iconic, previously-cheap row housing in the Sunset, which used to be a staple of middle-income San Franciscans. He then juxtaposed that image to the current reality of $1.2 million price tags without access to amenities or community spaces. Simply put, these living conditions do not merit the price tags they fetch, and are driving people from their homes and city.

Instead, Lew puts forward a design based on active, mixed-use development not unlike the much-admired streets of Paris. On the plot of three Sunset row houses, which house 3 families, he would house 15, and provide them with a better living experience.

Per his design, five stories of housing would sit above a versatile, public-use ground floor. Each home would have three full-sized bedrooms, two bathrooms, and a fully functional kitchen. Each set of 15 homes would also share a courtyard, providing families with space for children to play until their parents comfortably call them in for dinner.

While the upper floors are designed for private residences, the ground floor of is geared toward

public use. Versatility is paramount, as each would serve a different neighborhood need. One may be a community’s favorite coffee shop, while another may have a grocery, public service provider, or even off-street parking. It is easy to see how several of these would provide housing and amenities for a diverse community and their equally diverse needs.

One of the best pieces of the plan is its compatibility with HOME-SF, which could be used to achieve the total height of six stories, while creating affordable homes for a diverse, mixed-income neighborhood.

The main obstacle to family-friendly neighborhoods created by Dom-i-city is NIMBYism that San Franciscans know so well. Lew cites a deeply held, but deeply flawed NIMBY belief that new housing only brings new problems, instead of new benefits. However, Dom-i-city is centered on benefiting every neighbor, old and new.

To win the hearts and minds of skeptics, he proposes the city build a pilot version of Dom-i-city, so residents see the benefits it can provide. Specifically, the pilot can illustrate the following benefits:

  • Community Space – Communities will have the autonomy to decide the use of these ground floors, which will allow them to shape their own neighborhood.
  • Homes without stairs – Seniors, who may have trouble climbing stairs in their later years, will be able to age in place with independence and dignity, so they will not be displaced.
  • Teachers housing – will be able to find affordable housing, which will enable them to build a community in their schools systems and lead fulfilling lives outside the classroom.
  • Streetscapes – Activation from lively ground floors and additions of foliage will raise property values for all, lifting all boats.
  • Land – Simply put, land would be used more efficiently, providing a greater living experience for more people, and maximizing the potential of the city

At the moment, land is a problem for San Francisco. There are 175,000 standard-sized lots occupied by a single home. Conversion of only 1% of those lots would result in 10,000 new homes for San Francisco’s families, elderly, and teachers.

However, attaining land is still an obstacle. Lew sees a solution commensurate to other aspects of the plan. In the spirit of winning hearts and minds, he envisions a simple swap by current residents. Three Sunset homeowners would swap their contiguous houses for three units in the Dom-i-city pilot building that would go in their place.

This conjures the question: would homeowners be willing to swap? Because of increased affordability, access to amenities, and other benefits listed above, Lew says yes. The key is to offer the opportunity to motivated candidates, such as:

  • Retirees – Retirees, like Lew and his wife, are active, but have trouble with stairs, and would directly benefit from Dom-i-city’s design by aging in place among their friends and neighbors.
  • Aging parents – Dom-i-city increases the chances their children find affordable homes nearer to them, keeping family together.
  • Upgrade Seekers – Those living in run-down houses requiring expensive repairs would be wise to swap for a new home rising in value.
  • Livability Enthusiasts – Anyone who wishes their neighborhood featured more amenities, livability, and walkability would be see this as a chance to attain all of those things.

Considering the fact of rising prices forcing out families, the elderly, and community staples, like teachers, Lew argues there is a large pool of candidates for which this swap makes sense.

In order to make this program work, Lew suggests a financial program that uses the rapid appreciation of San Francisco homes to the advantage of middle-income San Franciscans.

Lew expects that the financial capability of middle-income families would not be sufficient to cover the cost of a home, so he suggests that a silent second close the gap, and both parties share in the appreciated value. Ironically, the high rate of appreciation in San Francisco is ideal for the success of a shared equity-financing program, like this. 

While this mechanism may be unfamiliar to many, they are fairly common. San Francisco’s Down Payment Assistance Loan Program (DALP) uses a similar model out of the Mayor’s Office of Housing and Community Development, as does the United Kingdom’s Help to Buy program.

Currently, the established delivery process does not work. In seven years, it has resulted in only 175 moderate-income homes per year. Lew’s proposed shared equity-financing program offers more than 825 Dom-i-city homes per year by recycling profits into the program for more land on which to build.

The political viability is undeniable in Lew’s eyes. The housing needs of workforce and middle-income families are addressed.  It implements HOME-SF. Developers will build Dom-i-city, as it enables them to meet inclusionary requirements. Also, it does not require any new taxes, bonds, or subsidies. It does not compete with other low-income programs for resources, and creates sustainable, environmentally responsible housing.

Engardio, Lew, and Dew left on a note of optimism. Dew cited deliverable benefits, potential usage of HOME-SF, and the current sense of urgency around housing creation as the framework for implementation. However he noted, “we can’t dally long.”

View Lew’s white paper here

About the Author

Nico Nagle

Nico joined the SF Housing Action Coalition in September 2017 after graduating from Trinity College (CT) with a BA in Public Policy and a minor in Urban Studies. After graduation, he decided to leave his snow boots behind and be part of the solution to the Bay Area’s housing shortage. He can be reached at Nico@sfhac.org.

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