Monday, August 04, 2014

Multigenerational Housing in an Expensive Locale: Problems and Solutions Part I - Problems

Brandon Baunach is an architect
with 17 years of experience in designing
multi-family projects.
This post appears courtesy of Brandon Baunach, an architect with 17 years of experience

Out of pure necessity, I've stumbled into a lifestyle that is not only supportive and rewarding for my entire family, but also is incredibly affordable. This might sound impossible living in the San Francisco Bay Area, but I've discovered a new housing typology that can make this happen.

In 2007, my wife and I, living in San Francisco at the time, had our first son. Although we owned our home and had a very reasonable mortgage, we couldn't see ourselves living in a 600-square-foot one-bedroom condo for much longer. We also discovered that we both needed to work to continue supporting our family. We quickly started childcare with our son, and found that the two thousand dollars per month that we spent was absolutely debilitating. We could not sustain our San Francisco lifestyle any longer and sought alternative solutions. That’s when we came to the very strategic decision to buy a house with my mother, and she would help with the childcare.

As it turns out, we were not alone in this decision. In fact, the National Association of Realtors reported that 14% of all homes sold in 2013 were to households of two or more adult generations. This is a massive and enduring demographic shift.

As we set out to buy a home together, we made many assumptions on how we wanted to live and decided to buy either a duplex or a home with an accessory dwelling unit, or “granny flat” as it’s often referred. 

Stock Image
We initially looked to buy a home in San Francisco. After all, my wife and I had spent the past fifteen years in our Mission District neighborhood, and had no intention of leaving. My mother loved the neighborhood, as well, because it was very walkable which she loved. We also had a fairly good budget based on our collective multigenerational buying power.


Although our budget was good, when we started looking we saw reoccurring problems that went well beyond budget issues. Nearly every duplex we saw would have required us to make a heartbreaking eviction for us to be able to occupy the home. In one instance, we went to an open house where there was an older tenant with an oxygen tank waiting in a bedroom for realtors and their clients to leave.

We also saw many homes with illegal granny flats built into the ground floors. Until very recently all granny flats were illegal in San Francisco. We didn't mind buying a home with an illegal granny flat, but we definitely felt that because of San Francisco’s previous ban, the quality of construction did not give my mother much confidence if she were to be an equal partner in this home.

Our defiance to evict long term tenants from their homes or accept badly constructed accessory units left us with little choice of inventory. After two years of searching, we eventually gave up and decided to move to Berkeley, CA, where we found cute duplexes and multigenerational neighbors in greater supply.

This multigenerational home, designed by Deltec,
has a 2,000 sq ft living space with a 500 sq ft "granny flat."

Our experience made us wonder how any family with multiple generations could survive in San Francisco or any dense urban area. This led me into studying how we live as a family and how developers, city planners, and financiers could respond with novel solutions for families of multiple generations. 

In future posts,  I’ll explore different designs developers could implement that would be attractive to multigenerational buyers, I’ll suggest planning strategies that would loosen the grip planning codes have on multigenerational housing innovation, and  I will suggest mechanisms for financing multigenerational projects from an individual buyer level and a development financing level.

Brandon Baunach is an architect at BAR Architects in San Francisco, CA. He lives in Berkeley, CA, with his wife, mother, and two sons. 

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