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Photos: David Paul Morris

Mike Pyatok, principal, Pyatok Architects

Mike Pyatok, principal of Pyatok Architects in Oakland, Calif., specializes in multifamily and affordable housing. But so-called live-work housing, he says, is failing to serve those who need it most. Here, Pyatok (inducted this year into Builder's Wm. S. Marvin Hall-of-Fame for Design Excellence), shares ideas about the current demand for live-work housing, and the important role that developers, architects, builders, and property managers can play in helping to change the rules.

Builder: Can you give a brief history of live-work housing?

Mike Pyatok: This is an idea that sprung up about 40 years ago in some older cities. Manufacturing was leaving the country, leaving behind big, beautiful, old buildings. Rents were low and younger people were coming back to the city, looking for cheap places to live. These tended to be people in the creative fields; sculptors, painters, and performing artists found these old industrial spaces useful to work and rehearse in. They didn’t have financial capital but they had cultural capital, and it began to revive whole neighborhoods. Eventually, new zoning was enacted to protect these spaces, because cities recognized the value of these new denizens of the city—The Creative Class. In time, prices went up for condos, coops, and rentals, because a new breed started moving in: those who didn’t just have cultural capital but financial capital, too. Gentrification happened. The folks now working out of their homes are doing so with computers. They’re lawyers, dentists, stock brokers, architects, and others with higher earning potential, rather than people who are making or repairing things. Ground-floor use—restaurants, grocery stores, and galleries—also becomes more expensive. So the artists leave, because they need to find another derelict section of the city that they can afford.

Builder: Was this exclusive to warehouse neighborhoods?

MP: No. Working out of a home or apartment existed in other places, but it was under the radar, in neighborhoods that were tough or nondescript—not the kinds of neighborhoods that get media attention for attracting creative types and then middle and upper classes. Doing light manufacturing at home was probably against zoning code, but no one was complaining, because everyone was doing it. There weren’t any higher income homeowners in the area, and as long as it wasn’t disturbing people, the landlords, largely absentee, looked the other way. Even if it were violating zoning codes, it was tolerated, as long as the landlord could collect the rent.

Builder: What’s your pet peeve about live-work housing?

MP: The rules and regulations that come along with public or non-profit housing. They disallow use of the home or apartment for the kinds of work that’s taking place in upwardly mobile neighborhoods or in private housing where landlords look the other way. The irony is, publically assisted housing exists to help people pull themselves up by their bootstraps, so they have money for essentials like food and transportation. But it was never imagined to be a place where people could work at home. For example, it’s impossible for a woman to use her kitchen to make tamales to sell from a street cart, because she’s being monitored by management. This kind of restriction puts a yoke around the neck of those who live there.

Builder: Who does live-work housing need to serve?

MP: It must serve folks who need to find every means possible to augment their income to survive. Unemployment rates are especially high among lower-income people with modest education, and they aren’t going to find jobs working for others in this economy for the foreseeable future. It’s essential that they find a way to make money on their own.

Builder: Is there a model for this?

MP: When you look at people in developing countries, this is their only way of surviving, to hustle on their own to make money. Everyone in the family has to help scrape together something that might resemble an income, and they invent all kinds of creative ways of using the living space to make things. Every conceivable form of household product needs to be made or repaired. Electronics need fixing. Cars break down. Furniture needs repairing. Street foods need prepping. A shoe repair business out of your home? Wow! It’s hard to find a good shoe repair anywhere. When you see this happening in so many places around the world and you look at the US, you wonder, why can’t we go that extra step for people in the bottom quarter? Within rules, of course. It has to be safe.

Builder: How would it work?

MP: In an apartment building where they say it’s not safe to grill out on the balcony, there’s a space out back in a shared courtyard. In a multi-family dwelling, why can’t we set aside workshop space where people can detail cars or do welding or repair furniture? Ground floor spaces could be set aside for family-run businesses that need messy space. It doesn’t take a whole lot. I once had an office that was 18 feet deep by 50 feet wide. The shops on the ground floor were 18 feet deep and 10 to 15 feet wide. There was a single guy who made custom suits in a space that was 12 by 18. Next to him was a group of kids who had a sound studio—same size. Next to them was a young artist in a 12 by 18 space who made his money as a sign painter. Next to him, a barber who had only one chair, so he could do just one guy at a time. Next to him was a yogurt shop. You don’t need a whole lot of space to run a home-based business.

Builder: You’re talking about high-density areas; what about others?

MP: When we’re designing housing at densities of 25 dwellings to the acres or less, we’re designing townhouses. When you’re ground-related, a home-based business could spill into the backyard. You can be messy in the back and no one will see; the neighbors won’t complain. Let’s take a three-bedroom house that’s 1,150 square feet—if we shrunk all the living and sleeping spaces by 10 percent, we’ve just gathered another 115 square feet that could create another room. There’s your home-based business. At lower densities—say, 15 to the acre—sometimes we’re able to supply the house with a carport or garage. There’s 200 square feet for work space. Many houses use the garage for workspace anyway—isn’t that how Apple got started? A garage dramatically increases the chance for a family to have additional space for a business. And yet we don’t allow them to use it for that. The management rules for publicly assisted housing don’t allow it and maybe the local zoning codes don’t, either.

Builder: What’s not happening that needs to?

MP: Efforts at the local level to promote the existence of live-work housing have made headway in some cities, especially around the question of artists. But it hasn’t filtered down to trades like auto repair. There is an issue of noise, sure, so you have to design for the noise load. If the business can’t be done in the house, that’s when it’s important to develop onsite workshops with concrete floors and adequate outlets and plumbing—rooms that are roughly finished to tolerate mess.

Builder: Is this a local issue, a state issue, or a federal one?

MP: It’s local when it comes to zoning codes, but the state and the feds can incentivize it by connecting rules to purse strings; by saying that a city can get X number of dollars for redevelopment if more flexible live-work zoning laws are in place for a wider span of business types. The "enterprise zones" proposed during the Bush Senior administration could have been coupled with revised land use regulations to permit a more flexible combination of uses encouraging people to create a business where they live.

Builder: What role can developers, architects, and builders play?

MP: Developers of affordable housing are in a key position to take the lead. They can lobby local jurisdictions to help change zoning and get codes adjusted. They can push their design teams to take live-work provisions into consideration. With financing, they can include a couple thousand feet for workshop space, even though it may not earn any income for the project at first--in time, maybe they can begin to charge businesses rent as they grow so they aren’t a burden on the project. In the same way that social services are often provided, public and non-profit housing could supply training in small business operations along with micro-loan programs like those that have become popular and successful in developing nations.

Amy Albert is a senior editor at Builder.

Learn more about markets featured in this article: San Francisco, CA.