A recent post about the regulatory and cultural dynamics in Thousand Oaks, California was reposted on various platforms on the interwebs and elicited some very different responses. Readers on right leaning sites were incredulous that anyone would criticize the hard working and already over taxed families who were merely defending what they’ve earned. What right does anyone have to tell people how to live or spend what’s left of their own money in their own private realm? Left leaning sites were full of comments about elites, inherited privilege, and the disproportionate unacknowledged subsidies that make people higher up the food chain richer at the expense of the majority farther down. But none of that was what interested me as I wrote the post. I’m not a political animal. Instead, I’m trying to understand the regulatory and cultural landscape so I can better navigate it.
I’m going to give this one more try using a different upscale suburb four hundred miles to the north that exhibits the same dynamics. Proposals for multi family buildings and accessory dwelling units are illegal and culturally repugnant, while new construction of ever larger homes with numerous guest suites, multiple master bedroom wings, and detached bonus rooms complete with kitchens and baths are absolutely fine – so long as they’re maintained as single family homes. My post wasn’t meant to be critical. It was an observation of facts on the ground. This is how things are organized in the real world – for better or worse. Are we all clear about that now? Okay…
This house was on the market last year and was considered a bit of a fixer upper in need of extensive renovations to bring it up to the prevailing standard. These photos show the original portion of the property that was probably a modest cabin built sometime in the 1930s, then updated in the 50s, and again in the 60s, and the 80s and 90s. I was fascinated by how the General Electric steel kitchen cabinets and coral Formica vanity had made the transition from old and dated to retro and vintage. All of these overlapping styles were then pulled together by the professionals who stage properties for sale with temporary hired furniture and props. Notice how the books on the shelves were turned backwards to present a clean beige unified look while also neutralizing the contents of the library lest there be any controversial titles on display.
Multiple additions over the decades expanded the size of the main house to its present 6,000 square feet. Each new segment exhibits the style, materials, and preferences of its era.
I lost count of how many bedrooms there were and stopped photographing them beyond a certain point. I think there were seven, but many rooms were staged as home offices or rumpus rooms that could have been used for anything. I remember clearly that there were more bathrooms than bedrooms.
Downstairs was an equally large, but less refined space that contained numerous laundry and utility rooms, mechanical spaces, garages, workshops, and what must have been accommodations for maids, nannies, and/or gardeners when live in help was still a thing. (It’s making a comeback.) There was a third full kitchen down there.
Outdoors along the back patio beside the pool there’s a pavilion with changing rooms, a bath, mechanical closets, and a dining area with a fourth kitchen – this one al fresco. Some aspects of this home would be illegal to build new today, but are “grandfathered in” since they were built far enough in the past. Others are replicable now with the right middlemen to navigate the subtle nuances of the building code and zoning regulations. For example, convection microwaves and plug in appliances can substitute proper stoves and ovens in redundant kitchens without crossing the line. There’s an odd tipping point between a perfectly acceptable deluxe master bedroom suite with enough space for a complete living and dining area, a separate door out to the garden, and a luxury wet bar/espresso station vs. an illegal studio apartment.
Here in San Francisco I watched as one of my old neighbors bought, inhabited, and renovated her large home over the years. She was a New Yorker who retired to California for its mild year round climate. The house had been a rather grand mother/daughter duplex when first built in 1910. It was carved up into multiple small apartments during the Great Depression and the housing shortage of World War II. Then the property had reverted to a two unit rental building sometime in the 1960s when San Francisco was in decline. She bought the place as a single family home and lived comfortably in the back part of the lower level near the garden and ran the generously proportioned house as a small hotel via VRBO which predated Airbnb by more than a decade. That income supported her for years. I was actually her housekeeper and handyman who cleaned the rooms, washed the laundry, and did occasional painting and gardening for a portion of that time as her health declined. I was the neighbor who drove her to the hospital more than once as she continued to take various bad turns.
The house sold a while back as my neighbor transitioned to an upscale nursing home. The renovations were complete and buyers, many of them young tech workers with cash offers in hand, eagerly viewed the property. It had been legally subdivided into two condominium units. The lower level unit shown here ultimately sold for $1.8M. The upper unit which was a bit nicer sold for $1.9M.
As part of the renovations my neighbor had created de facto multi family spaces within each of the separate apartments. Here’s a small bedroom under the stairs that was fitted with a sink, dish washer, and fridge. Notice the two cabinets with a void between them and a vent hood hovering over the empty space. Legally this is not a kitchen. This house went through the entire permit and inspection process and passed just fine. What the new owners may or may not do with it is entirely up to them. Ironically, one of the couples who were looking at the property talked about how they would have to remove the spare kitchen because they’d rather use that space as an extra clothes closet instead.
My point is that regulations aren’t designed to prevent things from being built as much as control the kinds and numbers of people who live in a particular area as well as controlling the behavior of that population. That’s either an essential requirement for maintaining order or a repressive regime depending on your personal perspective. I’m more interested in understanding these parameters so I can achieve my personal goals without breaking the rules and getting myself in trouble – or going broke.
I chatted with a friend who was originally very keen on the Tiny House concept, container homes, and co-housing villages. I’ve gradually persuaded him that the better tactic is to get together with extended family or a few friends and buy a McMansion in the next cyclical market correction and inhabit it more or less the way it is. I think he’s beginning to understand that perspective.