The Stealth Triplex

18 thoughts on “The Stealth Triplex”

  1. Johnny, I really appreciate your point of view and your willingness to let it hang out in a public forum. I have followed your work on newgeography.com for the past year or so and also appreciate Joel Kotkin’s willingness to let dissenting voices have the opportunity to be heard.

    As to the thoughts expressed in this essay–there seems to be a bit of naïveté at work here, particularly with regard to how building codes, zoning rules and other detritus built into local government over-regulation. I spent years as a reporter covering city halls, large as Chicago and Los Angeles and much smaller communities as well and I can report from the trenches that almost always the cause of these hindrances to personal freedom come from monied interests–developers, trade unions and, of course, the ubiquitous legal profession. They all want what the Mexicans call la mordida–a little bite or a little taste–a bribe, in other words, not in ugly cash you understand, but in control of their market or their profession.

    Here’s a simple example. In Chicago’s building code there is a requirement for multifamily housing units to be separated by masonry wall–brick, concrete block–“to reduce the danger of fire spreading from unit to unit. In theory and in public policy it looks reasonable and even noble, a win-win. If fact the requirement is there due to continued lobbying by the masonry contractors trade groups with assistance from their union employees.

    A great many, if not most of these rules can be traced back to similar roots, so if anyone wants to know how things got the way they are, follow the money.

    1. The naïveté comes when people assume that business-as-usual can continue forever. It can’t. As a society we’re starting to hit a wall of diminishing returns.

      Joel Kotkin and I agree about half the time. We’ve chatted at his home in LA. He’s a nice guy and I enjoy his company. But he has a bias for his preferred lifestyle at his price point – comfortably middle class, loves suburbia, big house, a car for each member of the nuclear family, thinks The Woodlands in Houston is Nirvana, can’t imagine living in a Communist shoebox apartment and taking the bus… He assumes nearly everyone wants – and can afford – the same thing. His solution to affordable housing is to build more tract homes farther out in the cornfields. That model worked for many people for a long time, but we’ve reached diminishing returns and the system is wobbling for a bunch of reasons.

      I’ve stopped caring about why the rules exist. It’s almost always a combination of reasonable public health and safety measures that gradually metastasizes into a hand-in-the-cookie-jar situation. “Whatever.” If you have the cash you can follow the rules and everything is fine. If you can’t you’re effectively forced in to the gray economy. Plomo o plata.

  2. one key component seems to be that HOA,s and similar are dominated by older white guys (I’m one but Libertarian) who have left their job but are now in the Reserve Fleet of Big Bosses ready to deploy who have just enough money to get by without driving old cars or having side yard gardens or helping the kids or grand /kids or /parents and dream of their house being a WISE INVESTMENT ALWAYS if things can be rigidly controlled. If you are thrifty, frugal, financially constrained, LGBT, or ANYTHING slightly different you need to rent in public facilities and CONFORM, even if your non conformance complies with standard non compliance regulations. How do we get people to realize that this is NOT the best way?

    1. I’m not interested in getting anyone to change anything. It’s more efficient to identify places that are amenable to experimentation and leave the HOAs to lord over things as they see fit. Some will be successful in holding the great unwashed masses at bay. Mazel tov. Many will fail sooner or later. Shrug.

      Being counter cyclical is a great strategy if you can correctly identify places that are currently undervalued, but have the right ingredients to thrive in the future. That’s a tricky business…

  3. I’m architect and, well, I hear you. Been there, fought that for 20+ years in Hawaii and elsewhere.

    Love your ideas. Have done things similar.
    One potential problem with stealth units is neighbors turning you in.

    Often I had clients who wanted to do a stealth ADU, sometimes not even for rental but for an elderly family member for example. Before proceeding I would canvas the neighborhood and look for non-conforming things that the neighbors had done (and probably not gotten permits for) and then make a dossier for the client. I called it a MAD List if you get what I mean. I would usually turn up about 10-15 things nearby for the client to use if needed. Of course, what I designed met all applicable codes and zoning ordinances … but there are multiple clever ways to design things that can be utilized differently than a single family home.

  4. Johnny,

    I really like your blog, which I’ve been reading for a while now. Like you, I have a fascination with the built environment, but am not an architect.

    An immigrant from England, while America can be beautiful, I’ve often wondered why so much of it is so ugly. Until I started reading your blog, I did not realize that, effectively, that was what the law required and people want: the muffler shops, fast food places and chain stores you complain about.

    Getting to the subject in hand – well nearer to it, anyway – what it it about the architecture in San Francisco? I can instantly when one of your photographs was taken there. (Great pictures, by the way.) SF really does seem to have its own architectural style. Any idea why?

    Keep up the good work.

    1. Almost all of San Francisco was built between 1849 and the 1930s with a heavy emphasis on the period around the 1880s. That happened to be a really good era for architecture and walkable urbanism.

      If you go to a place like Cincinnati in Ohio the buildings in Over-the-Rhine are almost all Italianate from the 1860s – 1890s. Philadelphia and Boston’s best older neighborhoods were largely built in the late 1700s and early 1800s.

      When you go to anyplace built after World War II the architecture and land use patterns shift dramatically to the Jiffy Lube and strip mall variety. My guess is that a century from now the residential subdivisions may be more or less what they are now, but the ugly commercial corridors will have transformed. In some prosperous favored locations they’ll mature into something that approximates a Main Street. In poorer less desirable locations they’ll revert to vacant land or possibly small farms.

      1. Strange that you’re a pessimist and I’m an optimist about redevelopment but our predictions are very similar.

    2. Schrody (if I can call you that),

      “what the law required and people want” <- it's not really what people want. It's the closest to what they want they can get with the laws as they are, and the financial system as it is. You can see a glimmer of what people really want in the faux throwback strip-mall joints like Oil Can Henry's. It's an oil change place that's supposed to look like, or at least evoke, an olde timey service garage, but it has to conform to the codes…

      Most Americans really would like something like Mayberry, but we're saddled with a Dunning-Kreuger "elite" who keep regulating against such a thing. Up til now, being somewhat orderly folks, we've done the best we could to make what we wanted within the rules.

      It didn't work very well.

      So, like Johnny predicts, the future will have a lot less respect for the rules. As an "immigrant from England" you probably heard we rebelled against a crown once. I suspect we'll do it again. Maybe nobody has to get shot this time.

      1. I think you are a little too forgiving, Mr. Hawkins. Strip mall suburbia is not JUST or even primarily because of “the rules” or “the elites”. It’s a cheap and easy way to build when all of your customers arrive via automobile.

        Plus, as Johnny noted, the residents and neighbors themselves are eager to enforce every tit and tottle of “the rules.” We had a neighbor opposed to a project who measured the landscape strip of a project he disliked and has spend two years after the project was finished going to most council meetings complaining.

        1. Failure fixes itself. When places are prosperous (or superficially appear so) they can indulge in all manner of nitpicking about code enforcement, zoning, and “preserving the character of the neighborhood.” When the bottom falls out of the local economy and money evaporates the old rules become irrelevant. That’s the time for innovation and reinvention. Most of suburbia needs to fail a whole lot more before it gets to that point. Personally, I don’t think the suburbs are going to thicken and become more urban. The far more likely scenario is that they will revert to some version of a rural landscape over the next century as the underlaying infrastructure decays. That might not be so bad… Huge cities may not hold up so well either. Blog posts to come.

        2. Like I said, it’s the best we can officially do with the rules as they are. Very few people want to drive everywhere any more – that stopped being pleasant long ago in most places. Now people drive because they have to and the rules get in the way of fixing that. Sure, some businesses profit from things they way they are, and they fight to stop any changes that might break their rice bowl.

          Regarding “the residents and neighbors themselves are eager to enforce every tit and tottle of “the rules.””, when you say “the neighbors” you really mean a handful of busybodies, blue-noses and petty tyrants who are empowered by “the rules” to cause far more havoc than they should.

          There is another group that fights change, and those are people who have seen a lot of bad changes rammed through by developers looking to make a profit (see paragraph 1) and don’t trust the system to be fair.

          But really, I’m just listing some of the reasons Johnny is right that none of this will get fixed easily or quickly.

          But people are getting tired of of and losing respect for The Rules, The System, and The Busybody Neighbors too.

          1. There’s another set of considerations. What happens when the existing rules and practices actually become so dysfunctional that the busybodies themselves can no longer live as they wish? The magic of a crisis is that the whole system shuts down and it becomes obvious that things have to change. We aren’t there yet. But I suspect we will be eventually.

  5. I’m such a big fan of this strategy. Here, there is a LONG tradition of the “non-conforming” basement rental suite. In a high cost of housing area, these rental suites are incredibly common. In the last five or so years, there’s been such a housing crisis that the city has legalized these, providing for a few code things like smoke detectors, etc. Basic things to bring them into the official housing stock.

    I’ve noticed this pattern too, with other things like community gardens. People just ignore the bylaws and start doing something stealthily. After a while, many other people start doing the same, and, since there is safety in numbers, at some point it becomes a common, non-conforming but accepted practice. Then, down the road, it becomes an existing practice that sets a precedent, and people begin to demand rights and legality, based on history! I’ve seen this work really effectively, though obviously it can take a long time. But it all stems from starting under the radar, in practical ways, and building community.

  6. In the US midwest, the easiest route might be basement conversion. Since such space needs a separate ingress/egress to be counted as square footage, and since kitchens in basement family rooms are not uncommon, it is easy to imagine that simply by excavating a couple of window wells and a door-well, one might be able to do the same thing in Minnesota or Michigan.

    1. Johnny, did your Cincinnati “experiment” have a decent basement, to where you wouldn’t have had to pop up a second story to get additional space?

      Many post-WW2 houses in the Midwest still had basements. There’s a sweet spot from about 1920-55, mostly bungalows and ranches, when they were built with block. Post 1955 they were lost from most mass-built worker housing, and in the 80s they became an “upscale” home feature after the death of the split-level.

      1. The Cincinnati house was built in 1890 and had a full fieldstone basement. The ceilings were reasonably high (although a few inches shy of the legally allowable limit) but it was damp and dark. A secondary means of emergency egress would have required excavation drama on a narrow lot. Converting the basement to living space wasn’t really an option.

        The primary problem I encountered was the zoning regulations that would not permit any structure on a 1,540 square foot lot. The existing house was grandfathered in, but no addition could be built since the proposed second floor would violate the 1950’s suburban style front, side, and rear setback requirements. If the house had been built on a quarter acre lot the city would have been fine with the addition.

        Our limitations are cultural, emotional, and political – not physical or even economic.

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