A denser suburbia in California and the rest of the United States

The single-family home is the most important feature of American suburbs. What happens when conditions change and pressures lead to more multifamily housing units and denser housing in suburbia? From California:

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In June, as Ms. Coats told me about the house and the neighborhood from the doorstep of her bungalow, she gazed toward a fresh foundation that had entombed the back half of Lot 118 in concrete. Over the next few weeks, a construction crew erected a two-story building that filled in a green rectangle from the Clairemont Villas brochure. A few feet away, the original four-bedroom house was loudly gut-renovated into a pair of apartments.

When the workers head to their next job this month, they will leave what amounts to a triplex rental complex on the type of lot that in the seven decades since Ms. Coats’s family moved in had been reserved for single-family houses. It’s part of a push across California and the nation to encourage density in suburban neighborhoods by allowing people to subdivide single-family houses and build new units in their backyards…

In the vast zone between those poles lie existing single-family neighborhoods like Clairemont, which account for most of the urban landscape yet remain conspicuously untouched. The omission is the product of a political bargain that says sprawl can sprawl and downtowns can rise but single-family neighborhoods are sealed off from growth by the cudgel of zoning rules that dictate what can be built where. The deal is almost never stated so plainly, but it is the foundation of local politics in virtually every U.S. city and cuts to the core of the country’s deepest class and racial conflicts…

“It doesn’t fit.” “It’s adding people.” “We don’t want that here.” “There’s other places for that.” “We just want to keep our neighborhood like it is.” “They want to push us out and tear our houses down.” “Parking.” “Parking.” “Parking.”

Several quick thoughts on these changes in many suburban communities:

  1. Where exactly this density will happen will be fascinating to watch. Will it happen in wealthier suburban communities or will they be able to keep it at bay? Inner-ring suburbs are often already more familiar with such density but this is less common in suburbs further from the big city.
  2. The housing pressure is acute in California but is not so clear or as well publicized in many other locations. If this works in California, where else does it show up?
  3. The NIMBY concerns cited above will be vocally shared again and again. The appeal for many single-family home owners is the space between neighbors, relatively lots of room for parking, and not feeling like the neighborhood is crowded.
  4. How much are #1-3 above linked to another long-term pattern in suburbia: race and exclusion? Homeowners will say it is about protecting their properties – particularly their property values, which single-family home zoning is intended to do – but it is also about who is able to live in the neighborhood and community.
  5. The addition of units and people to existing single-family home neighborhoods is a different approach to denser suburbia than creating larger-scale “surban” projects that some would find desirable near suburban downtowns or in large-scale redevelopment.

“Soccer moms” replaced by “mad moms” in current California gubernatorial race?

According to one grassroots leader, the California gubernatorial recall election has been driven by “mad moms”:

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Now, as recall ballots are dropping in mailboxes, children are returning to school amid heated battles over mask mandates and skyrocketing cases of the highly transmissible Delta variant. Leaders of the effort to remove Newsom for office are confident that women, exasperated by the effect of Newsom’s policies on their children, are the reason they will prevail.

“It’s gas on the fire,” said Anne Hyde Dunsmore, campaign manager for Rescue California, one of the main recall groups. “The whole time, it’s probably the single biggest ingredient in the campaign, in our success.”

Newsom “didn’t understand mad moms, which are the same as soccer moms,” Dunsmore said, referring to the pivotal group of suburban female voters. “Don’t piss off mommy.”

Newsom and his allies agree that these women are critical, but they point to polling that shows that well over a majority of the state’s women approve Newsom’s handling of the pandemic. If these women turn out, they will be a major factor in helping the governor retain his job.

Multiple recent election cycles have included efforts to sway suburban women. These two labels seem particularly aimed at suburban women, not all women in California or the United States. The two major political parties both think they can convince enough suburban women to care about their priority issues under the right conditions (examples here and here) and the suburbs are the spaces where elections are won or lost.

The shift from the “soccer moms” label that goes back decades to “mad moms” in mid-2021 could be worth examining further. In the label itself, soccer moms referred to driving kids to and from local practices. They cared about the future of their children and their communities. Mad moms suggests women are fed up with what is happening and/or what the future might hold for their families and communities. Especially in 2021, anger can be a powerful mobilizing force in politics.

Presumably, the mad moms are conservative women who want different political outcomes. For the women of California who disagree with their perspective, what is an apt moniker for the other side?

The beauty of and danger to California’s Highway One

Over a decade ago, we planned a vacation that involved driving Highway One from San Francisco down the California coast. I had visited California several times before but had never driven this famous road. While our drive was relatively quick as we spent more time in urban centers, we enjoyed the scenery and the contrast of the roadway to typical straight Midwest roads.

With the recent washout in Big Sur, the need for constant reconstruction – and why – is interesting:

Highway 1 is a California spectacle, a Depression-era monument to the state’s quixotic ambitions and stunning beauty. It runs from the Orange County surf haven of Dana Point in the south into cannabis-cultivating Mendocino County, carrying heavy traffic over the Golden Gate Bridge and under the bluffs of Santa Monica, where it is better known as the Pacific Coast Highway, on its 650-mile route…

The engineering folly of a road built on sheer cliffs has meant that closures are annual events — the “whens,” not “ifs” — for the people and the economy it supports.

But the wild card now is the increasing frequency of wildfire along a roughly 100-mile stretch from William Randolph Hearst’s hilltop castle at San Simeon to Carmel, which is stripping fragile hillsides of stabilizing vegetation and causing more slides and more serious washouts across a region known broadly as Big Sur…

An even larger stretch of Highway 1 reopened in 2018 after a 14-month closure at Mud Creek about 20 miles south of here. The road was buried — not washed away, as in Rat Creek’s case — when the rocky ground above it gave way in hard rains.

This is one of the few times in my life where the road itself was a destination – and it was worth it. Keeping this corridor open is important even as it is a difficult stretch to maintain.

When new residents to an area bring a lot more money to spend on housing

A piece in the New York Times highlights what happens when residents from one part of the United States move to another. One aspect of this: the new residents can bring a lot of money with which to purchase a home.

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According to a recent study by Redfin, the national real estate brokerage, the budget for out-of-town home buyers moving to Boise is 50 percent higher than locals’ — $738,000 versus $494,000. In Nashville, out-of-towners also have a budget that is 50 percent higher than locals. In Austin it’s 32 percent, Denver 26 percent and Phoenix 23 percent.

As the commentary goes on to note, this means that prices in certain housing markets can then go up. New residents with resources compete with existing residents who may or may not be able to keep up. Several thoughts arise:

-Imagine current NIMBY practices at a national level instead of just at a local or regional level. The piece hints that people in multiple locations might want to restrict migration from California. Mass movements of people in the United States are not heard of and restrictions have been applied before.

-This presents an interesting conundrum for local officials and local planners. Growth is usually good. Until it is not the kind of growth local residents want or it is growth driven by outside forces. If communities want to grow and attract wealthier residents, are they also willing to accept the changes that might come?

-Just as some communities have requirements that developers of big projects pay fees or provide affordable housing, is there some way for a community to “tax” newcomers to help provide funds to offset changes?

-Do these patterns eventually lead to from a perpetual search for the new hot, lower cost of living location? Once Boise, Austin, and Nashville are different, what places come next – Omaha, Billings, Baton Rouge? This would take quite a while to work out but I do wonder how many attractive lower cost of living places there can be at any one time.

Finding housing in former strip malls and big box stores in California

In a state with a need for cheaper housing, some in California are looking to commercial properties along main roads:

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Joe DiStefano sees boulevards like El Camino Real as more than just spots for takeout or an oil change. He sees a “perfect storm of opportunity.” Cofounder and CEO of UrbanFootprint, a software company that builds urban planning tools, DiStefano has done numerous studies on the housing potential hiding in California’s commercial strips. According to UrbanFootprint’s analysis of El Camino Real, this lone corridor could theoretically accommodate more than 300,000 new units if the road was upzoned to allow residential development and its parking lots and big-box stores became low-rise apartment complexes…

Converting underutilized retail and office space into apartments is not a novel idea, but it’s gaining fresh attention from California lawmakers, especially as pandemic-fueled e-commerce and remote work trends continue to empty brick-and-mortar stores and business parks across the state. In December, California State Senator Anna Caballero, who represents the Central and Salinas valleys and cities such as Merced, helped introduce Senate Bill 6, which would fast-track the creation of walkable infill development and make it easier to turn land zoned for commercial uses into housing. Another member of the state’s legislature, Assemblymember Richard Bloom, has a similar proposal to encourage commercial-to-residential conversions, Assembly Bill 115. (California has a bicameral legislature.) And Senator Anthony Portantino introduced AB15, which would incentivize turning vacant big box sites into workforce housing…

But more than 40% of commercial zones in California’s 50 largest metros prohibit residential development, according to a recent report from the Terner Center for Housing Innovation at Berkeley. “Residential Redevelopment of Commercially Zoned Land in California” highlights the growing potential of such rezoning proposals. “It’s a perfect infill option,” says David Garcia, a co-author and policy director at the Terner Center. While legislation like these proposed bills hasn’t been passed in other states, he believes they address a universal problem. “You’re really plugging in gaps left by shifts in the commercial marketplace, by Covid and the shift to e-commerce.”

There are three main types of projects ripe for this kind of reuse, Garcia says: commercial strips in more urban areas, often along existing transit lines; former big box retailers in more suburban areas; and vacant land in the exurban landscape that’s been reserved for future development. Researchers found there was actually more acreage of available commercial space per person in more suburban/outlier areas, an opportunity that, if paired with increased investment in transit, could quickly bring more density and valuable walkable development to fast-growing and diversifying suburban centers, some of which have already done a relatively good job of building new housing. “Instead of thinking about a bill like this as another state mandate cities need to adhere to, it should be looked at as a tool for doing the good planning they need to do anyways,” Garcia says. 

This might be hard sell before COVID-19 but the severe issues for retailers and businesses may make a lot of properties available.

Even with these issues, I wonder how many communities would quickly give up commercial properties to be rezoned for residential use. Many communities rely on commercial properties along major roads for sales tax revenue. If commercial property disappears from the local zoning map, how would a community make up those revenues?

Of course, providing possibly cheaper housing could be desirable to residents, even if it comes at the expense of commercial properties. And new residential units might even revive some local commercial activity.

If this is enabled at the state level, it would be interesting to see how quickly communities and developers would move. Vacant property is not desirable for any municipality. Would this move more quickly in certain kinds of communities compared to others?

The two best pools I have seen in California

I have made a number of trips to California, usually visiting family or for vacation. And while I do not typically seek out pools on my vacation, with the end of summer I was reminded of two pools I really enjoyed seeing.

The first is at Hearst Castle. The house is fun to tour with its unique features and location up on a hill that offers great views all around. The indoor pool is impressive but the outside pool is even better:

Columns, large pool, a sunny day. Although it was the first thing on the property we saw on our tour, I could stopped there.

The second pool is further south at The Getty Villa. In what looks like a Roman villa filled with art, there is a long courtyard with this:

While this pool is only a few feet deep, I could still imagine floating around in this great setting surrounded by palm trees and art.

It may not be a coincidence that both pools are surrounded by classical columns. This is not just swimming, this is fun in the water surrounded by the aura of history (even if these buildings are relatively recent constructions that evoke tradition and opulence). The contrast here would be some of the ultra-modern skyscrapers topped with infinity pools; they sell a pool at the top of the urban world amid steel and glass.

Or, perhaps the lure of the pool knowing that visitors cannot swim in them helps make them attractive. They are part of the scenery – even as they likely cost quite a bit to maintain – that cannot be touched. And with visitors coming on a number of hot days, these pools look refreshing.

In the end, I would be happy to go back and sit by these pools. And if there is ever an event that allows people to use them, I would be interested.

Constructing needed housing and other housing during COVID-19

Even during COVID-19, construction goes on in the Bay Area amidst a need for housing:

California’s shelter-in-place order has forced millions of people to stay home and businesses to close to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus. Some construction workers, however, are still reporting for work to build and renovate Silicon Valley mansions and San Francisco luxury condos because of carve-outs in shelter-in-place orders that exempt any housing construction as “essential” business.

Local officials say residential construction of all kinds is necessary to address the region’s housing crisis. The exemption means affordable housing projects are moving forward, too…

In Palo Alto, where the median property value is $3 million, according to Zillow, residential construction has been so ubiquitous that the city’s new coronavirus support line was inundated with calls about what kind of construction was permitted under shelter-in-place, according to the city’s daily coronavirus newsletter Monday. This past week, crews showed up to work on single-family homes valued on Zillow at $7.3 million for an eight-bedroom house and $9.6 million for a five-bedroom house…

Backlash from concerned neighbors is predictable, said Laura Foote, executive director of YIMBY Action, a Bay Area network of advocates for increased housing supply at all economic levels. “People find new reasons to believe what they have always believed,” she said. “We have a housing shortage and that is what’s driving up cost. More housing also helps bring down the overall cost.”

The article goes into more detail about the debates over the continued housing. There appear to be multiple issues: whether any construction should go on, whether construction should go on for building luxury or expensive housing, and if construction goes on, whether workers and developers should follow rules about social distancing.

This is both a reminder of the lingering issues in a world very focused on COVID-19 as well as the complications of housing questions in the Bay Area and California more broadly. Fiinding solutions has proven difficult; building more affordable housing in many regions depends on local actions which wealthier communities tend to avoid.

Perhaps the question coming out of the pandemic will be this: will the Bay Area, the Seattle area, New York City, and other tight housing markets be more open to affordable housing conversations and action after everyone had to unite (or at least agree to stay away from each other) for a common cause? Crises tend to reveal inequalities but they do not always lead to efforts to address and rectify the problems.

California’s biggest cities without blackouts, suburbs have them

A journalist looks into why California’s power blackouts have hit some suburbs but not the biggest cities:

The municipal utility that serves Los Angeles doesn’t shut off power during high winds. As the utility explained in a recent press release, the city’s miles of pavement, numerous fire stations and relatively limited open spaces help protect it from runaway fires. There’s also the chaos that could ensue from knocking out traffic lights in the capital of car culture.

L.A.’s approach, however, isn’t foolproof. The Getty fire that’s chased celebrities from their hillside homes started when a broken eucalyptus branch sailing on the wind hit a live power line owned by the city’s utility. The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power did not return a call Wednesday asking if it would reconsider its no-blackout policy as a result…

San Francisco, meanwhile, benefits from its famously odd climate. While the rest of California heats up and dries out during the summer, San Francisco shivers in a fog bank so much a part of city life that residents have given it a name (Karl). The fog typically vanishes by October, but even then, the city never gets as dry as most of its suburbs. And the dangerous Diablo winds striking this month rarely hit the city as hard as its hilly suburbs.

As a result, San Francisco isn’t included on the state’s official map of high fire threat areas. So PG&E Corp. doesn’t cut its power when winds rise, said utility spokeswoman Ari Vanrenen. That’s not to say the city couldn’t someday lose electricity if PG&E takes down a transmission line that feeds it.

These reasons make some sense. Denser urban areas are less likely to have large areas of foliage and nature in addition to exposed power lines through which fires can easily spread.

At the same time, it might be difficult to make a case when many people in the state are affected by the blackouts and others are not “sharing the burden.” Do such choices provide economic benefits to certain areas while others are hurt?

The case of Los Angeles could get pretty interesting in this regard in that there are some more natural areas surrounding the city and separating communities. The Getty fire above is a good example; the museum and the surrounding homes sit on less dense land on hillsides overlooking the city. Could a fire break out there and then end up on either side of the hills/mountains and spread to urban and suburban land?

Zoning for single-family homes contributes to California’s housing issues

If a lot of individual communities zone largely for single-family homes, it can add up to larger housing problems:

At its heart, California’s housing problem is one of scarcity: According to one analysis, the state has 3.5 million fewer homes than it needs to house all the people who live there. That gap was created over decades — largely as a result of the zoning policies of individual communities, under pressure from local residents. Randy Shaw, a longtime Bay Area housing advocate and author of the book Generation Priced Out, says the best way to describe the dynamics at play is to look at the city of Atherton. Thirty minutes from San Jose, Atherton is the most expensive city in the country: The median price of a home there is $8.1 million.

“You can’t build an apartment building in Atherton,” Shaw says. City code prohibits anything other than a single-unit building with a footprint that cannot exceed 18 percent of the land. In other words, everything but a single, detached home with a yard is verboten. “You have all of these cities in California where you can’t build anything but a luxury home,” Shaw says. “When you have zoning restrictions that prevent you from building the housing you need, you’re pretty much guaranteed to get in the situation we have.”

It’s a problem lawmakers across the state are grappling with, including in San Jose, where 94 percent of the city is zoned for single-family homes. “You got lots of family housing, and you’re not going to bulldoze it to go build apartments,” Liccardo said at a meeting of the state’s mayors in July. “At least, not if you don’t want [homeowners] to burn down City Hall.”…

At the start of the legislative session this past January, the housing committee introduced a slate of bills focused on streamlining approvals for new construction, protecting renters, funding affordable housing, and, most controversially, reforming zoning laws. Wiener’s top priority was SB50, an ambitious proposal that would prohibit cities from having zoning laws like Atherton’s. Residential neighborhoods historically reserved for single-family homes would be opened up to multi-unit housing like triplexes and fourplexes. And even higher-density construction would be allowed around transit corridors and “job-rich” enclaves.

With suburban preferences for single-family homes, exclusion, and local control, providing cheaper housing at a state level is going to be a tough sell. As I have asked before, what incentive do wealthier homeowners have to change the rules that let them live with people like them? But, if California can find some path through this all that actually makes an impact – and it will likely take quite a while before significant change could be noted – then it could provide a helpful template for other American locations that suffer from similar problems.

Filming the world around Hollywood and California

In working on some recent research, I ran into the classic 1927 map from Paramount Studios showing filming locations in California (reproduced in numerous works):

ParamountStudioMapCalifornia1927

Add this to the capabilities of shooting on backlots and the world may be relatively easy to access from Hollywood. There are likely other reasons the film and television industry chose to locate together in and around Hollywood but having such varied nearby locations likely helps.

One thing that is missing from this map: urban locations. This map certainly reflects an interest in more natural settings. Los Angeles in 1927 was still under development. Even later Los Angeles can be fairly distinctive – just look at all the car ads filmed in and around the city. San Francisco offers some spectacular scenery but its uniqueness means it could be hard for the location to double for other places.