San Francisco Supervisor Scott Wiener is proposing legislation to shrink the minimum size of new housing units – and Berkeley developer Patrick Kennedy is already touting models
for 150-square foot apartments at 9th and Mission. Supporters call it an innovative way to address escalating rents and cater to a market of young single professionals, but tenant activists fear it will reduce our quality of life – and further skew the housing market. San Francisco is not New York City – because while housing is also expensive here, you get more space for your money. Patrick Kennedy made his millions developing apartments for Cal students, and his “shoe-box” model could work in San Francisco for housing undergrads at schools like the Academy of Art. But a wholesale shrinkage of apartments will not lower rents in a meaningful way – and only mean a lower standard of living for tenants. Not to mention a clear loophole that these units will become hotel rooms.
I’ve known Patrick Kennedy for years, having done my undergrad at UC Berkeley in the late Nineties. I lived in Berkeley until 2004, and was very involved in affordable housing issues – including one term as a Rent Board Commissioner. With all the press coverage that his 150-square foot apartment models for San Francisco have received (the Chronicle prominently featured
it on Friday), few have mentioned or even researched Kennedy’s legacy in the Berkeley housing market – and what his proposed “shoe-box” apartments would mean over here.
Always controversial, Patrick Kennedy’s Panoramic Interests has built hundreds of apartments close to the UC Berkeley campus – where undergrads share a room and units are small. But because the University abdicated its responsibility at housing students (only freshmen are guaranteed dorm housing, and good luck having the state pitch in more money), Kennedy’s buildings have found a lucrative market. If you’re a 20-year-old Cal student, having a place close to campus is more important than a larger apartment – as you’re just looking for a temporary living situation.
Kennedy has long touted the “green” nature of his buildings – where developers can save money by not providing parking, and instead offer City Car Share or bike racks. I support this model – as high-density housing along transit corridors to encourage people not to drive is a good thing. But it’s the small size of the units that bother me, and it’s disingenuous to claim it will make rents more affordable. As the Chronicle pointed out, these “shoebox” apartments would rent at $5.91-$6.82 per square foot – as opposed to the current citywide average for studios at $4.21 per square foot.
Our only guarantee – if these small units are allowed – is that developers will “pack in” more apartments, and charge more money per square foot. If you’re Patrick Kennedy, it’s a very lucrative proposition – even if the benefits fail to materialize.
And there are consequences to living in tiny quarters. In 2008, I decided to move out of a four-bedroom flat (which I shared with three roommates) and buy a small condo. One of the places I looked at was the Book Concern Building at 83 McAllister Street – which comes closest to the “shoebox” apartments Kennedy has proposed. Originally an office building and the Church of Scientology headquarters, a Tokyo developer bought it in 2006 – and renovated it into small Tokyo-style apartments.
The real estate agent warned me the units were small, but I wasn’t ready to expect what I saw. The studios had a tiny bare-bones bathroom, a small bookshelf space, just enough room for a bed and the “kitchen area” was a microwave, a mini-fridge, half a sink and two stove-tops (rather than four.) And the one window faced the wall of another building. “You have to be a minimalist to live here,” she chuckled.
I own a Baldwin baby-grand piano that is my prize possession, so the Book Concern Building was clearly not going to work. But even without the piano, the unit’s small size was unreal. I ended up moving to Symphony Towers (Turk & Van Ness), where I bought a 400 square-foot studio. I have my baby-grand in the apartment, but the trade-off is I don’t have a couch. Even if you aren’t encumbered with possessions, it’s still important to have some personal space in the place that you call “home.”
As a young single professional, I have made a 400 square-foot studio work – but I could not fathom what 150 square feet would feel like. Patrick Kennedy’s “shoebox” apartments are painstakingly designed to maximize space – such as a dining table that converts into a Murphy bed, and a kitchen counter that converts into a laptop work area. It may be all utilitarian and efficient, but it’s not a humane way to live.
Patrick Kennedy’s “shoebox” apartments might be okay for a college kid who is only staying there for a semester or two. In fact, I’d much rather see the Academy of Art build such apartments for their students – than take over rent-controlled apartment buildings and SRO’s in Lower Nob Hill. But it’s naïve to presume that a 24-year-old tech worker with minimal possessions will be happy to pay an arm and a leg to rent what is nothing more than a glorified mini-dorm room. Pretty soon, these workers will want some level of personal space – and will be searching for larger quarters.
In fact, what concerns me the most about these “shoebox” apartments is that they won’t become the hip urban-style housing for young professionals that Patrick Kennedy is billing them as. Instead, they will be short-term corporate housing for professionals who just moved here – or pied a terre
apartments for people who occasionally come in on business trips. Worst-case scenario, they will just be illegal hotel rooms
rented on the black market. How does that bring down escalating rents?
As long as these “shoebox” apartments only exist as dorm rooms owned by a school like Academy of Art, the institution could at least control who lives there – and even require residents to show their student ID when they walk in. But if the City allows private developers to start building these, who knows how much abuse will result?
This past Saturday, I was in my building’s elevator at Symphony Towers – when a man asked me for directions to Haight-Ashbury. Knowing that he was a tourist, I asked if he was staying with one of my neighbors. “No,” he replied. “I rented an apartment here for five days.” In other words, my building is becoming a hotel. I have no problem with condos being rented out, but only to actual
residents – not tourists. He was a nice guy, but I said I was very nonplussed at the situation.
If this can happen in a building with 400 square-foot studios, imagine how much more abuse we will see in unregulated private buildings with “shoebox” apartments.