There’s a way to build thousands more housing units on San Francisco’s west side — and neighbors actually like it

As San Francisco stares down a state mandate to build 82,000 new housing units within eight years, an 80-something retired architect has a great solution. It’s called Domicity.

Heather Knight

June 3, 2023 (SFChronicle.com)

Architect Eugene Lew seeks to turn single-family homes into small apartment buildings with a community space on the ground floor and five stories of housing above.
Architect Eugene Lew seeks to turn single-family homes into small apartment buildings with a community space on the ground floor and five stories of housing above.Michaela Vatcheva/Special to The Chronicle

Just a few blocks from Ocean Beach, in San Francisco’s sleepy, foggy Outer Sunset neighborhood, sits a little slice of Paris — or as close to it as one can get among the endless rows of single-family homes in varying shades of beige.

At 44th Avenue and Noriega Street sits Gus’s Community Market. Trees, picnic tables and green umbrellas primed for unlikely sunshine line the sidewalks alongside wooden stands brimming with colorful flowers, artichokes and melons. 

Above the shop sit three stories of housing, giving the bustling market more customers and the city more desperately needed homes. All in all, the pleasant corner offers a touch of the European flair two supervisors want to see replicated in their districts, swaths of San Francisco that have not shouldered their weight in helping the city address its housing crisis.

Now, Supervisors Myrna Melgar and Joel Engardio — who represent District Seven’s West of Twin Peaks area and District Four’s Sunset neighborhood, respectively — are pushing their sometimes resistant constituents to support far more Gus-style buildings. And they’re teaming up to pass legislation that could help make it a reality.

Engardio, who talked about turning the Sunset into Paris in his campaign last year, got rebuked in campaign mailers from the Affordable Housing Alliance for such blasphemy. Photoshopped images showed the Eiffel Tower sitting on top of single family homes. Mon dieu!

But the Paris-in-San Francisco that Engardio and Melgar envision is far more charming: first-floor retail or community spaces with housing on top offering far more apartments, and of far greater variety, than the city’s west side now possesses. Think spots where seniors downsize, young couples buy starter homes and lower-income families afford a tiny corner of our pricey city. 

The supervisors’ Yoda-like mentor in this endeavor is an unlikely one: an octogenarian and retired architect who has spent decades crafting a workable, practical solution to San Francisco’s housing crunch. In a city charged by the state with building 82,000 new housing units by 2031, it could be argued he’s laid a better path forward than anybody at City Hall.

His name is Eugene Lew, and his magic happens in a little studio off his garage near the Presidio Golf Course, miles from the areas of the city that could most benefit from the plan he calls Domicity.

Domicity involves slowly turning single-family homes — about 100,000 of which, he estimates, sit on cookie-cutter lots measuring 25 feet across and 120 feet deep — into small apartment buildings with a community space on the ground floor and five stories of housing above.

The beauty of the plan is its flexibility: Lew has designed numerous versions that could slide, like Legos, into the same space. The buildings could fit five large town houses for families or up to 18 small studios and one-bedroom units for seniors, students, single people, essential workers or couples just starting out. 

“This is a Eureka moment right here,” Lew told me the other day in his studio as he flipped through a book he’s published explaining Domicity in depth. “This is a vision, a product and a strategy.”

In today’s San Francisco, notoriously, we’re short on all three.

I think about teachers. I think about police,” Lew continued. “I think about firefighters living in Stockton, and in an earthquake we expect them to get across the bridge? Heaven help us.” 

Each shape, from the outside, is the same. The ground floor could house whatever the block most needs — a teen center, a day care center, a senior center, a cafe or a market plus parking spaces. The top two stories of housing are set back to preserve a facade that maintains the look of the neighborhood. A green space out back serves everybody living in the building. No individual units have stairs, but all are served by a central elevator and staircase.

Lew envisions creating a nonprofit called Domicity to buy single-family homes, mostly from seniors whose kids have moved out and who no longer want to maintain three or four bedrooms for themselves. They’re sitting on properties worth millions, but many have little cash to fund their retirement years. 

Domicity, the master developer, would provide the ready-made architectural plans to contractors to convert lots into these small apartment buildings, saving money by iterating the same idea over and over again. If two or three seniors in a row wanted to sell, the buildings could be bigger.

The seniors could then buy a Domicity apartment already created in their neighborhood — like dominoes, with more being built as more seniors sell. Under Prop. 13, they can transfer their property tax burden once to a new home, meaning their living expenses would probably decrease because they’d be maintaining so much less space but paying the same low tax rate. Their kids and grandkids could potentially afford to stay in San Francisco near them instead of being priced out to the suburbs.

Melgar has three daughters, one of whom has already left home, and said she’d love nothing more than to turn her single-family home in Ingleside Terraces into four apartments where the whole family could live together, but with its own private spaces, and she could babysit future grandchildren.

“This model that Mr. Lew came up with allows that to happen,” she told me.

It would all be purely optional: no bulldozers or mandates like in the dreaded days of so-called “urban renewal.” The seniors and other occupants would own their units, and Domicity would own and run the first floor.

Lew thinks he could bring down the cost of housing by at least 10% off the bat and slowly increase that savings to as much as one-third off today’s market rates for the same size units. Controversial modular housing — which makes sense, but isn’t supported by local unions — could also bring the costs down.

For now, the idea is a bit of a dream, but legislation from Melgar and Engardio will help. Melgar has proposed streamlining the process to turn a home into a fourplex — and up to three homes in a row into 12-unit apartment buildings. Engardio will co-sponsor the legislation in exchange for an amendment allowing Lew’s plan for six stories on all corner lots — stretching up to 65 feet tall — but not on mid-block lots.

The legislation would apply mostly to the west side, as well as some parts of Districts Two, Three and Five where the state has determined neighborhoods could build far more housing than they have historically.

Engardio said there are lovely six-story apartment buildings all over San Francisco, including along Irving Street and Lincoln Way in his district, but that building new ones was made illegal in many parts of the city decades ago. 

“Domicity is just saying we’re going back to the future to solve our housing crisis,” he said. “We’re doing what we know works and what can be beautiful.”

Corey Smith, executive director of the Housing Action Coalition, is a big proponent of Domicity and said he and Lew will probably sit on the nonprofit’s board. Smith has pitched the idea to officials in other cities and said Oakland is also considering embracing Domicity.

“The goal is tens of thousands of units over the next decade by utilizing what I would call 20th century technologies,” he said. “Think about assembly lines for cars. We don’t build housing like that. But you can have the same thing get built over and over again.”

Lew’s been making the rounds at west side neighborhood associations, pitching his idea to surprisingly receptive audiences. (“I can say I escaped with my life!” he said with a laugh.) Many homeowners in the Sunset and nearby neighborhoods have long resisted changes to their neighborhoods, but Lew said that’s because they’ve never been presented with a good alternative that would serve their needs.

One sign that west side seniors are coming around to Lew’s idea: George Wooding, a 67-year-old homeowner in District Seven and the president of the Midtown Terrace Home Owners Association, has long opposed plans to build more housing near him, but he’s grudgingly supportive of Lew.

“Times are changing,” Wooding conceded. “He’s way ahead of everybody else. He’s a visionary as opposed to somebody just trying to make money.”

Lily Chu, 75, also backs the Domicity idea. She bought her Sunset home with her husband in 1979 and no longer needs so much space now that her kids and grandkids live in Los Angeles. She said she finds it difficult to maintain the home, and it feels unsafe on a corner lot with so many entry points. She’d love to downsize but stay in the neighborhood.

She visited Gus’s Market the other day and noticed the apartments on top — where she’d be protected, high off the street, with just one front door, and where she wouldn’t need a car to get groceries.

“Now that’s city living,” she said.

Reach Heather Knight: hknight@sfchronicle.com; Twitter: @hknightsf

Written By Heather Knight

Heather Knight is a columnist working out of City Hall and covering everything from politics to homelessness to family flight and the quirks of living in one of the most fascinating cities in the world. She believes in holding politicians accountable for their decisions or, often, lack thereof – and telling the stories of real people and their struggles.

She co-hosts the Chronicle’s TotalSF podcast and co-founded its #TotalSF program to celebrate the wonder and whimsy of San Francisco.VIEW COMMENTS

San Francisco Chronicle Homepage - Site Logo

HEARST newspapers logo©2023 Hearst Communications, Inc.

Tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *