Go West, New Housing -- Within Reason

By Joel P. Engardio

Venture West of Twin Peaks and you will discover something very curious and strange, even by San Francisco standards -- entire neighborhoods full of detached homes with a yard on all four sides.

Urban planners say this defies land-use logic, given the demand to live in San Francisco and the limited space of our small peninsula.

But District 7, which stretches from Mount Sutro to the ocean, is a unique and essential tile in the mosaic of our diverse city. It’s designed for families. It attracts people who seek a less frenetic pace and don’t mind a little more fog.

My husband and I own one of those detached homes. We enjoy the quiet surroundings and extra space for gardening while still being able to travel through the West Portal Muni tunnel to work downtown and access more lively parts of San Francisco.

I understand the anxiety westside residents feel upon hearing plans for San Francisco to build itself out of a housing shortage. We fear losing our quality of life if charming single-family homes are replaced with boxy condo towers and our neighborhoods become overrun with people and traffic.

Yet I’ve met an increasing number of longtime westside residents who are open to a reasonable amount of new housing along their transit corridors – as long as it doesn’t creep into the neighborhoods and is priced for working and middle-income families and seniors.

At first glance, Frank Noto fits the demographic I’d expect to oppose new development: he’s a senior, has owned his home nearly 30 years and is the president of his westside neighborhood association.

But the issue became personal for Noto, 65, when his adult daughter had to move back home along with her two children, ages 7 and 9. Noto’s daughter manages special education programs for San Francisco’s public elementary schools and can’t afford to live here

“All my neighbors know people whose children cannot find homes of their own,” Noto said. “Decades of downzoning and anti-housing politics got us where we are today.”

Howard Strassner was a neighborhood leader in the 1970s when he helped write the zoning code that restricted new construction on West Portal Avenue to a single story of 26 feet. He regrets it, especially since three Muni lines serve the area.

“The height limit was silly,” said Strassner, who is now in his seventies and wishes West Portal offered elevator condos with Muni access so he can stay in the neighborhood he loves when he can no longer maintain a large home and navigate the stairs.

Strassner also said downsizing from his home would free it up for a young family who needs the extra bedrooms.

I imagine several stories of ownership housing above retail along westside Muni lines would benefit everyone living in the nearby neighborhoods.

First, the creation of more homeowners will give westsiders more allies to vote down the parcel taxes that City Hall uses as an ATM. The new residents would also create demand for better amenities in the commercial areas.

Currently, every westside business district has stretches of shuttered storefronts punctuated by the occasional vape shop or massage parlor. I’d certainly like more quality options for shopping and dining.

I’ve talked to a number of westside seniors who say it’s possible to help solve San Francisco’s housing crisis while preserving – and even improving -- westside neighborhoods.

One of my favorite ideas is from 78-year-old Eugene Lew, a retired architect. He recently designed a five-story elevator building where all 15 units are 1,400 square feet, have three bedrooms and a parking space. It’s perfect for keeping families in San Francisco and would fit nicely on a transit corridor – or a section of the unused Balboa Reservoir near Ocean Avenue.

“Five stories is a useful height,” Lew said. “You can house more people and keep a nice scale. At five stories you can still whistle to your kid in the courtyard and call him to dinner.”

Talking to seniors like Noto, Strassner and Lew convinced me that we need to make sure the kids and grandkids of longtime residents will have a place to live when they start their own families.

The future of San Francisco depends on it.

Also published in San Francisco Examiner March 13, 2016

HousingJoel Engardio