More Questions About What To Call Home

I get questions, sometimes from researchers but more often from journalists. Earlier this year, the questions came from Gerd-Ulf Krueger, a real estate analyst and a columnist for the Orange County Register. Krueger wanted to know what we might be calling home in the near future and where that home would be.

My answers, which I've revised and expanded for this column, Where We Are, are below.

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Krueger: You talk about the closing of the suburban frontier in Southern California. How do you see the future of housing unfold?

DJW: The future of housing in Southern California will be constrained by the limits of a mostly "built out" region for which the cliché "sprawl" no longer has any substantial meaning. There's no place to go in urbanized Los Angeles Basin except into existing neighborhoods with sites suitable for the multi-story, compact developments that have begun to populate Los Angeles, Glendale, Burbank, West Hollywood, and Long Beach.

But the tracts of single-family homes built between 1940 and 2000 will dominate the landscape of Los Angeles for many years to come. I do not see the 63-year-old homes of my suburb disappearing soon (nor have all the 100-year-old homes in South Pasadena, Pasadena, Orange, or Santa Ana).

Nevertheless, political and economic forces are driving a denser form of working-class and middle-class housing. In some instances, the result is a graceful, appealing development. In other cases, the result is a mess. And in neither instance is there any assurance that the design of the buildings, their construction methods, or planners' assumptions will result in a desirable place to live 30 for 40 years from now. There is hope, however.

The mass-produced, tract house suburbs of the 1950s were supposed to become the working-class slums of the 1980s. They didn't, for the most part. The mixed-use, dense, mid-rise developments of 2013 might be the slum tenements of 2050. But they don't have to be.

Krueger: Do you see the possibility of some new hybrid further out, such as suburban villages?

DJW: Developments today are generally more compact, more walkable and bikeable, and more transit-ready, although there may be no transit actually present. Planning agencies will demand that developers build to this form. Buyers will select this form as the result of adroit marketing and limited choice.

Large assumptions are built into the future we're getting (some of them are discussed in this recent post). Perhaps least certain is the future nature of work. "Further out" development, in the form of sort-of-urban clusters, won't satisfy state mandates to reduce driving unless work is nearby, either at a keyboard in a home office or in an office park cubicle.

In any case, "suburban villages" -- I'm thinking of a place like Seaside, Florida -- aren't the home of working-class and middle-class people.

Krueger: Could you give planners some advice about proper balance? You talk about the "enough" -- enough planning, and enough housing, leaving things open, a kind of Zen planning.

DJW: My point about "enough" is in reaction to HOAs and CC&Rs (Covenants, Conditions, and Restriction) that rigidly define what color your house can be and what plants you can put in your front yard. Broadly speaking, constraints like these and other restrictions flow from the essentially anti-democratic motives of developers and homebuyers, who seek to fix their place in an unchanging "now" largely to protect resale values.

Planning should be sturdy enough to give identity to a neighborhood and relaxed enough to let everyday life -- with all its messiness -- happen. Just as a plain cardboard container can be reused as a spaceship or a fort or a playhouse, so should a street of homes accommodate the avid gardener, the backyard mechanic, the weekend RVer, the home business, and the guy who likes to sits just inside his open garage drinking a beer out of a can.

Messiness is disturbing, and the result is "too much" ... too much planning, too much rigidity, too much imposition of someone else's idea of home.

Worse, the substitution of community-by-contract in the form of an HOA stifles the political order that ought to flow from the process of community making. I'm suspicious of New Urbanist towns that aren't cities at all, without the risks and benefits of genuine political life.

Krueger: Where do we house the huge cohort of Millennials, the children of the baby boomers?

DJW: I suppose if I knew a "product oriented" answer I could sell my services to the housing industry. In fact, I don't know what people want, although contending polls are to tell us that Millennials long to live in a 700-square-foot "dwelling unit" in a kind of modified college dorm in a noir adjacent city center ... and they also want to live -- eventually -- in a 3,000-square-foot ranch house in the suburbs with kids and a dog.

Except for the working-class tenements of the late 19th and early 20th century, housing in America has always been the subject of intense daydreaming. American houses -- even the plainspoken vernacular farmhouses of the Midwest -- have always spoken to the imagination. We house our daydreams first; our stuff and ourselves come later.

Home has to answer at least some Millennial desires, provide at least some sense of place, and give shelter to daydreams. Otherwise, home for them will be the psychological and spiritual equivalent of a motel.

Will the "housing products" being aimed today at Millennials make enough of a home? I don't know.

About the Author

D. J. Waldie is the author of "Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir" and "Where We Are Now: Notes from Los Angeles," among other books about the social history of Southern California. He is a contributing editor for the Los Angeles Times ...
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