Affordable Housing, Minus the Housing and Affordable Parts

10 thoughts on “Affordable Housing, Minus the Housing and Affordable Parts”

  1. That white walled cottage you showed is damn exquisite. On another topic, NPR had a news story last week about some land Star Wars Billionaire George Lucas owns in Marin County which he wants to build affordable housing on. I am not that familiar with the situation, but the comments from well-off residents opposed to it, were kind of shocking. Basically saying that if you can’t afford to live there, you don’t belong. Liberals, preferring diversity in every area of life, except their own back yard. At least that’s how it sounded.

  2. Last week I gave a co-worker a ride home.

    ‘Pull into this alley here. Now turn into this service alley. Now slow down…stop here. This is it.’

    What, this?

    I was looking at a pair of hinges embedded in a wooden fence, next to garbage cans.

    ‘Yup. This is it. Thanks for the ride.”

    “Is there a crazed ex-boyfriend lurking around your life?”

    “My landlady won’t let me use the front entrance. She is very adamant about it.”

    She reached over the wall, grabbed a string and the wooden slats parted about thirty degrees and she slipped through. The ‘gate’ closed behind her, Bat Cave-like, then looked like an ordinary fence again. There was no street address or unit number to mark where she lived.

    A few days later, it got cold.

    ‘There’s no heat in my place,’ she lamented. Ask the landlady to fix the furnace, we suggested. It’s Christmastime.

    ‘There’s no furnace.’

    No furnace? No wall heater?

    ‘My apartment is kind of attached to the garage. I don’t think it’s legal. I wanted to buy a space heater and deduct it from my rent, but she won’t let me. Arguing with her about it is like trying to grab water.’

    The person of whom I am writing is a) white, b) educated, c) sober, d) works two jobs, like everyone else north of Ventura Blvd. Van Nuys may not be Vladivostok, but a heat-less domicile is her lot this winter and she’s resigned to it. One might consider her at a slight advantage to the other tenant, the one who lives in the garage proper, who also has no heat…plus no insulation. No kitchen, either. $600.

    Turning right at the corner, I was back on a street of ordinary mid-century homes in White Van Nuys, otherwise known as Lake Balboa, lined with sweet gums shedding the last of the autumn leaves. Nothing suggested the parallel world of Bob Cratchit-like cells, small, cold and dismal, concealed just beyond the hedge work, from which certain homeowners profited handsomely.

    There is a deep sub-culture of illegal units in Los Angeles. Historically it has served the needs of the extended immigrant family: second cousins tucked away in converted Home Depot tool sheds. The City has never taken it on directly because this would mean addressing the larger issue of the vast population of undocumented laborers concealed within its borders, without which the Westside would cease to function. The Problem which has No Name in Polite Society. We can’t enforce laws relating to citizenship so we don’t enforce laws relating to those would exploit the legal disadvantage of the undocumented. Once you carve out a zone of immunity in civil society, it doesn’t stop with Hondurans. We all take a step back in the direction of Dickensian London, toward a Manicheanistic world of the propertied and the un-propertied.

    Welcome to Cratchit-ville.

    Great blog, Johnny. Following you with growing interest.

  3. Excellent, fascinating post, as usual. Only one raised eyebrow: I happen to have spent a lot of time in Ohio in my life, and I am surprised to hear you say that Sonoma is no more beautiful than the countryside in Ohio.

    1. Well, it depends on which part of Ohio you’re talking about. The ravaged industrial wasteland of Akron? The dead malls off the side of the highway on the edge of Cleveland? The flat unrelenting agribusiness fields that stretch out to the horizon without relief? California has plenty of those landscapes too. We just don’t put them on postcards. I was thinking more of the soft rolling forested hills and traditional farm towns of southern Ohio near Kentucky. It’s very pretty. Or maybe we’re comparing apples to oranges – literally. I might have to do a blog post on the subject.

      My point is that you can have some seriously compromised dinky version of your California dream home/romanticized lifestyle for $700,000+ or you can get a pretty great version of a really good life in Ohio for $100,000. Places like San Francisco and Sonoma are full of people who are willing to fight and pay extra to live here. But for most people it’s exhausting and they just want a good life at a price they can afford. Pick your poison.

      1. I see your point, of course. But actually, that is exactly the part of Ohio I was talking about, and the part I have spent most time in: both of my parents grew up in or near Portsmouth, the little city at the mouth of the Scioto river, about 50 or 60 miles east of Cincinnati, my father in a log cabin without running water. They got out of there as fast as they could and only went back to visit, and I guess maybe their view of where they came from affected how I saw it as well, no matter how many summers I spent enjoying the natural beauties of Shawnee State Park. But good for you for seeing the beauty in it!

        1. Eric – That’s different from asking “Is it pretty?”

          There are two different dynamics here. Your parents were dealing with rural economic distress and left in search of opportunity in a distant city/state. The migration of struggling rural people is very different from educated middle class people in big cities migrating to a less expensive metro area in search of quality of life at a lower price point.

          1. Educated middle class people generally face similar kinds of economic distress issues for living in rural areas. It’s hard to find good high-skill jobs in small towns away from metropolitan areas, and it’s becoming harder all the time as wealth generation concentrates in ever-larger metropolitan areas. I grew up in a small city (not town) in the South and even there most of my childhood friends and acquaintances who managed decent careers ended up moving to metropolitan areas apart from those who inherited family businesses. This problem is particularly acute for people in the tech sector.

            1. Exactly. As a tech worker I had to move repeatedly to exit depressed areas. But always from one metro to another. Avoided hot areas like Bay Area and So Cal. But hinterlands were never an option: simply no relevant jobs. Likewise for friends and family. Unless you were self-employed professional or small business owner.

  4. I agree – wonderful and thoughtful post. I once worked briefly for a code book publishing company; every 10 years or so the old outdated codes are removed and the new ones are added to the new books. I’ll never forget one being removed that dated back to 1900 or so – “Goldfish shall not be allowed on public conveyances unless they can be made to lay still.” Now I’ve no clue what exact goldfish-conveyance mishap resulted in this particular Rochester, NY code needing to be written, voted on and passed, but it gives you an idea of the mindset of code writers, enforcers and their ilk. The problem of codes making safety sense up front and no economic sense at the back end needs to be addressed, and soon, or we’ll all be holding cardboard signs on the ever dwindling number of streetcorners still left open to beggars of all kinds; you have to wonder about a system that tolerates homelessness of any sort; at least when the Soviet Union collapsed, everyone still had their houses in town and their dachas out in the country, with free transportation between them. They may have been crappy, but they were free. See Dimitry Orlov’s wonderful books and blogs for more about the difference between ‘collapse’ in both countries; we’re overdue for it here and only escaped it so far because of the Federal Reserve’s money printing capabilities.

    I’ve recently been considering bucking City Hall big time and buying a building lot in the small resort town of Cambria, California. Because of water issues, there are dozens of relatively inexpensive lots begging for buyers in that town, all with electrical service available at the curb- but without water rights, no building permits or even electrical hookups will be allowed as per San Luis Obispo code. I want to build or make use of a tiny home perhaps on wheels and live on the lot completely off grid; I’ve estimated that for my purposes a solar setup ( would be overkill; I need power only a laptop, a few LED lights, a tiny fridge and a fan, and the daily sunlight in that area is better than in San Diego; there is technology now whereby you can turn sunlight to electricity and source water out of the air, enough for nonpotable purposes and hopefully potable also, but those two gallons a day are always available at the local grocery store… this in a location less than a mile from the ocean and with fog overnight and until 11 on some mornings, so the ambient humidity would be quite cooperative.

    The problem is you’re not ‘allowed’ to camp on your land for any length of time, even though fully half, at least, of the lots in town are vacant, and minimum wage help to service the many restaurants and hotels in town need to drive in from San Luis Obispo or the businesses go without. There’s precious little affordable housing in this otherwise 1.5 million dollar and up retirement haven. To do so for whatever time I have left on this planet at 62 and with several lethal diseases to my credit, I’d have to completely defy both whatever neighbors might object and the code Nazis as I so cheerfully call them; it’s been suggested that I simply ask ‘mother may I?’ but I’m thinking something along the lines of a white picket fence and a warning sign might do it…with the tiny house set back in as far as possible from other houses on a 75 x 100 foot lot; it’s a shame really; the town is not unlike Carmel-by-the-Sea in location and ambience and if they only allowed a few dozen gingerbread cottages like Carmel has, it would add immeasurably to the tourist-attraction vibe of the town; those houses first built as larks 75+ years ago now sell for millions. They’re full size by tiny house standards but tiny by suburban McMansion standards, and enchanting. Check them out here:

  5. Oh wow, what a timely subject. I have been wrangling with contractors about what it would take to bring this formerly unpermitted/illegal outbuilding in my backyard up to code so I could finish it into a rental cottage. There are simply too many onerous hoops to jump through that would balloon the retrofitting costs from $20k to $50k. I do believe in safety and would hire licensed and bonded electricians and plumbers, but am seriously considering doing it all ”under the radar”. The city of Portland is very encouraging of homeowners building ADUs on their property, but in the case of a retrofit, everything needs to be built up to today’s building codes. How many regular old pre-war homes in the city could even comply with these standards? The argument I’ve heard about why you would want to make such an outbuilding permitted is when you go to sell it, it would add to the value of the home. I’m really torn about which way to proceed.

    The topic of affordability is on everyone’s mind here in Portland. Everyone is nervous that we will turn into ”Another San Francisco” with astronomical rents. There are various ”Land Trust” organizations that buy properties and sell ONLY the house the land sits on at a lower price, with the home owners then selling the house for the market rate later on, minus the land. The city is also wrangling with exclusionary zoning (which isn’t law…yet). There are also the conversations about building up/building denser within the city as opposed to sprawl. I am pessimistic that whichever way we all go, even if we miraculously make all the right development/planning moves, that the cost of living for the working poor won’t be nearly impossible in the future…at least in Portland.

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