Tag Archives: Michael Robinson Cohen

Is Co-living About Affordability or Gentrification?

JJ Chez Hacker House in San Francisco

JJ Chez Hacker House in San Francisco

New Orleans        Talking on Wade’s World on KABF  with Michael Robinson Cohen about his Yale School of Architecture studio project to design a hundred thousand affordable housing units for San Francisco, or any other city that understands the problem and the potential, led us naturally to co-living.  Michael and his gang believe there is tremendous promise in co-living for the emerging young precariat, drawn into the “gig” economy to a portfolio of jobs in tech and elsewhere that combine good prospects with speculative wages and a boom-and-bust income instability.  For these emerging young architects smaller spaces with increased common space holding both the necessities of kitchen, laundry, and even work spaces along with amenities to wash it all down more easily, points towards a potential solution on affordability that those of us working in the midst of a desperate shortage of affordable houses for low-and-moderate income working people also find attractive.

            Sadly, there currently seems to be more slips between the cup and the lip as the promise of this idea confronts the reality of developers who seem determined to warp co-living schemes into an upgrade in price and performance of college residential houses in the high-priced, red-hot real estate markets in New York, the Bay Area, Seattle and the like.  In post-Katrina New Orleans,  there had been a number of interesting proposals for affordable “worker housing” to help get the necessary labor into the city at affordable prices when rents had doubled in the wake of the storm.  None were built, though some smaller unit style developments for artists, largely white unfortunately, with section 8 certificates did emerge in several places. 

            Reading about co-living schemes in New York City and the Bay Area, developers seem to be rejecting affordability in favor of charging premium rents and reshaping co-living almost as connection clubs.  The New York Times talks about “hacker houses” like the ones touted in movies about Facebook.  In New York co-living seems also like staying in the Yale or Harvard Club, except on a longer timeline with interviews by the owners and potential house or suite-mates and probably the kind of blackballing still common in the fraternity scene.  As one of these smaller developers says, “…you can get a bedroom in New York for less than $2500.”  You can buy a mansion in many cities around the country if you’re willing to pay $2500 per month!

            A hipper and hungrier developer called Stage 3 Properties wants to build a co-living operation with 180 units to house 400 people and describes its mission as “passionately disrupting the housing industry by reimagining its process, product and price points and curating an all-inclusive cosmopolitan living experience designed for today’s creative class.”  I can guarantee that anytime you have the words, “reimagining,” “curating,” “cosmopolitan,” and “creative class” in the same sentence you better hold your wallet and purses with both hands because you are being shaken down for every penny while walking in knee high cow manure. 

            These rent-a-room hustles also are likely to have some problems with existing landlord tenant laws and single-room-occupancy rules in San Francisco and New York City for sure.  In the age of Uber though a lot of the hustlers think that rules to protect consumers or tenants are just rocks in the road on their way to riches, and therefore easily ignored.

           Co-living in practical and affordable housing could offer huge potential, but our friends and allies among planners and architects need to run, not walk, to beat the developers away from get-rich-schemes for themselves where desperate tenants and workers are overpaying and left again on the short end.


Is Less Enough? 100,000 Homes for San Francisco

Screen Shot 2015-07-16 at 11.20.09 AMRock Creek, Montana    Michael Robinson Cohen built a couple of coffee carts for Fair Grinds Coffeehouse that have always been particularly useful in handling the throngs at Jazz Fest and at other times. He also built the extension of the coffee bar at our Ponce de Leon location along with a couple of sandwich boards. My companera and I visited with him frequently when he and a woman we knew well ran into each other frequently during the two-day marathon showing of The Jackel several years ago. He left the city for the Yale School of Architecture, and I wouldn’t have been surprised if that might not have been the last we heard from him, and it was for years. I got a message from him out of the blue during the fall that he was part of an advanced studio underworld with renowned Italian architect, Pier Vittorio Aureli, and their project was to see if they could figure out new and innovative ways to add 100,000 units of housing in San Francisco, and not just housing, but affordable housing in the “executive” city by the Bay that is squeezing out the last of the working class with every passing month. On the fly, I connected him to Randy Shaw of the Tenderloin Housing Clinic, and wondered what might come of all of this studio speculation, if anything.

Changing planes in Denver for several hours and able to briefly access the internet, I was barely able to download this massive PDF file that ended up containing nine different, but all fascinating, notions of how 100,000 units of new housing might be shoehorned into the difficult housing regulations, sky high real estate values, and challenging topography of San Francisco. Reading through the whole Aureli Studio book in my Airstream trailer might seem a weird juxtaposition, but, ironically, might have been the perfect place to contemplate their work and this problem.

Without any of the studio ever specifically addressing the devilish details of the real dollar cost on their renderings, all were in agreement obviously that to add 100,000 units mean thinking “small,” no matter how grand their vision, how soaring their language, or how erudite their historical reference points. The title of their collective enterprise, “Is Less Enough,” speaks to the troubling question unanswered.

The various schemes were a creative and detailed education in themselves for the uninitiated like myself. One plan contemplated going underground where housing regulations were nonexistent. One was of a mind to build in the median or neutral ground of thoroughfares and in the parking lane of streets. I examined that plan in detail, since I doubted I would never see anything built like it in a street in my lifetime. One jutted out on piers into the Bay, and I tried to imagine the substructure that would protect the building from an earthquake and the tsunami that might follow. Another was an eight stories high box and pictured in the middle of a neighborhood where houses came to its proposed waist, and I could almost hear the neighbors screaming to their elected officials in this city, where the 1% is king and the top quarter would be virtually one-percenters in the rest of the USA, about the loss of their sight-line and inventing new love for the “character” of their neighborhood.

Nonetheless, what was so exciting to read was the depth of the political recognition behind each detailed set of drawings. They saw themselves designing for the precariat, even if many of the tech drones themselves might be rationalizing their housing situation as temporary before they were as rich as Gates, Jobs or even better, Zuckerberg. They understood there was a new transient class and that a city that grew by 30,000 while it only added 1500 units of housing was drowning out the sounds of a new enslavement of workers in the roar of its own boosterism. It was also exciting to read so many of the young architects views on the necessity of communal and cooperative arrangements, their notions of a “core” where common functions would prevail and separate “cells” or units where residents would find private spaces, and despite their questioning about whether “less” might be “enough,” their implicit assumption that in all likelihood, it was going to have to be.

Michael’s own project was to build an adaptation of the Italian post-war palazzina or as he wrote:

Palazzina is a medium scale building that offers affordable housing for mid­dle-income freelance workers in San Francisco. Suitable to the existing den­sity of the city, the intermediate scale of the project, which sits between the townhouse and the tower enables independent inhabitants to form residential cooperatives. Limiting the size of the community supports effective sharing of space and domestic tasks, engendering a collective consciousness that is essential for the precarious worker of the disenfranchised middle-class. While the project is contextual in scale, the autonomy of the building is made evident by its cubic form and isotropic façade. The regularity of the exterior clearly marks a limit to the city and conceals the project’s unique spatial and social interior.

The palazzina also shared an understanding of co-op apartments and common space in New York City housing, where families could purchase their individual units, while sharing some common services and space.

It was a relief to read that this was not just transient housing and therefore might have more prospects of realization, given our continued love affair with home ownership and the developers resistance to speculate on building more SROs or anything with the word “transient” involved no matter how young, clean cut, and techie this new precariat might want to claim that they are. I was also pleased to see that one plan went right to the heart of redeveloping the SROs in the Tenderloin where Randy Shaw has made his career. He might not applaud every detail, but he would be happy to see that architects are thinking about ways to rehabilitate some of his 500 SROs, rather than letting them crumble to waste as some of their owners seem to intend.

Undoubtedly we need a whole lot more of the kind of thinking the Aureli Studio at Yale has done about San Francisco, and we need it to leave the ivory tower and get into the heart of the cities where we all live and work and desperately demand decent and affordable housing.