A view from the Saint Francis neighborhood in Daly City.
A view from the Saint Francis neighborhood in Daly City.  (Sebastian Miño-Bucheli/KQED)

How Daly City Became One of the Most Densely Populated Cities in the Country

How Daly City Became One of the Most Densely Populated Cities in the Country

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In Daly City, looking down a block of manicured lawns and "cookie cutter houses," it's easy to feel like you're in the heart of suburbia. That's why listener Nick Crescenzi was surprised when a few years ago he read that Daly City is one of the densest cities in the country.

Nick, who works for the city's parks and recreation department, wanted to know how this suburb, with its malls, cineplex and drive-through restaurants came to rank alongside places like Boston, Chicago and, yes, San Francisco, in terms of the number of residents per square mile. According to a 2015 analysis of U.S. cities with populations over 100,000 people, Daly City is the 6th most densely populated.

The answer leads to a history unknown to many who haven't lived it, or to those who mistakenly choose to brush Daly City off like a B-side of a chart-topping single. And perhaps most importantly, the history shines light on some of America's cruelest policies.

Smaller Lots but Lots of Them

Daly City came to be densely populated for four main reasons, says Tatum Mothershead, director of economic and community development for Daly City: A relatively high percentage of land in Daly City is used for housing; on average, families in Daly City have more people in them than families in other places; the average lot size in Daly City is small; and lastly, the architecture of the homes that were built.


The amount of land used in Daly City for residential purposes is apparent to anyone who has driven through the city. If you're driving on the freeway or staring out a BART window, hill after hill reveals itself, each one dotted with lines of houses, like cars on an endless train. Those rows of houses are said to have inspired Malvina Reynolds' anti-conformity song, "Little Boxes."

The average lot size for a house in Daly City is well below that in the rest of San Mateo County. If you drive down Mission Street, through the neighborhood that long-time residents call "Top of the Hill" and take a left on any of the side streets, many of the houses you'll see are either connected or within an arm's length of one another. Most of those residences were built before World War II, and on lots around 2,500 square feet.

Even when Daly City expanded in the the post-World War II housing boom, Daly City's parcel size stayed small, in large part because of the success of a housing developer named Henry Doelger.

For decades, a homeowners association enforced limits on the type of exterior changes that could be made to houses in Westlake, including what kind of trees could be planted. ((Sebastian Miño-Bucheli/KQED))

The Henry Ford of Housing

If Daly City owes its founding to John Daly, it owes its expansion to Henry Doelger.

"Henry Doelger was a very smart man and he could see the World War II housing boom coming," says Rob Keil, author of the book "Little Boxes: The Architecture of a Classic Midcentury Suburb," which was also made into a movie.

Doelger built a lot of military housing — very quickly — in the Bay Area during World War II. He also built about 11,000 homes in San Francisco, largely in the Sunset and Richmond districts. There's even a section deemed Doelger City, and Herb Caen, the former San Francisco Chronicle columnist, jokingly called the city's western coast line "the white cliffs of Doelger." But land in San Francisco was starting to be in short supply and Doelger was able to secure 1,350 acres of land just to the south of the city for a good price.

There, Doelger aimed to build Westlake, a city unto itself, that would be affordable for first-time homebuyers.

"From an economic standpoint, you obviously want to build as many homes on a piece of land as you can because you make money by selling homes," says Keil. "However, he had to give people a reason to leave [San Francisco.]"

That reason for many customers was a yard and the opportunity to own a stand-alone house that didn't share walls with the neighbors.

A view of Westlake while under construction, near the intersection of Higate Drive and Southdale Avenue. The undeveloped area would become Westmoor High School. (OpenSFHistory / wnp25.6643)

In Westlake, Doelger gave people juuust enough room for a lawn and a bit of privacy. But not much.

"The lotting size attributed to the homes that Doelger built ... was 3,300 square feet, which is still significantly smaller than what we're seeing in other communities down the peninsula," says Mothershead. The tendency toward smaller parcels was continued by developers like the Gellert Brothers who began building in Daly City after Doelger.

As decades passed and Bay Area wealth grew, houses and their yards did, too.

"It's pretty typical that some of our neighboring communities have lots that are 5,000 square feet or greater," Mothershead said.

But 40% of Daly City's housing stock was built before 1950, before a super-sized McMansion was even something one might aspire to.

A house in Daly City's Westlake neighborhood. ((Sebastian Miño-Bucheli/KQED))

The nickname "The Henry Ford of Housing" was given to Doelger because he created so many ways to streamline the building process, saving himself time and money. Those innovations, coupled with the small houses and yards, allowed Doelger to make high-quality houses that first-time buyers could afford ... but that still made him a profit.

Doelger's innovations ran the gamut, from process to plumbing.

Waiting for trucks to be fixed could stall operations, so Doelger included a car repair shop in his operations. He built with redwood, but to keep costs down, he put his own lumber mill on what is now John Daly Boulevard. That mill would cut wood into pre-labeled components that were delivered straight to the worksites, where workers could start framing houses right away. Doelger even manufactured his own windows and doors.

Today The Boulevard Cafe sits on the location where Henry Doelger built a former lumber yard to help streamline the construction of the Westlake subdivision. ((Sebastian Miño-Bucheli/KQED))

The quest for efficiency carried into the floor plans that Doelger created. He was one of the first West Coast developers to use sheetrock, and because sheetrock came in 8-foot pieces, Doelger rarely incorporated ceilings that were taller than 8 feet high.

Bathrooms shared walls with kitchens to centralize a house's plumbing, a big cost cutter, says Keil. And the houses were "designed in such a way that they were easy to build."

Those easy-to-build floor plans often put all of the living space upstairs while the downstairs remained open as a basement or a garage. That design, in turn, contributes to how Daly City became so densely populated (and to the city's propensity for garage parties).

"Over time, people were finding that they could add habitable space at the ground floor level and they could do it for a very low cost," says Mothershead. "You can drive by a modest-looking house in Daly City and, you know, it probably doesn't look any different than a home you might see somewhere else that's three bedrooms, two baths, but [in Daly City] you could easily have six bedrooms in that house."

That's space that families can use for bedrooms as they grow, or rent out for supplemental income.

A City Within a City

Doelger's vision for Westlake was much grander than what he had built before; he imagined a city within a city, and in many ways delivered on that idea.

"There was a bank, there was a post office, there were grocery stores," says Keil. "All the stuff was planned in advance so that the people who moved in right from the beginning had access to these things."

Doelger planned for parks and schools, and an outdoor shopping mall, a novelty at the time.

"If you lived out there, you were not in no man's land," says Keil. "You could go out and buy things you needed and not have to travel into San Francisco."

Soon, Daly City was getting noticed.

The Ladies' Home Journal magazine put it on its list of Top Ten Suburbs in America in 1975. Its schools were designed by architect Mario Ciampi and were featured in LIFE magazine. Community gatherings were held at the mall. Though many architects derided Doelger's designs, his attention to detail shone through — and still does — when one walks through Westlake. The corner windows, slanted roofs, detailed facades — buyers loved it all.

White buyers that is.

A Westlake entry sign near Eastgate Drive and John Daly Boulevard. Black, Indigenous and other people of color were banned from owning houses in Westlake, as in most suburbs built during the post-World War II housing boom. ((Sebastian Miño-Bucheli/KQED))

Discrimination by Law

"The federal government required Doelger not only to refuse to sell homes to African Americans, but to put a clause in every deed that prohibited the owner from reselling to African Americans or renting to African Americans," said Richard Rothstein, author of "The Color of Law," on KQED's Forum.

A lot of "The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America" is devoted to housing policy, with post-war housing developments like New York's Levittown and Daly City's Westlake serving as Rothstein's evidence that federal policy — not personal preference or economic differences — is largely what segregated America.

Rothstein focuses on African Americans in his book, because in a lot of places, that's who racial covenants and deeds specified. But in Daly City, and across the Bay Area, it wasn't just African Americans who were excluded — it was anyone who couldn't pass as white. That included Filipinos — who make up about 30% of Daly City’s current population — as well as Latinos and Asians.

"The only way someone like Doelger could have gotten the capital to build that subdivision was by going to the federal government and getting a guarantee loan," said Rothstein. And that was true for almost any developer who wanted to build on a large scale at that time.

In "The Color of Law," Rothstein discusses two attempts to build integrated housing developments in the Bay Area, one by the writer Wallace Stegner and the other by a local union. Both failed, Rothstein writes, as just about all attempts to build integrated housing did.

Other than architect and developer Joseph Eichler (the subject of another Bay Curious episode), Keil doesn't know of a housing developer who would sell to buyers of color. He adds that discrimination was so prevalent that even Willie Mays, the beloved Say Hey Kid, was barred from buying a house in San Francisco.

Racist policies not only kept families of color out of suburban neighborhoods like Westlake, they blocked families of color from one of the most consistent ways to build wealth in America.

Daly City is said to have inspired the singer Malvina Reynolds to write "Little Boxes." ((Sebastian Miño-Bucheli/KQED))

Rothstein notes that white families that bought homes in the mid-20th century used their equity and earnings to great advantage: "They used it to send their children to college. They use that to take care of emergencies and they use it to bequeath it to their children, who [use it for] down payments for their own homes. African Americans were explicitly denied those opportunities by federal government, not by banks, but by federal government in the mid-20th century."

Eventually, in 1968, the Fair Housing Act outlawed denying housing to someone based on their race.

Next week on the Bay Curious podcast, we'll look into how Daly City went from a predominantly whites-only population, to having a thriving Filipino community.