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.