The Dom-i-city Effect
Can a Paris streetscape inspire SF to create 10,000 new homes?
By Joel P. Engardio
Most millennials have little hope of raising a family in San Francisco while Baby Boomers face growing old without their kids and grandchildren close by.
This stark reality finally has people talking about our lack of middle-income housing. For decades, we refused to accommodate future population growth. Now, we have a housing crisis and multiple generations are seeking relief.
But where is today’s expansion opportunity? San Francisco is largely a two-story town, and no one wants apartment towers in their neighborhoods. Yet if we’re willing to accept just six stories on transit corridors and in parts of some residential areas, we can create 10,000 new units of family housing.
The concept is called Dom-i-city, short for Domiciles in the City. Everyone I’ve met the past three years has heard me promote this original vision of architect and westside resident Eugene Lew.
Dom-i-city can put 15 units of family-friendly housing on the footprint of three standard-sized lots in the areas of San Francisco where rows of attached homes are arranged on a uniform grid of streets.
Land is created by exchange. Dom-i-city starts with a pilot version on a transit corridor. Then the pilot offers free units to any three contiguous homeowners willing to swap their nearby homes. This clears the land for the next building, and the process repeats until the goal of 10,000 units is reached.
“Dom-i-city is bold and innovative,” said Assemblymember David Chiu, chair of the state assembly’s housing committee. “It’s an example of the kind of ideas we’ll need to solve our housing crisis, if we're going to retain working families and seniors in San Francisco."
Paris in the Sunset
I previously described Dom-i-city as a chance to “turn the Sunset into Paris.” Some took umbrage that the Sunset or any of San Francisco’s distinct neighborhoods would become a carbon copy of another city.
My point was that six-story buildings are common in the residential areas of Paris, a city many consider beautiful and livable. Visitors recall the quaint sidewalk cafes, ground floor bistros and tree-lined streets — not the building height. With Dom-i-city, San Francisco could inspire the same feeling.
Last year, westside Supervisor Norman Yee released a policy paper to promote family housing. It said there is a need for “missing middle” housing — mid-rise buildings with at least two bedrooms per unit.
San Francisco used to build those before neighborhoods adopted strict height limits. For example, there’s a six-story apartment building from the Art Deco era on West Portal Avenue. And there are two more like it on Irving Street in the Sunset.
Yee’s report concluded new mid-rise buildings would blend well in outer neighborhoods like the Bayview, Excelsior, Richmond and Sunset. Plus, the added families “can create the foot traffic to support local commercial corridors.”
Dom-i-city fits the bill. It’s a mid-rise building of five residential stories above a ground floor dedicated to a versatile combination of parking, retail and community space. Customizable facades can match neighborhood character.
The 15 units average 1,100 square feet with two or three bedrooms, two bathrooms, open kitchen plan, laundry and extra storage. The common area includes a music practice room and a large garden courtyard.
“Dom-i-city is a concrete application of the work we’ve been doing in Sacramento to address our deep housing shortage — allowing mid-rise apartment buildings near transit and getting them built more quickly,” said state Senator Scott Wiener. “I welcome all ideas to get the job done.”
There are plenty of infill locations for Dom-i-city buildings along Muni train lines. But scaling the concept to 10,000 units will require Dom-i-city to anchor some residential blocks through the land exchange program.
Who would swap their home to participate? Dom-i-city provides elevator buildings for seniors who want to remain in their neighborhood and age in place. They can transfer a low property tax and give a modern Dom-i-city unit to their heirs.
Younger couples might swap if they bought an outdated house because nothing else was available. A move to Dom-i-city saves them the hassle and cost of adding a bathroom or upgrading a kitchen, which could make up for any difference in value of the land swap.
Dom-i-city would not radically alter the look of neighborhoods. It doesn’t automatically up-zone huge swaths of San Francisco. Dom-i-city is voluntary and will only appear where current residents choose the land exchange. The need to find three contiguous volunteers means it won’t happen on many blocks.
Yet the pool for potential land swaps is large enough for Dom-i-city to scale. Seniors occupy a quarter of three-bedroom homes in San Francisco. Participation of only 1.5 percent of San Francisco’s single-family homes in the land swap would create 10,000 units.
Financing and affordability
Philanthropies, foundations and tech companies will be asked to cover the pilot construction costs as a community benefit. They’ll also be repaid. When the last Dom-i-city is built, the units are sold at market rate to pay back the initial funders.
A non-profit will manage the process of creating land, administering funds and setting home prices. Developers will use equity and commercial financing to build the Dom-i-city structures on land secured by the non-profit.
The cost and process pencils out, according to developers associated with the San Francisco Housing Action Coalition.
Of the 15 units in each Dom-i-city structure, seven are sold at affordable prices for middle-income families. Three units are for land swap residents and five are sold at market rate.
Of the seven affordable homes, three are offered to families earning $100,000 to $125,000 (two public school teacher salaries). Four units target a $125,000 to $150,000 income bracket (two firefighter salaries). These families won’t spend more than 30 percent of their income on a Dom-i-city home.
“I like what Dom-i-city can do for San Francisco,” said Assemblymember Phil Ting. “It’ll blend people from various walks of life into one neighborhood, rather than having their income level determine where they can own a home.”
Quality of life
Dom-i-city offers space for a market, café, childcare or senior center that everyone in the neighborhood can use. It lets multiple generations of a family live down the hall or a floor away. It makes it easier for seniors in one building to receive targeted services or young parents in another to share taking each other’s kids to school.
Dom-i-city isn’t a threat to neighborhood character. It’s an enhancement that creates more community and quality of life. It’s also a lifeline.
“If we want to keep our families in San Francisco, we need to embrace creative housing solutions,” said Supervisor Katy Tang, who represents the Sunset district. "Dom-i-city is an idea worth trying.”