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Amid SF's Housing Crisis, New SPUR Show Explores Adding Density on the Margins

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Appearances can be deceiving in San Francisco, where rows of what look like single-family homes have two, three, sometimes four front doors leading to separate units inside sliced-and-diced Victorians and Edwardians. In the rooms beyond, there may be yet more tenants than meet the eye, through what the San Francisco Chronicle has termed the shadow realm of illegal in-law units, often in converted garages and basements. Last year, landlords with off-the-books secondary units gained a path to legalization when the Board of Supervisors approved legislation that gave owners the opportunity to bring their units up to code and into the official housing market. Now, the urban think tank SPUR has devoted its latest gallery show to the city's potential for adding to its stock of in-law units, also known as accessory dwelling units, or ADUs. Titled "Urbanism from Within," the show explores how typical San Francisco homes might be modified to accommodate new in-law units.


"Urbanism from Within" is a collaboration between California College of the Arts, CCA's Urban Works Agency research lab, the San Francisco Planning Department, and OpenScope Studio.

The show features large-scale drawings by CCA architecture students, who took on various typical San Francisco house styles and developed concepts for adding in-law units to their existing space. Marina-style homes—ubiquitous in the Bayview, one of the city's most affordable neighborhoods—are ideal for rear-yard additions, for instance. The Lifted Garden typological study, by Blake Stevenson, creates artificial topography in the backyard, by lifting up the yard and inserting a unit underneath. Another study, Christopher Baile's Thickened Wall, works out how to insert a secondary unit in the attic of a Victorian by adding access to the unit along the building's party wall.


CCA professors Neeraj Bhatia and Christopher Roach, who organized the student portion of the show, draw an analogy between in-law units and the peer-to-peer sharing economy that has grown up around companies like Airbnb and Uber. For them, the in-law-unit model has the potential to respond to the pent-up demand for housing more flexibly than, say, a controversial residential development facing neighborhood opposition. Bhatia and Roach see in-law units as an alternative way to add density to areas where an ambitious residential project may fail. "What was once a marginal and almost completely invisible housing type may become an essential part of the puzzle to address the current housing shortage," they write in their catalog essay for the exhibition, which is on view through May 1.


For the show, OpenScope Studio created the sf-ADU Handbook, the result of research the architects undertook on behalf of SF Planning. The handbook—which is on view at SPUR and will also be available on the Planning Department's website this month—compiles data on the financial side of creating in-law units, using cost data gathered from contractors, along with information on property values.

It's a text-heavy display, full of concise yet unavoidably wonky forays into the limitations and opportunities provided by San Francisco's low-slung housing stock. For a palate cleanser in between those heavy blocks of text and diagrams, the students put up tentlike partitions—or "abstract imaginary rooms," as Bhatia thinks of them—outfitted with viewfinders that look into models of some of the students' studies. The models are lit from above and fitted with 135-degree lenses. The lenses, says Bhatia, emphasize the depth of the interiors and "give the idea of 'peering' into someone's private space."

"Urbanism from Within" is on view through May 1 at SPUR Urban Center's storefront gallery, 654 Mission Street.


· SF Supervisors Vote to Bring In-Law Units Out of Shadows [SFGate]
· Urbanism from Within [SPUR]
· Urban Works Agency [CCA]
· Developer Doubles BMR Housing for 16th and Mission Project [Curbed SF]
· OpenScope Studio [Official Site]

Spur Urban Meeting Center

654 Mission Street, San Francisco, CA