The water needed to keep the grass green and trees alive at California mansions

Due to water shortages and water restrictions in California, we now know how much water some celebrities are using for their homes and grounds:

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Now, the celebrities are among the 20,000 residents in the Las Virgenes Municipal Water District – that holds jurisdiction in the cities of Agoura Hills, Calabasas, Hidden Hills, and Westlake Village – forced to abide by water restrictions with the installation of restrictive devices that will reduce the amount of water used during showers and for sprinklers.

Amid the relentless drought, the water district moved to ‘Stage 3’ restrictions on June 1 to reduce water consumption by at least 50 percent, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Kim Kardashian is one of the A-list celebrities that has received notice to limit the water usage at her Hidden Hills home and her fixer-upper property she purchased next store – after she exceeded water use by about 232,000 gallons in June…

Rocky Balboa actor Stallone and his model wife, Jennifer Flavin, reportedly went over their water budget at their Hidden Hills home by about 533 percent, or 230,000 gallons, in June. The couple used 195,000 gallons of excess water in May…

Meanwhile, NBA star Wade also received a notice that he exceeded his water limit by 90,000 gallons or 1,400 percent in June. While Wade’s water usage is an improvement since May, it’s still more than most users.

While more than just celebrities have received these notices, the water figures here are staggering. To keep a large house and property going, they have exceeded their allotted use by a lot of water. If this does not contribute to the idea that a lush green lawn and landscape is a status symbol, I do not know what does.

On the flip side, imagine a major celebrity eschewing the green lawn and garden-filled property for a property with a lot fewer water needs. Could images of a celebrity yard of drought resistant and native plants help turn the tide against this kind of water usage? Or, a major social media influencer? Overcoming decades of the association between homeownership and status with a green lawn is going to be hard to overcome.

(Consider this a companion post to the one yesterday about California property owners getting money to tear out their grass lawns.)

Paying California property owners to tear up their grass lawns

A good number of property owners in California can receive money to remove grass:

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The largest district in the state, the Metropolitan Water District serving 19 million people in Southern California, is paying $2 per square foot of grass pulled out. Water district customer cities and agencies can add more…

The Metropolitan Water District told CNN the number of requests for grass removal rebates jumped four times in July, to 1,172 applications…

The horrific drought led Larry Romanoff to combat climate change by ripping out his grass and replacing it with cactuses and decorative stones. Romanoff will collect $10,500, a whopping $6 per square foot of lawn removed from his desert home…

The Coachella Valley Water District and its customer, the city of Rancho Mirage, are each paying Romanoff $3 per square foot of lawn torn out…

The Public Policy Institute of California’s Water Policy Center estimated for CNN nearly 50% of the 409 water agencies in California are offering some sort of turf removal rebate, both residential and commercial.

Paying property owners now will presumably pay off in the long run as it reduces water use.

Given the water shortages facing California and other Western states, how much money will be allocated to such programs and how many homeowners will go for this? Getting rid of the grass lawn may lead to fewer maintenance needs. But, the grass lawn is such a key part of both the image and the mystique of the single-family home. It might be harder for many to envision a property of rocks and cacti or more native and drought-resistance plants.

Linking “newness” in a home with particular materials, styles

The impression of “newness” in a home is connected to particular updates and items:

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But not simply any new floors and counters will create the desired effect. The feeling of newness is largely relative, and the only real key to creating it is banishing the things that people expect to see in a dwelling built decades ago—“landlord beige” walls, all-white appliances, dingy carpet, laminate counters, wood so warm-toned it’s practically orange. Gray floors and all of their comorbid design phenomena are cool and crisp and modern by comparison, even if they’re also crushingly boring and totally character-free and really limit a space’s potential capacity to feel warm and alive and like a home.

And the purpose of these changes is to sell properties:

In theory, the things that make up the interior of your home should be either beautiful or useful; if you’re lucky, they’ll be both. And surely some people do lose their mind for gray laminate or subway tile or barn doors, and not just because there’s no accounting for taste. Once a particular design element becomes a shorthand for newness and freshness and successful domesticity, people come around to it precisely because they want their home to reflect those qualities. But that’s a different phenomenon than appreciation for the thing itself—for how nice it is to look at, or how much more functional it makes a space. In the hands of flippers and landlords, these choices are generally made not by people who want to fill the world with the best, safest, most comfortable homes possible but by those looking for a return on the bets they’ve made on the place where you’ll start your family or play with your future grandkids. They’ve chosen these things just as much for what they aren’t as for what they are—inoffensive, inexpensive, innocuous. These houses aren’t necessarily designed to be lived in. They’re designed to go into contract.

I wonder if this process mirrors that of the fashion industry and other culture industries. The production, sale, and popularity of created works and objects moves in waves and trends. Not too long ago, homes featured granite countertops and stainless steel appliances; now it is subway tile and grey floors; shortly it will be something else. Or, formal living rooms were a thing to open concept to providing smaller spaces to enable working from home. The key for those who want to make and sell properties is to appear on trend or close to it.

A related argument: homeowners and sellers exhibit their investment, emotional and economically, in a property by updating it to more recent trends. They show that they care about the home fitting in a new era rather than being left behind. It can suit a new family just as well as it did its original occupants.

Would it be possible to signal newness in different ways? A particular smell? How the occupants use the space? Altered infrastructure (ranging from new furnaces or electrical systems to greener options)? Integrating the Internet, screens, and sounds?

Downtown activity in American and Canadian big cities before and after COVID-19

A new report looks at recent activity in the downtowns of American and Canadian cities compared to that of several years ago:

Activity is down quite a bit in multiple major cities.

Officials in Cleveland do not think the national study, based on cell phone data, quite lines up with what they see in their city:

City officials and the Downtown Cleveland Alliance say the U.C. Berkeley study doesn’t provide an accurate accounting. The “downtown area” in the study doesn’t match what Cleveland locals would describe as their downtown, according to maps shared with cleveland.com.

Data that the DCA publishes each month is less grim, but also doesn’t point to a full recovery.

DCA’s recovery report said there were 4.01 million visits to downtown in May, a 71% recovery compared to May 2019. Visits improved to 4.14 million in June, a 77% recovery, according to the DCA.

There is the matter of measuring this well and the matter of interpreting and using the data for particular purposes. If the consensus of researchers is that downtown activity is down in many places, what policy, economic, and social implications would this have?

Why it can take months for rent prices to show up in official data

It will take time for current rent prices to contribute to measures of inflation:

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To solve this conundrum, the best place to start is to understand that rents are different from almost any other price. When the price of oil or grain goes up, everybody pays more for that good, at the same time. But when listed rents for available apartments rise, only new renters pay those prices. At any given time, the majority of tenants surveyed by the government are paying rent at a price locked in earlier.

So when listed rents rise or fall, those changes can take months before they’re reflected in the national data. How long, exactly? “My gut feeling is that it takes six to eight months to work through the system,” Michael Simonsen, the founder of the housing research firm Altos, told me. That means we can predict two things for the next six months: first, that official measures of rent inflation are going to keep setting 21st-century records for several more months, and second, that rent CPI is likely to peak sometime this winter or early next year.

This creates a strange but important challenge for monetary policy. The Federal Reserve is supposed to be responding to real-time data in order to determine whether to keep raising interest rates to rein in demand. But a big part of rising core inflation in the next few months will be rental inflation, which is probably past its peak. The more the Fed raises rates, the more it discourages residential construction—which not only reduces overall growth but also takes new homes off the market. In the long run, scaled-back construction means fewer houses—which means higher rents for everybody.

To sum up: This is all quite confusing! The annual inflation rate for new rental listings has almost certainly peaked. But the official CPI rent-inflation rate is almost certainly going to keep going up for another quarter or more. This means that, several months from now, if you turn on the news or go online, somebody somewhere will be yelling that rental inflation is out of control. But this exclamation might be equivalent to that of a 17th-century citizen going crazy about something that happened six months earlier—the news simply took that long to cross land and sea.

This sounds like a research methods problem: how to get more up-to-date data into the current measures? A few quick ideas:

  1. Survey rent listings to see what landlords are asking for.
  2. Survey new renters to better track more recent rent prices.
  3. Survey landlords as to the prices of the recent units they rented.

Given how much rides on important economic measures such as the inflation rate, more up-to-date data would be helpful.

Encyclopedia Brown’s Idaville sure has a lot of crime

The kid’s book series involving boy detective Encyclopedia Brown includes this description of the town of Idaville, the setting for the stories and home to Leroy Brown and his family:

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Idaville was like most seaside towns. It had lovely beaches, three movie theaters, and two delicatessens. It had churches, a synagogue, and four banks

But, read enough of these cases and it all adds up to something: Idaville is not like most seaside towns as it has a lot of crime. Enough crime to fill 29 books with numerous cases in each. Crimes ranging from small violations to larger issues. Lots of different kinds of criminals.

This is not an unusual perspective on crime. Television shows often have a similar message, particularly if they are long-running: crime is happening all of the time. This has the potential to change how viewers understand crime and locations. If you see a particular place associated with criminal activity over and over, how much of an impact does this have?

Some of the other phrases in the intro to the cases provide further clues at how crime is perceived in Idaville and in these cases: “the forces of law and order were in control” and “the town’s war on crime.” Is this the normal experience of small towns or just how we often present mysteries and the work of police?

How much a declining mall can cost a community in sales tax revenue: almost $20 million a year

The decline of Stratford Square Mall in Bloomingdale, Illinois meant the sales tax revenue for the community dropped dramatically:

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Stratford was still a cash cow in 2012, generating $20.3 million in sales tax revenue. But that number has quickly dwindled in the last 10 years, with the mall producing just $466,080 in 2021, village officials say.

Dead malls” or struggling malls are a problem in numerous American communities. Popular for decades, these properties provided shopping, entertainment, and social space for visitors, jobs, and tax revenues for communities.

As communities look to transform these properties (and the possibilities are broad), one large factor will be how much tax revenue the new land use generates. Can they ever come close to generating that kind of sales tax revenue? Restaurants and entertainment or experiential spaces can help close that gap. Residences, however, do not bring in that kind of money (unless those new residents shop regularly at local businesses). If not, what other clear benefits will the reconfigured properties offer the community?

Rising property values and “passive income, which is the real American dream”

Why do so many homeowners care about protecting their property values? While recently reading about social class and Hollywood, I found this observation:

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That passive income, which is the real American dream, is no longer something that the actual artists—not just actors but writers and directors and everyone else who ever made a dime off of residuals—involved in the entertainment business get to enjoy.

The context here involves the actors and others involved with long-popular television shows that could reap the financial benefits for decades.

Isn’t this passive income also what American homeowners in the early 21st century expect when they purchase a residence? Scholars have noted the shift to Americans viewing their homes as a positive investment. Instead of needing a home for shelter and enjoying that residence while there, homes and residences are now supposed to make money for their owners. In this arrangement, property owners are not expected to be completely passive; they should maintain their property or possibly even improve it. In return, their property values go up and they can cash out in the future. A loss is very undesirable and even staying roughly at the same value over time is not much help given expenses. A nice profit requires a decent uptick in value. Such a profit can help owners climb the economic ladder, have a comfortable retirement, and pass along wealth and advantages to children and family.

This can help explain why so many homeowners fight against perceived threats to their property values. People want to change the use of land or alter the neighborhood in ways that might limit the rise of property values. It is a threat to passive income. (Whether those changes to the neighborhood and/or community actually lower property values is another story.)

Going off the grid in a suburban setting

What issues might arise if a suburbanites want to take their residence off the grid?

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Many off-gridders have glanced at their water bills and decided they’d rather use the water that falls from the sky for free, but some states make rainwater collection systems very difficult to install in your home, or have strict limits on how much rainwater can be harvested and how it can be used (for example, Colorado only allows certain properties to collect 110 gallons, which can only be used outdoors). For waste management, installing a septic system in a crowded urban neighborhood will be nearly impossible, and many states have extremely strict regulations surrounding the installation of composting toilets (not to mention extremely strict regulations about what you can do with all that waste once you’ve collected it).

Additionally, local municipalities might have laws that supersede or enhance statewide restrictions, and Home Owner Associations (HOAs) may have rules that prevent you from making the changes necessary to your home. These rules can beprettycomprehensive, too—some HOAs don’t allow clotheslines for drying clothes, for example, and can even forbid solar panels for aesthetic reasons. Condominium boards may also resist some of your off-grid choices. Bottom line: before you do anything, check the local laws and regulations that might apply to you.

Finally, while installing solar panels on your property is more or less legal in every state (and many states encourage it), not all states or local municipalities will allow you to actually disconnect from the power grid. If you feel it’s important to literally be off-grid, you’ll need to do some digging before you assume anything; and in multi-family structures like condominiums it might even be physically impossible to accomplish. Of course, the flip side to remaining connected is that in many cases you can sell excess electricity back to the grid—and if your solar rig fails at halftime during the Super Bowl, you’ll still have power…

Of course, if you’re going to grow your own food in the city, you’ll need enough space for that, too. It’s not impossible to find city homes with yards or large outdoor spaces where you might be able to grow your apocalypse garden (and even raise chickens!), but those houses will obviously be more expensive. And your property deed or local regulations might limit your ability to have “livestock” of any kind on your property (and your neighbors may or may not be excited about those chickens).

Three things strike me after reading this:

  1. Suburban life is ruled by a series of local regulations. Suburbs on the whole might have similar guidelines and expectations compared to other kinds of places but local control can lead to oddities.
  2. The ability to live in one’s own residence is connected to community regulations and a social contract with surrounding residents. This leads to two questions: can a resident go off the grid and should a resident go off the grid? What would the neighbors think?
  3. I wonder how many suburbs are prepared for this possibility. Even if regulations make it more difficult to go off the grid, what would happen in communities if someone really wanted to pursue this and they had the resources and means to pull it off?