Adrianne Steichen: Bay Area Housing Policy

Adrianne Steichen: Bay Area Housing Policy

by | Interviews

“For the first time, residents of San Francisco actually care that other people can’t afford to live here… The recent Federal Administration change is strangely having the effect it wanted to have, namely, disrupting the status quo. [We] should use it as an opportunity to advance conversations on housing in a positive way.”

Adrianne Steichen, Principal of Pyatok Architecture and Urban Design, will be a panelist at the upcoming AIAsf Housing Forum, sponsored by the AIA in San Francisco, to be held March 24, 2017 at the AIA-SF offices in downtown San Francisco.

What are your hopes for the symposium? Why are you here?

As a society, we haven’t figured out, or we’ve forgotten, how to build housing for all of our residents. This conversation is finally starting to happen, in different pockets. There are people like my fellow symposium panelist Sonja Trauss of the SF Bay Area Renter’s Federation, as well as the YIMBY Party, and the San Francisco Housing Action Coalition.

For the first time, it seems that current residents of San Francisco actually care that other people can’t afford to live here!

I was speaking recently with a San Francisco city planner who observed that architects often don’t care about policy, only about design – and then added, “But as an architect, YOU care about policy, the things we planners have to deal with, day in and day out. You could be an ally in that conversation.” And that’s what I hope for this symposium, that it will bring together all these different voices for policies and design, and have a complete conversation.

We need to start having this conversation in public with people who live in the Bay Area and who aren’t normally involved in housing policy. Until now, people have felt isolated. They need to realize that they are not alone in their point of view.

Do you think there’s a Bay Area housing crisis?

Yes, absolutely. There has clearly been an underproduction of housing for 40-50 years. Cities have not made it easy for people to build housing, of any size. For example, the changes in Accessory Dwelling Unit (ADU) policies in San Francisco took 10 years. That is the speed of policy change.

A local digital cartographer and former Google engineer, Eric Fischer (Twitter: @enf), did a study  recently, of almost 70 years of rent ad postings in the San Francisco Chronicle. He suggested that it even adjusting for income, it could take 5700 new units per year to build enough to stabilize to the current economy. Instead, there was a year that San Francisco only added 300 units.

Even if neighborhood associations have too much power, as some people claim, that’s not the only challenge. At another event, I was talking to a local architect who told me that it took 3 years to get Planning approval for a 180-unit building in San Francisco’s South of Market area. That 3-year delay wasn’t neighborhood opposition – it was that the San Francisco Department of Public Works and the San Francisco Metropolitan Transit Authority couldn’t agree on where a bike lane should be. This kind of inter-departmental conflict happens all the time, and there’s no easy way to address it. It would take an alignment of Federal, state, and local policies – and politicians – to solve that problem.

Sometimes you need an outsider to come in and ask obvious questions, like why aren’t we building 14-story towers?

Despite all this, I see a real chance for change, even though in the past efforts have stalled. Why? Frankly, the recent Federal Administration change, which was so shocking to the Bay Area, is strangely having the effect it wanted to have, namely, disrupting the status quo. People can use it as an opportunity to advance conversations on housing – in a positive way.

Business are impacted by the housing shortage in other ways, too. Businesses need to attract good employees, people who don’t live here already. Other cities like Boston have a cost of living adjustment of 30%, but business can’t afford to pay people that much more. If you relocate the business to a less expensive area of the country or even abroad … yes, business is getting more global. But it still DOES matter where you live and practice as an architect. It impacts the neighborhood, and you have to design for the area you’re in.

The Ella Baker Center for Human Rights used to be in my building. The building has history of hosting nonprofits (NPs) but now that its finally up to code, all the nonprofits are being displaced. Displacement isn’t just happening to residents. It’s happening to businesses as well.

Is gentrification a good thing? Bad thing?

Gentrification is the 3rd rail of housing policy. Controversial answer: it’s a good thing. The challenge is that with gentrification comes displacement, which is a bad thing. We need a way to invest in our neighborhoods to improve quality of life, and safety, without displacing the people who already live there. UC Berkeley has been leading great work on this subject with their Urban Displacement Project.

What does “home” mean to you?

Home is a place where you feel safe and you can be yourself, be creative. It’s a feeling. Home is where you feel most comfortable. That could be a local cafe, or your house. It could be quiet, or out among the multitudes.

What role do you envision for tech companies regarding Bay Area housing, both responsibilities and opportunities?

It’s actually almost a “town and gown” relationship, similar to a university town. The campus is for students (in this case, tech workers) and other people who belong there. You can live your entire life there: eat, sleep, and work, all on the same campus, without ever having to leave it. Meanwhile, the surrounding areas are excluded. Examples from the Bay Area could include the Google campus, or the new Apple “spaceship” headquarters.

Technology can bring people together or separate them further. You’d think that tech companies would want to know their customers better as neighbors, and thus would encourage their own people to interact more. For truly successful cities, you need a relationship, an engagement. Tech companies could be more interested in their neighbors than they typically have been – it happens, but is far from common.

Eric Fischer’s study is one example of how a high-tech approach, data mining and complex analysis, could help address these problems more effectively than we could without their help. At the end of the day, we have to remember that with housing, you have real humans involved, real people. We can’t forget them.

Links (for Eric Fischer Study)

Employment, construction, and the cost of San Francisco apartments” is Eric Fischer’s actual blog entry describing his rent study, May 14, 2016. His data is available for download on Github as well.

A few additional articles discussing his post:

One Man Compiled 68 Years of Data To Find Out Why Rents Go Up” in SF Curbed, May 17, 2016

A Guy Just Transcribed 30 Years of For-Rent Ads” in The Observer, May 18, 2016

This Is What You Learn When You Archive 68 Years Of SF Rental Listings” in SFist, May 18, 2016

His Twitter account @enf

Fischer was recently artist in residence at the Exploratorium.

Where he is now, at Mapbox

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