Thursday, September 20, 2007

Foreclosures, Pot Houses & Bad Architecture

Yeah, I know: this is not the sort of topic you expect from me. But here's the thing. If you've been listening to the news or even reading the headlines, you know that the real estate market is wallowing on the beach. My area of Northern California is particularly hard hit. Elk Grove was, two years ago, touted as the fasting growing city in the US. Hey, I was excited too. I may have given up LA, but I was getting a Happening place in return. And I was getting a brand-spanking new house, where I got to pick each and every piece of tile and trim on woodwork (well, sorta, within the confines of the builder's specs, that is).

I've written before of my shock when I moved here and discovered that my house was one of literally thousands, all painted varying shades of brown. But I've adapted. I love the inside of my house. And I'm one of the lucky ones; I don't have an adjustable rate mortgage that is eating up my income and threatening to bankrupt me. So I'm just an observer in the process which real estate expert Norm Schriever outlines in his blog today.

Norm is writing about the Franklin East Reserve area of Elk Grove. That's my area. I think you'll be reading about us soon, because we're going to become, I would bet, the poster child for the ills, varied as they are, of the US new housing market bust. Several weeks ago, The Sacramento Bee did a feature in the their Business section on just one of our problems: vacant houses, absentee landlords, lawns gone to seed. What follows this in any neighborhood, as the police will tell you, is the Broken Window Syndrome: crime, gang activity, further falling property values. The Wall Street Journal picked up the story, and their version is supposed to run on Friday.

I would say the lawns have gone to pot, but that's another problem that's put us in the news. Those absentee landlords? Some of them bought their houses to grow marijuana in. The newly-formed Elk Grove Police Department has gotten more press than it ever expected for their pot busts. Today's headline, above the fold in The Sacramento Bee: "Big pot operation busted in Elk Grove." The major busts several months ago were of houses totally dedicated to growing plants. This time, the growers got smart; they avoided neighbor's suspicions by keeping their lawns mowed, the first floor occupied and only growing the plants on the second floor.

And this is where the third part of my title comes in: Bad Architecture. Our homes were all built so that the living in them takes place in the back. You drive into your garage, and for the period of time that you're at home, you are never seen again. Nothing, I repeat, nothing happens out front. Neighbors? Huh, what are they? Come to think of it, who are they? The days of the front porch, of families watching out for each other, of the village raising the child--these are all non-existent, impossible even, in our area, thanks to the design of our houses.

For the two years that I've lived here, I've wailed about this. The [former] cultural critic in me has tried to deconstruct what it was about society that led to an entire generation of houses where no one was ever home. I know as a [former] cultural critic that the impact on society of culture is in some ways symbiotic. That is, it works both ways: a particular aspect of culture both reflects and refracts the society from which it comes. So these houses where the front yards were manicured, where the garages had trimmed windows that faced the street aping what should be a living room, where the living quarters were all in the far back of the house--these houses gave the appearance of perfect suburbia. But in fact, what they nourished was the underbelly of society: drugs, crime, and a host of social ills.


  1. The eternal optimist in me continues to chant "It can get better, it WILL get better" while the glass-half-empty part of me looks around at the leased Mercedes, the indifferent yuppies, and antagonistic-image-conscious-elitists and thinks "nope, nobody here wants to face the real problems and do the actual work required to make this a great place to live.

    Thanks Jane. If you need me, I'll be hanging by a noose in my identically-formatted garage.

  2. queen: what's your take on the real problems and what is the actual work required to make this a great place to live???? what can we do, in other words....! or, what were your plans for FRNA, before....?

  3. Jane,
    The bad architecture (of home and neighborhood) is a major reason we left Southern California. I wanted the front porch, the nosey neighbors, the knowledge that even though it means a bit less privacy, someone always knows what's going on. I live in an urban neighborhood, so we still have our share of broken windows and graffiti - and every day I wonder, "What can I do to stop this? What can I do to protect my little slice of the world?" I don't have any answers at the moment.

    It kills me to think that neighborhoods - even faceless, McNeighborhoods - are dying.

  4. I think Elk Grove is a good example of the worst of what happens when a housing bubble bursts.

    Four years ago, I was in the market for a bigger house. Actually, I was just along for the ride. Anyway, we looked in Elk Grove at several different subdivisions, but they were just too sterile, too "same."

    Still, back then the Realtors couldn't keep up with the demand. Everyone wanted a new, shiny home in a new, shiny subdivision.

    I think the thing that spooked us the most was that you couldn't tell how it would shake out -- how the neighborhood would settle. That's the reason we decided to focus our looking in established suburbs.

    Builders can't construct a community. People do that. Now, when real estate values are depressed, is when you find out whether Elk Grove is a real community.

  5. That's why I've got my whole village right in my house. :-)

  6. heather: I guess it depends on which part of SoCal you lived in. I was in W. Hollywood and sat on my porch everyday, knew all the neighbors, etc etc etc. I thought I would just be trading one locale for another when I moved up here. Ha!

    john: wish I had your wisdom back then. instead, I was the naive buyer who purchased from pictures and a model. I was so totally shocked when the moving van pulled up and there were all these other houses on the street.

    ratphooey: yes, lucky lucky you....

  7. Me too, Jane. I wish we had the same forethought, although at the time, we thought we would be living there for a while and the housing market wouldn't matter in the long term. But since we high-tailed it out of there after only a year, (probably during the biggest drop in home prices) I have a morbid selfish hope that home prices will continue to drop (at least on those dang McMansions that we idiotically purchased with the ridiculous overpriced un-make-your-money-back-able upgrades) so that I won't feel that we sold at the very bottom. I don't know whether to celebrate or cry over the fact that our escrow closed today since we really took it in the shorts on this one and will have to postpone our retirement by about 5-10 years because of it.

    But enuff about me...

    I have to read more of your blog to get a clue as to what kind of shop you're thinking of opening.


So--whaddaya think?