Housing: Why It Matters and What We Are Doing About It Now.

"People and the places where they reside are engaged in a continuing set of exchanges; they have determinate, mutual effects upon each other because they are part of a single, interactive system." - William S. Sax

Shelter is a basic human need. From the early days of civilization, we’ve seen housing in all shapes and sizes. Yet here we are, in 2016, talking about the hot-button issue of urban housing. Why now? There are hundreds of opinions on the how’s and why’s of urban housing shortages across the globe and, more acutely, the housing crisis in the San Francisco Bay Area.

We won’t revisit each opinion here — if you’d like some background, start with this exhaustive explanation.[1] Know that there are economic rationalists that paint the problem as one of simple supply and demand — that is, increasing supply will reduce housing costs.[2] Also know that there are theorists that believe that supply and demand principles don’t work in San Francisco, and that increasing supply will actually increase the cost of housing.[3] There are those that say that the SF Bay Area is "doomed", no matter what we do.[4]

But, people are trying to find a better way forward. There are a myriad of proposals, solutions and "fixes" espoused by politicians, economists, and everyday San Franciscans. What is clear: there is no one simple answer. A multipronged approach — like the one put forth is by the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association (SPUR)[5] — is essential to turn things around.

In this post, we’ll briefly address the macro and micro factors at play that make urban housing a growing concern to us. We’ll then focus on how Starcity is implementing one of SPUR’s eight ideas worth pursuing in San Francisco — "Launch a wave of experiments to produce middle-income housing."

Macro and Micro Factors (super brief)

Macro: The exponential growth of the global population[6] and the increasing rate at which societies are urbanizing presents an enormous challenge to all major cities. In 1900, 14% of the global population lived in cities. It increased to 30% by 1950. Then, in 2008, the global population living in urban settings crossed 50%. This figure is expected to be over 70% by 2050.[7] Urban populations are growing at a rate several times faster than the capacity to plan, build and manage urban housing.

Micro: The Bay Area is projected to add 2.1 million people by 2040, a 29% increase from our current population.[8] We need to build 660,000 units between now and 2040 to keep up with population growth. Moreover, rent prices in San Francisco are the most expensive in the United States — the city has the highest median one-bedroom price, at nearly $3,600 per month.[9]

We imagined what housing will cost with 2.1 million more people, and we imagined the congested roads as more people commute since they cannot obtain housing within the Bay Area. Then we stopped imagining and got to work. We’re building comfortable, communal housing quickly with a constant focus on the needs of the urban dweller. We hope we can inspire others to join us.

Building Middle-Income Housing

Developing housing for people in the middle of the bell curve is complex, especially in cities like San Francisco. Developers typically build for the high-income bracket because lenders are risk-averse and won’t approve projects with experimental financial models. Simply put, the time and capital expended to develop a building is high and lenders want to see rental incomes maximized to get their money back quickly. On the other end of the spectrum, local governments and a fantastic group of non-profit’s are focused on people in the low-income bracket who can’t afford housing at market-rate prices.

Consequently, middle-income housing development is ignored and supply for average working people is constrained. The lack of capital for middle-income developments also means that we, as a society, lack the ability to challenge assumptions about what the middle-income urban dweller needs and desires. How much private space do they need? What do they expect for community and neighborhood interaction? What tradeoffs are people willing to make to have a fulfilling urban experience? To answer these questions, Starcity is reimagining the physical spaces in which we live, with direct input from our members.

Initially, we’re focusing on conversion and adaptive reuse. What do we mean by that? Specifically, we’re converting underutilized hotels and residences into resource-efficient spaces with community interaction at their core. We’re also taking non-residential buildings zoned to allow for housing and adapting them for well-designed housing.

We understand that for a house to feel like home, it must be a reflection of its inhabitants. People infuse their personalities into their homes. Home should be a welcoming, comfortable and relaxing place. We build with this in mind.

Yet we also challenge those who join us to think of home as a social and economic platform for you to get more from life: shelter, security, delight, access to friends, work, new opportunities and — most importantly — community.

Conversion + adaptive reuse + home as a platform. This will make the next few years for housing a turning point, not a breaking point.


  1. SF's Housing Crisis Explained ↩︎

  2. California Needs More Houses ↩︎

  3. Supply & Demand Doesn't Work in SF ↩︎

  4. San Francisco is Doomed ↩︎

  5. 8 Ways to Make San Francisco More Affordable ↩︎

  6. World Population Growth ↩︎

  7. Urbanization ↩︎

  8. The Bay Area in 2040 ↩︎

  9. National Rent Report, June 2016 ↩︎