David Baker Architects


Affordable Housing in COVID Times: A Q&A with San Francisco Architect David Baker

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by Lydia Lee


This interview originally appeared in The Frisc on July 9, 2020.

Image: Anne Hamersky

The architect David Baker has been designing affordable housing in San Francisco for more than 35 years. His eponymous company of 45 staffers was just named firm of the year by the American Institute of Architects, California Council. “The firm is known in San Francisco to prioritize people over parking and to welcome all with materiality, space and a great front door — none of which are easy feats in the urban sprawl of the Bay Area,” the council said in its announcement.

Baker, 70, has been sheltering in place at the net-zero-energy home he designed in the Mission district. He spoke to The Frisc over Zoom about working remotely in the age of coronavirus, the urgency of housing “the neediest people,” and why he’s optimistic about the future.

The conversation has been edited and condensed.

The Frisc: First of all, how are you?

David Baker: I got really sick in March, and I’m convinced it was COVID but haven’t managed to get an antibody test yet. Fortunately, I’m pretty set up for working from home. [My partner and I] have a nice outdoor space that is private. And my cats are like, “Dad, I’m so much happier!” now that I’m home all day. The office has transitioned smoothly. We already had people working remotely from Birmingham and L.A., and by the time COVID happened, every single project was in the cloud. In a recent push, we had two people in Birmingham, two people in Oakland, and two people in San Francisco working on drawings all at once. We won the California firm of the year award with a remote interview.

How is business these days?

It’s good right now. Affordable housing has a very long timeline — five years is fast. The majority of our jobs are moving forward, and we’ve been hired for some large new ones. We’ve started working for tech companies and tech-company-associated companies. I can’t tell you who they are, but they are privately funding some affordable housing. We’ve had three people join since the shutdown started and are hiring more now. Of course, we are waiting for the other shoe to drop. At some point, this is going to be an economic massacre. Hopefully there will be a kinder, gentler federal government at that point.

Many people think that SF should only build 100% affordable housing. Is that economically feasible?

It depends on what you mean by affordable housing. I’m going to define it as special-needs housing, which needs a lot of public investment. No market-rate developer is going to build something like housing for formerly homeless seniors, because they can’t make a profit. So yes, if we made a huge effort and invested billions of dollars, we could house the neediest people.

There’s a fantastic opportunity here if California continues to fund affordable housing with sensible bond programs. During times of economic slowdown, you get much more value out of your affordable housing dollar. Ten years ago, during the previous recession, we’d end a project and were like, “We’re a million dollars under budget! Let’s buy a bunch of solar collectors and a really nice barbecue.” My prediction is that market-rate housing is going to suffer a severe cutback. If we can backfill with affordable housing, we can build a lot of it.

But it’s clear that middle-income workforce housing is also really needed, which some people lump with affordable housing. It’s a tragedy and disgrace that we haven’t been able to build unsubsidized workforce housing. Subsidizing enough of it through inclusionary housing fees on market-rate housing is not economically feasible. The only way to get there is to lower or eliminate the regulatory burden, which is huge.

Developers would gladly build workforce housing that meets certain affordability criteria if they didn’t have to go through the planning, environmental, and public review process. All the live-work housing in West Berkeley was built this way. All that stuff that is not bricks-and-mortar — wind studies, shadow studies, community benefit fees — adds $200,000 to the cost per unit.

You put a tax on cigarettes to discourage smoking; you don’t put a tax on something you want. Why do we have a huge tax on housing?

Baker’s firm designed the brick-clad 222 Taylor in the Tenderloin, which holds 113 affordable units. It took 11 years to complete. Image: Bruce Damonte

The planning department’s recent housing affordability report said SF needs to build 5,000 units a year — 150,000 more units by 2050 — and one-third of those should be affordable units. Is that feasible?

It’s a great goal, and we should figure out how to do it. It’s also completely impossible right now. During the most crazy boom times in 2016, we added 5,000 units. But 2011, we added only a bit more than 200 units. The average is way below the 5,000 units we would have to complete every year. In addition to increasing funding and shortening the approval process, SB 35 is a way to chip away at that problem. Repealing Article 34 would also be a good idea.

How do you think affordable housing design is going to change as a result of the pandemic?

We’re not always going to be living under a pandemic. But balconies and open-air circulation are very good to have. Some jurisdictions operated under the misguided idea that they were going to build more affordable housing by eliminating private open space. They banned them to save a tenth of a percent of the construction budget, and it was a bad health decision. I was in Denmark, where it snows, and every housing unit in Copenhagen has an outdoor space. I asked an architect if there was a regulation [that mandated outdoor spaces], and he went, “Oh no, who would build an apartment without a viable outdoor space attached? That would be wrong.” All corridors in Northern California housing developments should be open-air. You don’t feel like you’re in an apartment building, you don’t smell what your neighbor is cooking, and it’s better for COVID-19.

Lydia Lee writes about architecture and design in the Bay Area. Her work for The Frisc includes a look at a major Civic Center redesign and a grassroots effort to make bicycling safer.