Kearstin Dischinger: Policy Planning and Bay Area Housing

Kearstin Dischinger: Policy Planning and Bay Area Housing

by | Interviews

“I see this symposium as an opportunity to engage with architects who care deeply about the area… Policymakers and designers speak different languages, but we both need to engage with the public and with one another… [In San Francisco] our identity is in our diversity. That’s why people want to come here. [And yet] the way we think about housing hasn’t changed in 50 years…”

Kearstin Dischinger, a Policy Planner for the San Francisco Planning Department, 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?

I’ve been working for the City for over 10 years, on all kinds of policy issues: zoning, land-use, housing requirements. San Francisco public engagement has a meaningful role in policy makers’ final decisions. Architecture and design professionals are also greatly impacted by these decisions, but they don’t have the time or the energy to engage.

One concept that comes up is “architecture as activism”, and getting architects to approach this outside of their own designs in order to see the larger context. I see this symposium as an opportunity to engage with architects who care deeply about the area, and who understand these issues.

I’ve had several projects over the years engaging directly with design professionals. I’ve partnered with CCA’s Urban Works Agency, working with three professors, bringing to them and their students the housing issues that we confront from a policy perspective. They’ve run excellent studios on Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs) and on developing creative solutions for more housing in San Francisco. The design students helped us to envision and convey a sense of what these units might actually look like.

Another project, with Mark Hogan and Ian Dunn of Openscope Studio, was to understand and improve the possibilities for adding second units, also known as Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs). Openscope Studio created a handbook for property owners interested in creating a new ADU.

A third project was partnering with David Baker Architecture on a project called “Home SF”. The question was how to address zoning in outlying neighborhoods, particularly in light of increased housing needs. Now, we have to think strategically in order to add more housing to those areas. For example, a proposed policy might suggest allowing 2 additional stories in a multi-family building as long as 30% of the units were set aside as affordable housing. David Baker helped illustrate and explain to the public how the buildings would fit into the existing context.

Policymakers and designers speak in different languages: design and code. However, we both need to engage with the public and with one another. I’m really excited about the opportunity to do that at this symposium.

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

We are greatly impacted by housing affordability. These same pressures are felt in other cities as a national trend towards urbanization of different populations: seniors, young people, working professionals. Cities and states all over have to think about how to address these changes. Lack of affordability threatens our cities’ diversity and quality of life.

If we fail, we will have gentrified cities with no mix of incomes. This lack of diversity impacts public policy in all areas.

We’re facing a big moment in public policy right now. We’re still working within policies that were put in place in the late 1970s. Now, there are major shifts in jobs and economic growth. We need all hands on deck now, state and local officials, designers, policymakers, developers, and finance – to respond to these changes.

Is gentrification a good thing? Bad thing?

Urbanist Jane Jacobs made an important point about urban development. It’s not how much development, it’s the pace of that change, because change is always happening. In San Francisco, during economic booms, development wants to ride the wave of higher incomes, and neighborhoods can transform – restaurants start flipping, for example. But our identity is in our diversity, so we need to enable more housing while limiting loss of diversity. We love our City! That’s why people want to come here – the diverse and dynamic residents.

There is so much stress about neighborhood change, which has intensified attention on new development. We are all looking for new development to improve our communities – but now, new buildings are asked to solve every single problem that there is: it has to be affordable, address seniors, millennials, families, meet every need… and, be no taller than the neighboring buildings. That’s a lot of constraints.

Another effect of California policies is that it makes moving “sticky” – people get a place, and then 10 years later they can’t afford to move because costs have risen too much. They can’t afford to buy a different place because prices have gone up too much, property taxes have soared – or they can’t afford to leave their rent-controlled apartment. This further increases the hopes for new housing.

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

The way we think about housing hasn’t changed in 50 years. We went from Craftsmen to tract housing. Tech companies could help with innovation, which would mean going beyond the “easy wins” of tech in its purest form. They could start thinking in terms of philanthropy dollars, or partnering with cities to establish their offices, but I mean more than that. We need to modernize the way housing is built.

Housing and urbanization are big, big issues. We all need to take a new look and re-define what housing really IS. It should be about flexibility, for one thing. Right now, we have to choose what type of housing to build: is to for families? seniors? But what if housing were flexible, moving walls, to reconfigure existing buildings without having to tear everything out in such a costly way? I would love to see tech take on some of these questions.

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