How Sustainable Developers are Changing the Game of Affordable Housing

Over the last few years, there's been plenty of talk about San Francisco's housing crisis and the city's ever changing facade — from local housing policies to gentrification, we've heard it all. Back in February, even Stephen Colbert joked that the 1906 San Francisco earthquake marked "the last time anyone could afford to live there without six roommates".

One thing we don't often hear about in this city are the affordable urban living spaces being built everyday. I’m not trying to magnify a false sense of positivity — SF housing faces a lot of challenges to be sure. But in a real, tangible, way developers both for profit and non-profit are working to build sustainable, AFFORDABLE and functional homes for San Franciscans of all backgrounds. They're also working with various organizations like Project Access to redefine section 8 housing, allowing people to thrive in an environment that's not only beautiful but conducive to services that help through the healing process — single-handedly changing communities and blowing the disgraceful old model of low-income housing (like the infamous Cabrini-Green Projects in Chicago) out of the water.

Meet David Baker, a Mission-dweller and founding partner of David Baker + Partners, an architecture firm and strong community force behind the green design movement. "Our work acts as an advocate for improved urban planning," Baker's firm states, "where looking good only counts if it does good, too. I personally like living in a dense, urban environment. There’s challenges and there are also rewards to living in this type of setting.” The challenge for the vast majority San Franciscans is the actual price of living, something that the company confronts. “We try to design the best high density urban development in terms of generating a sense of community and interaction for the people. I think we are very responsive to the urban context. We try to respond to all the conditions through our designs.

David Baker's relationship with green architecture began at a young age. His inspiration first sprang from a bunch of monographs of famous architects given to him by his dad, who dropped out of school in the ninth-grade, becoming a self-taught architect who designed some Frank Lloyd Wright-style solar housing in the late 40’s and early 50’s. The dedication to the community doesn't end with grand-openings either. The firm has a long time history and legacy serving urban activism, working closely with organizations like the Greenbelt Alliance, India Basin Neighborhood Association , the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, Housing Action Coalition and Rebuilding Together Oakland inactive.

Our creative director, Paige Loczi, recently attended the AIA Architecture and Social Services Supporting Communities At-Risk conference, featuring the Tassafaronga Village in East Oakland, built by Baker + Partners. The village received the U.S. Green Building Council LEED Platinum award in 2011 and incorporates solar power to generate electricity and heat water, along with reconstructed streets with traffic noise buffers, green storm-water infrastructure, and green roofs — just to name a few perks. But more than just an award-winning complex, the Tassafaronga community, finished in early 2010, still thrives in its mixed-income dwelling spread out on over 7 acres of green pathways, pocket parks, open spaces, urban gardens and playgrounds (that children actually play in, I should add). There's a surprising lack of statistics as to what specific changes have occurred within the populace, as it's too early to conjure up hard facts. But if one would ask a person living in the community, it's easy to tell: little things like comfort levels between mixed income, race, lifestyle, and improvement in the surrounding school children.

And then there's the 8th and Howard Studios that has literally brought the life back into SOMA, making it one of the up-and-coming neighborhoods in San Francisco. There's the uber cool Sightglass Coffee a block away, a green advertisement company called PlanetUp Ads across the street, and the enormous natural food store, Urban Harvest, directly underneath. Some of the authenticity of the neighborhood's diversity should be accredited to this five-story, 162 unit complex divided into affordable family houses and modern single-occupancy studios, each section with its own private courtyard. The complex boasts an eclectic mix of artists, immigrants, veterans, and young people, taking large strides in recognizing the diverse economic and social landscape in the city.

"The thing that always amazes me about San Francisco is how diverse it is here," David told me earlier this week. "You go up to Portland or somewhere in the Midwest and there’s more diversity that there used to be, but I think in San Francisco there’s so much of it that no one really thinks about it anymore. I think it’s good, and it invigorates the mix. We’re all here doing it together."

On Sunday, at the Yerba Buena screening room, you can catch the premier of the film Pruitt-Igoe Myth: the Urban History. Described as, "footage and images that have helped to perpetuate a myth of failure, a failure that has been used to critique Modernist architecture, attack public assistance programs, and stigmatize public housing residents. The film seeks to set the historical record straight." (2011, 83 min, digital)