Hovering somewhere just beyond all the land use zoning regulations, building codes, finance mechanisms, aspirational comprehensive municipal plans, state mandates, and endless NIMBYism lies… reality.
If you happen to want to live in certain parts of coastal California you need to come to grips with a serious supply and demand imbalance. Demand is endless. Supply is highly constrained. And there’s a huge amount of money on the table.
Horizontal growth is essentially verboten. A powerful coalition of existing property owners, environmental groups, resource allocation schemes, and multi-tiered government regulations stymie new greenfield development. The personal interests of conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats line up exactly when anyone attempts to build anything near them. “Over my dead body.”
It’s understood that if a town accepts endless low density horizontal development the overall quality of the area will decline. You can’t have expansive large scale suburbia without paving over the countryside, creating a great deal of traffic congestion, and inducing strip mall blight.
At the same time, no one wants infill development on existing not-so-great property that’s already been paved over and degraded. The neighborhood associations break out the pitch forks and firebrands at the suggestion of multi-story condos or (Heaven forbid) apartment buildings. The population of any older suburb could double or triple without using a single inch of new greenfield land. But that kind of growth is feared and hated. So the aging muffler shops and parking lots linger in the middle of a massive housing crisis.
On the other hand there’s radically less regulatory or community push back against expanding and improving existing suburban homes. Google Street View makes it possible to observe how a little post war tract home was transformed into a substantially larger residence. This kind of growth is entirely acceptable. The building is much larger, but it’s still a fully detached single family home. And since it’s more valuable it pays more taxes and boosts the tone of the neighborhood without adding any additional burdens.
Viewing the situation from the air reveals all the accumulated additions that have been tacked on to homes over the years. It’s like an alluvial delta of extra bedrooms, additional bathrooms, family rooms, kitchen expansions, and garages.
Here’s where things get interesting (and where I won’t be showing any photos…) I own property in the area and each of my immediate neighbors (every single one of them up and down the block) has some kind of accessory dwelling unit. I don’t mean a detached granny cottage or attached apartment. Those are either outright illegal or so difficult and expensive to build legally that the numbers simply don’t add up. Instead, I’m talking about de fact second units as part of otherwise conforming single family homes.
There’s the bonus room above the two car garage. It’s buffered from the rest of the house by the garage and laundry room. It has its own exterior door, its own private bath. There’s no kitchen per se since that would clearly be illegal. But there’s a fridge, a microwave, a collection of plug-in countertop kitchen appliances, and an outdoor gas grill on the back patio. It’s an apartment in every respect except for the missing stove and the stigma of multi-family status. The bonus room is occupied by a local nurse who couldn’t possibly afford to live anywhere else even if there were vacancies in the area – and there aren’t.
There’s the daylight basement that opens on to the back garden. It too has a private bath, separate exterior door, and not-entirely-complete kitchenette. It was once the family rumpus room. Now it’s just shy of a one bedroom apartment that’s occupied by a divorced middle aged friend-of-the-family. We won’t use the term “rent” since that has legal connotations. But a guest may feel an obligation to make a certain monetary contribution month after month…
There’s the luxurious master bedroom suite that was added on in the 1980’s back when the family still had school aged children in the house. Now the older couple rents the space to a lovely young schoolteacher. This is the de facto workforce housing in the area. It’s also how many retirees make ends meet when they’re house rich and cash poor and don’t want to sell and relocate.
Rents in the area are so high and landlords have such a wide range of high quality tenants to choose from that people who might not have engaged in this sort of activity in the past find it far more palatable these days. And it isn’t always about money. Almost everyone knows someone they care about who struggles to find any kind of vacancy at any price point. Taking people in when you have a large mostly empty house is sometimes a social obligation.
Everyone knows that their neighbors are doing this. And everyone knows their neighbors know they’re doing it themselves. And everyone turns a blind eye. What’s the difference between this and making such arrangements legal? Control. The unspoken contract is clear. If anyone rents to unsavory or disruptive characters the neighbors have an unquestioned right to call the authorities and boot them out. There’s also the subtle countervailing threat of Mutual Assured Destruction since the practice of providing semi-legal accommodations on the gray-ish market is pervasive. So people tend to exercise good judgement and considerable restraint.