Many cities face a real challenge to remain affordable in the future. They’ve become so attractive as places to live and invest that they no longer offer basic, decent housing for normal people, and increasingly look like preserves of the wealthy and privileged. If trends continue, somewhere like San Francisco may end up like Zurich or Geneva–a rich man’s playground, not the multidimensional place it should be.
One way they can create new housing, say advocates, is to loosen up building codes and zoning to allow more “infills” and conversions. Permitting tiny homes and other unconventional structures could help eke out living space, reduce housing costs, and make use of “orphaned” or underutilized parts of a city.
“We see a tremendous interest in interim or temporary use of space, which would be a new zoning use, and also in allowing tiny houses and things like that,” says Tim McCormick, who developing the “Houslets” concept in San Francisco. “Even in the Bay Area, many towns are changing their codes to allow backyard cottages.”
Houslets–which takes after “parklets” or small temporary parks in parking spaces–is a modular system with units roughly the size of a parking space. It “optimizes for ease of assembly, and disassembly, and adaptation in available urban spaces. That could be inside buildings, on-surface parking, backyards of colleges, garage conversions and so on,” McCormick says.
“Our whole environment, particularly in America, has been carved up around the parking space. If you develop a building system that based on it, you have this tremendous flexibility in the way that shipping containers do,” McCormick adds.
McCormick sees the concept like an open source operating system. It has core features but everyone develops things their own way. He’s not sure what part of the business he wants to be in; for now, he’s building three prototypes, including one that will be shown on Market Street this April. They’re constructed from perforated steel tubes and designed to be off-grid, using solar power, with their own water tanks and composting toilets.
Affordability is likely to be an issue for hundreds of cities according to a recent McKinsey Global Institute report. It estimates that 1.6 million people, or 440 million households, will either be “financially stretched by housing costs” or be living in “crowded, inadequate, and unsafe housing” by 2025 (it defines affordability as 30% of family income).
Infilling and pop-up construction like McCormick’s proposal might help, though more fundamental approaches to reduce inequality may also be required if cities are to retain their character.