Casa Familiar: Livingrooms at the Border and Senior Housing with Childcare

The most experimental work in housing in the US is not in the hands of private development nor government. It is instead in the hands of progressive, community-based non-profit organizations, such as Casa Familiar, working in the border neighborhood of San Ysidro, California. These types of agencies have been the primary social service organizations engaging and managing the shifting cultural demographics caused by immigration within many mid-city neighborhoods in the US.

designing conditions, designing collaboration : AHOZ micro-policy
Working with the premise that no advances in housing design in the US can occur without advances in its housing policy and subsidy structures, our collaboration with Casa Familiar has been grounded on the shaping of counter political and economic frameworks that can, in turn, yield tactical housing projects inclusive of these neighborhoods’ informal patterns of mixed-use and density. In San Ysidro housing will be not only “units” spread indifferently across the territory. Here, housing is dwelling in relationship to social and cultural program managed by Casa Familiar. In this context, density is not just an amount of “units per acre,” it is an amount of “social exchanges per acre.”

In the last five years, we have designed a micro-policy with Casa Familiar that can act as an informal process of urban and economic development for the neighborhood and empower the community of San Ysidro to become developer of alternative dwelling prototypes for its own housing stock. This Affordable Housing Overlay Zone (AHOZ) micro-policy proposes that community-based non-profit organizations such as Casa Familiar can become mediating agencies between the municipality and the neighborhood, facilitating knowledge, policy, and micro-credits. In essence, these agencies incrementally will become informal City Halls, managing and supporting the shifting of socio-cultural demographics within many of these inner-city neighborhoods.

living rooms at the border and senior gardens
Living Rooms at the Border and Senior Gardens are two small housing projects that emerge from the micro-policy and serve as catalysts to anticipate San Diego's needed densities and mixed-uses, while becoming a political instrument to enable Casa Familiar to further transform existing rigid zoning regulation for the border city of San Ysidro.

The informal negotiation of boundaries and spaces typical of this neighborhood become the basis for incremental design solutions that have a stimulating effect on the urban fabric. In a small parcel where existing zoning allows only three units of housing, this project proposes, through negotiated density bonuses and by sharing kitchens, twelve affordable housing units, the adaptive re-use of an existing 1927 church on the site as a community center, offices for the non-profit in the church's new attic, and a community garden that serves as social armature to support this community's non-conforming micro-economies and improvisational public events. Connected to the garden and the church, this armature is composed of a series of open-air rooms that contain electricity, serving as site for a variety of neighborhood activities. The ambiguity of these spaces takes on a different meaning as they are inscribed with social program and community organization managed by Casa Familiar. The pairing of ambiguity and specificity is the essence of this project.

In Living Rooms at the Border, the tactical interweaving of dwelling units and social service infrastructure transforms the small parcel into a system that can anticipate, organize, and promote social encounter. Furthermore, Casa Familiar injects micro-economic tactics such as time banking through sweat equity to produce alternative modes of affordability (barter housing units, exchange of rent for social service, etc.). In a place where current regulation allows only one use, we propose five different uses that support one another, suggesting a model of social sustainability for the neighborhood, one that conveys density not as bulk but as social choreography and neighborhood collaboration.

Senior Gardens is another project inspired by Casa Familiar's distinctive cultural values and attitudes toward domestic and public space. Focused on bringing two generations together, the central elements of the program are affordable housing for seniors and grandchildren (a form of co-habitation common in this area of the city) and daycare facilities for children with working parents. The program has been distilled into a system of layers in which private and public spaces are interwoven with the topography of the site. The design is considered to be prototypical, another provocative instrument through which Casa Familiar hopes to redefine setback, land-use, and density requirements.