Communicate to Innovate

Connecting with communities so that affordable housing is about much more than shelter.

In San Francisco, Bridge Housing – by listening to their community and reaching out to previously disengaged sectors – is creating a new approach to affordable housing that results in a lot more than roofs over heads.

Potrero neighbourhood project by Bridge Housing

Bridge Housing – a not-for-profit developer and provider of affordable housing in San Francisco – was founded in 1983, when the costs of homes in the city were skyrocketing.

As the organisation heads towards its 35th anniversary, little about the problem has changed. Except, of course, that the enormous tech boom taking place in the region is driving up property prices and making things even worse.

Bridge Housing though, is keeping pace with the challenges their community is facing by taking a new approach to solving the housing affordability crisis.

“We’re an established leader in providing housing,” says Smitha Seshadri, the Senior Vice President of Bridge Housing. “But we’re shifting in recognising that what is really needed is these services that create a much broader social outcome than just getting someone into a home.”

Bridge’s innovation is taking place across the whole organisation, but some of the most significant transformation is in the way it designs housing projects.

After years of creating developments that, despite reflecting conventional wisdom in their layout and location, did not achieve goals like improving the education and health outcomes for residents, Bridge is taking a different tack.

For the Potrero neighbourhood project – a landmark master-planned development that will see old public housing stock redeveloped into up to 1,600 new dwellings – Bridge has focussed heavily on community consultation.

Above Left – the current neighbourhood. Above Right – the future of the Potrero neighbourhood
A vision of Potrero’s future looking out over the neighbourhood towards the bay.

 

“We have worked on Potrero for more than ten years,” says Smitha. “We really took time to bring the neighbourhood into the discussion and understand what they want, what is important to them, what they need for community space.”

Accordingly, the Potrero masterplan makes room for essential, but formerly lacking, services like childcare and fresh produce retail.

The consultation and Bridge’s holistic focus has also led to the organisation providing residents with services outside the housing realm – whether that be financial literacy programs or connections with things like disability care.

But an expansion of remit needs to be matched with growing funding. Bridge has traditionally been funded by a combination of philanthropy, public money, and revenue created through the full market rate sale of some of their developed properties.

These sources are still being drawn upon – and made more productive through the use of new technology like modular construction that create efficiency in the building process.

But, Bridge is also diversifying its funding streams by reaching out to sectors who have not previously been engaged in finding solutions to homelessness and entrenched poverty.

“It’s ironic to me that we’re so close to Silicon Valley and you see all the news that comes out about the highest value companies on the planet that are based there, and you look around and think no-one should not be housed in this city,” says Smitha.

To create connections with these booming industries, Bridge Housing is telling its story differently.

“We realised that when we want to talk with these new potential philanthropists or partners, we can’t just go and show them nice architectural drawings,” says Smitha. “We have to connect them with the actual human result.

“We started a project two years ago to do data analysis, so we can show the outcomes across the board. What we can see now is the trajectory of some of our residents and the next generation, the health and education outcomes for those people.”

The results are making it clear that Bridge’s new approach to an old problem is exactly what’s needed.