David Baker Architects

The Architect as Social Activist: A Profile of David Baker

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By John Parman
LINE (San Francisco American Institute of Architects)
October 2004

Linden Court Affordable Housing. Located in West Oakland, this design provides 79 one-, two-, three-, and five-bedroom units.

More than most professionals, architects get involved in work that’ssocially responsible, David Baker believes. Because his clients are primarily nonprofit housing developers, “we have more opportunity to do so.” Although once a student activist, he attributes his interest in affordable housing to the palpable enthusiasm of its beneficiaries. He cites the example of a museum guard who lived with her disabled father in a one-bedroom apartment. “She couldn’t have a boyfriend because her father was sleeping in the living room, basically. Then she moved into a larger apartment that Bridge Housing developed, and now she’s married. She’s really happy.”

Affordable housing is a political football, Baker says. “The current process of tax credits was invented by Republicans who wanted to eliminate HUD’s direct programs of building affordable housing. Reagan did that. Ever since, they’ve been trying to kill the tax credits, too, because people are supposed to have five jobs, right? You’re not supposed to have subsidies.”

This is hypocrisy, he argues, pointing to SUV tax credits, the deductibility of home mortgage interest, and subsidies for parking in housing projects. “The notion that you can build your way to affordability with market-rate housing is flawed. If you want affordable housing, you have to deal with the social justice issues, too. You can’t have it without subsidizing it. The City does as much as it can, but until there’s a change nationally, we won’t have the production of affordable housing we need.”

8th + Howard Family Apartments/SOMA Studios. Evening view across the studio courtyard of the family community room and residential units above; glass marquee connects the studio and family courts.

Mabuhay Court Affordable Senior Housing + Northside Community Center. Entrance to community center and street level retail spaces. Affordable senior housing occupies 2nd and 3rd floors.

Subsidizing parking is another sore point. It drains money away from the housing and has a detrimental social impact. “There are tons of units south of Market, but do you see people walking around? No, because they’re living a suburban lifestyle. All this promised benefit of adding housing is undermined by parking. You don’t get the vitality of San Francisco’s older neighborhoods, which encourage people to walk or take the bus. Ninety percent of the time, America looks the way it looks because traffic engineers have hijacked the planning process. Planners can mandate so many housing units per acre, but it’s the parking spaces you have to provide that drive the real number.”

Baker pushes his clients to look beyond the pro forma. “If you’re doing urban housing and you manage to get neighborhood-serving retail on the ground floor, that’s socially responsible,” he says. “It amazes me how being proactive can change things. You say to a client, ‘Having retail along here will make it easier to get approval. Planners like retail.’ Most of the time, they agree. If it makes sense and they can afford it, they’ll do it.” A lot of his work involves “small battles for things like nine-foot ceilings” that, contrary to received wisdom, don’t add to the cost of his projects. “It may be hard for an architect designing a new museum to get excited about our getting developers to agree to these things—but we do, actually. We feel very happy when we get them.”

John Parman is the cochair of LINE.

Moonridge Affordable Farmworker Housing. Community gardens link clusters of affordable townhouses while providing open green space for the families to farm.