When San Francisco artist, scientist, and activist Maria “Mitzi” Kolisch died in 1987, she was in the process of trying to turn her humble cottage property in Diamond Heights into housing for low-income adolescents who had aged out of the foster-care system. 32 years later, her son — now 98 years old himself — has finally succeeded in redeveloping her property into eight affordable family townhouses with the help of Habitat for Humanity.
Kolisch was 91 when she died, and she had already fought, decades earlier, against the redevelopment of Diamond Heights — saving her property from getting swept up in the eminent-domain takings of the 1950s that transformed the once bucolic hillsides into middle-class housing. (Just this week, Curbed published a piece about developer Joseph Eichler's role in the redevelopment of Diamond Heights, and how the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency used a claim of "blight" to transform the area, claiming that its lack of paved roads amounted to blight.) Kolisch didn't believe in the project because she saw it as a move toward luxury housing, and even half a century ago she believed firmly that the city needed more housing for lower-income people.
Kolisch had a litany of famous friends who passed through her tiny cottage at 36 Amber Drive and signed her guest book over the years, including (reportedly) Albert Einstein, George Gershwin, artist Ruth Asawa, inventor Buckminster Fuller, and photographer Imogen Cunningham, who took several portraits of Kolisch in the 60s and 70s, one of which is owned by SFMOMA. Friend Richard Kerr describes Kolisch in this Facebook post to the Baghdad By the Bay group as "a wonderful vibrant woman," who "moved to San Francisco in the early fifties where she helped Kaiser Permanente set up its first radiological labs." When he knew her, around the mid-1970s, she frequented the Blue Unicorn Cafe on Hayes Street to play chess.
Kolisch's son, Mischa Seligman, has owned the Diamond Heights property since Kolisch's death, and took his time fulfilling his mother's wishes for it. Seligman tells the Chronicle this week that he went into high gear in 2011, when he turned 90, realizing he may be running out of time to get the project done. And it would be several years and a few false starts with non-profit developers before he connected with Habitat for Humanity, who was willing to build eight family units on the property. The groundbreaking happened on a recent Friday afternoon, and the units are expected to be completed in 2021 — with covenants in the deeds preserving them as low-income housing. They'll be available to households earning between 50 and 80 percent of area median income — between $73,900 and $98,500 for a family of four — and a condition of purchase is that the purchaser work 500 volunteer hours for Habitat for Humanity.
Mischa Seligman, 98, is realizing his dream of getting affordable housing built on a San Francisco property he inherited from his mother. This month, @Habitat_org will start construction on eight family-size townhomes.— San Francisco Chronicle (@sfchronicle) November 12, 2019
Read more: https://t.co/l6e945fuGZ pic.twitter.com/eiUHVGPJ9s
Seligman lives in Santa Barbara but he says he's happy to finally see this project beginning.
"This has been a project of my heart, an expression of my mother’s wishes,” he tells the Chronicle. “I was worried that I wouldn’t be around to finish it. It has been a big nuisance."
And of his mother's home, which has apparently sat vacant for some time, Seligman says, "She never liked for things to go to waste."