Paris In the Sunset Is Possible, If We Think Outside the Box


By Joel P. Engardio

When San Francisco residents oppose new housing, it’s often because they see it causing problems like more traffic congestion. They also resent developers getting rich as their own kids are priced out of the city. They don’t see a community benefit for new housing — only further erosion of neighborhood character.

It’s an understandable reaction, especially if a new housing proposal doesn’t show how it can improve the lives of existing residents.

What if there was an idea for housing that doesn’t just cherish neighborhood character but also makes the neighborhood a nicer place to live?

This is the genius of Eugene Lew’s housing idea. The retired architect calls it Domicity, for Domiciles in the City.

I first wrote about Domicity in my column for San Francisco Examiner. Eugene mentioned how he was inspired by the livable residential neighborhoods of Paris. Wouldn’t it be nice, he wondered, if we could bring a little bit of Paris to San Francisco’s Sunset district? Consider the possible “before” and “after” photo. This image compares similarly sized streets in the Sunset and Paris:

Before/After:  Two residential streets of similar size in San Francisco's Sunset District and Paris.

Before/After: Two residential streets of similar size in San Francisco's Sunset District and Paris.

At first glance, it’s something you’d expect to generate protest: Six-story residential structures in the largely two-story Sunset district. Yet those six stories are purposefully designed to meet the needs of today’s Sunset residents. Where problems exist, Domicity offers solutions.

Let’s consider what Domicity solves.

Problem: The Sunset is a desert
Originally, the Sunset was sand dunes all the way to the ocean. We covered the sand with rows upon rows of attached single-family homes on a grid of streets. Yet the Sunset can still feel like a desert due to its lack of trees and abundance of concrete. Long blocks that only contain houses separate residents from amenities like stores, restaurants and cafes on the distant transit corridors. Homes can feel isolated.

Domicity Solution: A real sense of community
Domicity creates housing for 15 families in the footprint of three standard, attached Sunset lots. It puts five stories of housing (three units on each floor) above a ground floor with off-street parking, community space and retail. All the units face a courtyard below. Imagine several Domicity structures within a few blocks of each other. One could include a grocery on the ground floor that serves the entire neighborhood. One could offer a senior center. Another could provide space for child daycare. And yet another could have a bakery and café. Desolate blocks would be transformed into vibrant communities where people can connect and enjoy amenities close to their homes.

Each Domicity structure also creates its own mini-community with an enclosed garden courtyard for the 15 families it houses. Domicity doesn’t propose replacing single-family homes. But if only five percent of the Sunset were converted to Domicity, it would create 6,000 new homes — much-needed housing for both middle-income families and seniors who want to age in place in the neighborhood they love.

Problem: San Francisco is unaffordable and losing middle-income families
For decades, the rows of attached Sunset homes were affordable for middle-income families. They aren’t anymore. The average home price in the Sunset is now $1.2 million. Sadly, longtime homeowners who bought many years ago are watching their adult kids and grandkids leave San Francisco.

Domicity Solution: Middle-income homeownership
A young family can afford to own a Domicity home because a silent investor shares part of the cost. As the home appreciates in value, the family living in it and the investor both benefit. They each get a percentage of the profit when the home is sold. Investors wouldn’t be tied to a specific unit or family. They would buy shares. Many silent investors around the world seeking a safe place for their cash will see the value of Domicity. The best part is that real San Francisco families will get to live in and own these properties.

Problem: Unfit homes for the elderly
As longtime homeowners age, it becomes more difficult to climb stairs and maintain a large home. Showers and bathtubs can be dangerous to access. Seniors can feel isolated in their home, far from services.

Domicity Solution: An elevator building to age-in-place in your neighborhood
Domicity isn’t just for young families. It’s perfect for seniors. There are no stairs. Bathrooms have walk-in showers with benches. The building has an elevator and the amenities on the ground floor can serve seniors. If a particular Domicity structure houses a number of seniors, its ground floor could feature a large senior center to provide a wide range of services.

Problem: There isn’t any land left in San Francisco for new housing
As a seven-by-seven mile peninsula, land is limited in San Francisco. Where can we build Domicity when the Sunset is already filled with rows of attached homes?

Domicity Solution: Land swap
There is enough open land along Sunset transit corridors — for example, an old gas station on an empty corner — to build a pilot Domicity structure. To create room for the next Domicity and the one after that, longtime residents will swap their homes for a free Domicity unit. When three contiguous homes decide to swap, a new Domicity structure can be built.

This is entirely voluntary, which begs the question: who would ever choose to swap their home? The land swap is ideal for aging seniors, and there are many in the Sunset. Here’s how they benefit:

  1. Seniors get to move into a modern, elevator building at no cost. They can stay in their neighborhood without the worries of maintenance and mobility in their current home.
  2. Seniors or their heirs would be made whole or even profit from the land swap. They can sell the Domicity unit anytime at market price with no restrictions.
  3. The cost to remodel an original Sunset home can be prohibitive. But swapping it for a modern home means a senior and their heirs will have a more valuable asset to sell in the future.
  4. Seniors can feel satisfied that their land swap will help up to a dozen young families find affordable housing in San Francisco — and this could include their own kids and grandkids. An extended family could even live in several units in the same Domicity building.

Problem: More housing equals more traffic congestion
When we don’t build new transportation infrastructure to match new housing, the additional people who can’t get around results in gridlock.

Domicity Solution: Off-street parking plus nearby transit lines
The ground floor of Domicity is designed to accommodate an off-street parking space for every unit. This means existing homeowners in the area won’t have to compete for street parking with the new Domicity residents. If the Domicity structure is on a transit corridor and some residents don’t rely on a car, those parking spaces can be repurposed for more retail or community space. Millennials — many now in their 30s — are less apt to own cars than other generations, as they embrace car sharing.

Domicity seeks to build in the Sunset because of the transportation infrastructure that already exists there: two MUNI train lines. While those lines are chronically overcrowded on the east side of town, they often switch back before reaching the western end where density is low. By adding residents, Domicity will increase transportation demand in the far reaches of the Sunset. In turn, this will justify more frequent and higher capacity trains on those lines to benefit commuters citywide.

Problem: Original Sunset homes aren’t what families want today
Built 60, 70 or 80 years ago, many Sunset homes still have closed kitchens and one bathroom on the main floor. Families must spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to remodel older homes to fit today’s lifestyle — and that’s after spending a million dollars or more to initially purchase the home. This means only the wealthiest can afford a Sunset home conducive to modern family life.

Domicity Solution: Domicity is built for the modern family
Each Domicity unit is 1,200 square feet. The design gives families what they want with three real-sized bedrooms, two bathrooms and an open kitchen. There is extra storage in the unit. Concrete floors provide fire safety but also a great sound buffer to keep neighbors happy. There is even a music room on the ground floor for kids to practice squawking instruments without disturbing the rest of the building. There is also a sheltered courtyard on the roof of the ground floor. The units look down on green space with a playground. From the kitchen window, parents can call down to their kids for dinner.

Big Ideas Require Open Minds
New housing should give residents what they need. It should inspire them to celebrate solutions, not give them more problems and headaches.

We have serious housing issues in San Francisco. We don’t know where our kids and grandkids will live, not to mention our teachers and police officers. So when a housing idea comes along that offers to improve our neighborhoods and help working San Franciscans stay in our city, we should consider it with an open mind.

I met Domicity’s creator, Eugene Lew, at the Apple store in Stonestown Mall because he was taking a class there. Right away I was impressed. Eugene was an architect from an era of hand drafting. Yet as a senior citizen he was eager to switch to the Mac. This says a lot about Eugene — always looking forward.

Eugene has been retired for many years. He doesn’t have a financial stake in his idea. He wants the city to build the pilot Domicity. And he would swap his own house. Being able to age in place in San Francisco with his wife is the only personal benefit he would see from Domicity. Eugene has lived in San Francisco for half a century and has prospered. Now he wants to give back by making sure the next generation will have the same opportunity.

When Eugene first contacted me, he said he had a “big idea” for housing. It sure was. He even wrote a thoughtful white paper that explains how Domicity will work. We have to think big if we’re going to have any chance to solve our housing crisis.

Let’s follow his example and consider how Domicity can house San Francisco’s future.

Also published in Bay City Beacon October 9, 2017


Housing, InnovationJoel Engardio