Dynamist Blog

Paint Wars Cont'd

Three houses show the diversity of colors in Farmers Branch.Knowing my interest in neighborhood paint wars, the DMN's Paige Phelps sends this link to an article about fights in Farmers Branch, a Dallas suburb. People who don't like wild paint colors blame them on unassimilated Latino immigrants (not a popular group in Farmers Branch), but the only homeowner cited in the article is a woman named Alma Salazar who sounds like she has a pretty good command of plain English:

Alma Salazar, whose burgundy shutters look more like purple to one irritated neighbor, called the request to regulate paint color "just plain stupid."

Reporter Stephanie Sandoval should have answered the obvious question: Who does in fact own the homes in question? (And are there really only three???) And are those homeowners in fact immigrants, or is this a taste war that crosses ethnic lines? If you're going to raise the issue, give readers the details. Don't make vague allegations.

I should note, as I have elsewhere, that the Dallas housing stock is generally both boring and ugly (but cheap!). A few brightly painted houses can only improve the place. (I don't consider the houses pictured in the photos accompanying my D Magazine column especially ugly. And they aren't cheap either, except perhaps per square foot.)

The Miracle of Recorded Music

21E8ycVhAlL._AA160_.jpgI've been listening to Warren Zevon's posthumously released album Preludes: Rare And Unreleased Recordings, which his son Jordan edited from a huge stash of demo tapes he found after his father's death. Somehow hearing these raw but beautiful recordings from a dead man's past--they were all made before 1976--reminds me once again what a technological miracle, and cultural blessing, our wealth of recorded music is. We take that blessing for granted, and we shouldn't. In the late 19th-century, I noted in this 1999 article, on-demand music was still the stuff of utopian science fiction, and even then it depended on live (not to mention, living) musicians.

Kidney Blogging, Cont'd

The WSJ's Laurie Meckler reports on transplant surgeon Michael Rees's efforts to create a "never-ending chain" of paired kidney donations, beginning with a single altruistic donor. (The link is free, via Google News, and the story is from yesterday's Journal. It's a sidebar to Meckler's page one feature on kidney swaps.)

What Makes L.A. Great

Clearly it isn't the cheap housing. Reader Robert Burnham sends this link to a provocative post from Angeleno-in-exile Geoff Manaugh. You need to read the whole thing, including the comments, but here's the theme:

Los Angeles is where you confront the objective fact that you mean nothing; the desert, the ocean, the tectonic plates, the clear skies, the sun itself, the Hollywood Walk of Fame — even the parking lots: everything there somehow precedes you, even new construction sites, and it's bigger than you and more abstract than you and indifferent to you. You don't matter. You're free.

I don't know if that's the secret to the city, but it's part of it. There's also the exact opposite phenomenon, as Richard Rodriguez wrote (beautifully, as usual) in Days of Obligation

There was nothing reticent about L.A. Glamour was instant. The city took is generosity from the movies. You're beautiful if L.A. says you're beautiful, goddammit.

It was the sons of Jewish immigrants, the haberdasher's son and the tobacconist's son, who established the epic scale of the movies. Movies taught one big lesson: individual lives have scope and grandeur.

Of course L.A. is shallow. Lips that are ten feet long and faces that are forty feet high! But such faces magnify our lives, reassure us that single lives matter. The attention L.A. lavishes on a single face is as generous a metaphor as I can find for the love of God.

I made a stab at the what's-special-about-L.A. question in this Atlantic column on Julius Shulman's photography.

If you're in San Francisco tonight, check out Geoff Manaugh's conversation with Lawrence Weschler, sponsored by McSweeney's at the Park Life Store, details here. Weschler wrote one of the all-time Angeleno-in-exile essays, on the light in L.A., for The New Yorker.

The Great (Housing) Divide, Cont'd

Here's an interesting followup to my Atlantic column (free link good for three days), discussed below: a chart comparing the number of building permits per 1,000 population in different metropolitan areas. It demonstrates the same phenomenon I discussed. The cities toward the bottom of the list, those with the fewest permits issued, fall into two categories: those with low demand and low prices (Detroit, Buffalo, Rochester, etc.) and those with high demand and high prices (LA, San Francisco, Boston, etc.). The fast-growing Sunbelt cities where housing is cheap are at the top of the list. Compared to the economic research I cited, this is a fairly crude way of cutting the data. But it did help reassure my Pasadena-based fact-checker that, despite the new construction she sees around her, it really is hard to get a permit in our area.

As you can see from these charts the number of permits in L.A. proper has grown a bit, no doubt as an effect of the run-up in housing prices. But the numbers are small--9,889 permits for multi-unit buildings, 1,969 for single-family homes in FY06--compared to the demand. They're also skewed geographically (bar charts here and here), with local development policy favoring downtown while making it difficult to build on the westside and in the south Valley, both places with high prices and lots of local opposition to new construction. One result, as Mitch Glaser discusses on his interesting blog, is that more and more people are commuting to the increasingly job-rich westside, making the traffic jams horrendous. (I make it a point to walk anywhere I need to go around rush hour.)

As the decade-plus struggle over the Playa Vista development near LAX demonstrates, westsiders will fight like crazy to beat back new construction even on vacant land, in this case the last large tract on the westside. Thanks to litigation, the project's second stage is now on indefinite hold, as Gary Walker of the Argonaut explains in this detailed news story:

A state appeals court in Los Angeles voted unanimously to halt construction on the second stage of commercial and residential development for Playa Vista, dealing the Playa Vista Capital real estate group a powerful and potentially costly legal setback.

The California Second District Court of Appeal found that the Los Angeles City Council violated the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) after it approved an environmental impact report that permitted construction for the development's second phase in 2005.

"The [environmental impact report on the project] was deficient in its analysis of land use impacts, mitigation of impacts on historical archaeological resources, and wastewater impacts," the court declared in its ruling.

The California Environmental Quality Act, a landmark state environmental statute, is the basis for environmental law and policy to protect environmental quality in California.

The judicial order covers two consolidated cases involving groups as diverse as the Ballona Wetlands Land Trust, the Tongva/Gabrieleno Tribal Council of San Gabriel, the City of Santa Monica, the Surfrider Foundation and the Ballona Ecosystem Education Project.

The verdict calls for the immediate stoppage of construction of the 111-acre Phase 2 project, which includes The Village at Playa Vista, the commercial linchpin of the development.

The appellate court overturned all city approvals for the project and revoked all of the permits acquired for the construction work.

Under the court ruling, Los Angeles City Council is mandated to comply with CEQA, write a new environmental impact report (EIR) and hold new public hearings.

Amenities for The Village include new public parks, a neighborhood retail center and 2,600 residential units. It was slated to have 175,000 square feet of office space, 150,000 square feet of retail space and 40,000 square feet of other uses.

The ruling means not only that L.A. will have 2,600 fewer residential units but that the office and retail space that would make Playa Vista more self-contained, thereby generating less traffic out of the neighborhood, won't built. (Thanks to my friend Cosmo Wenman for the tip on Playa Vista.)

The Google Effect

Elise Ackerman of the San Jose Mercury News reports on the economic effects that followed Google's IPO.

A Mercury News analysis of company documents filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission provides a rough estimate of the wealth that erupted from the famous search engine, spreading throughout the Bay Area and far beyond.

From 2004 through 2006, the most recent data available, Google generated more than $19 billion as employees cashed in stock options, top management sold shares and businesses provided Google with everything from imported olive oil to information technology services.

That's more than the gross domestic product of countries like Iceland, Panama and Bahrain.

And the total Google effect could have exceeded $50 billion, thanks to the so-called multiplier effect, in which every dollar of spending theoretically creates two or three dollars more of economic activity.

Closer to home, the cash that stayed in Santa Clara, San Mateo, San Francisco and Alameda counties - where the bulk of Googlers live - couldn't have come at a better time.

Googlers began getting their loot exactly as the rest of Santa Clara County - Silicon Valley's epicenter - hit bottom after the dot-com bust.

Santa Clara's labor force shrank to 840,700 - its lowest post-boom level - in April 2005, the same month the lockup that had prevented Google's executives and employees from selling their shares after the IPO expired.

Google began minting millionaires at a time when a million-dollar paycheck had become something of a local rarity. The California Franchise Tax Board counted only 4,005 tax returns for Santa Clara households earning more than $1 million in 2005 - less than half the number reported five years earlier at the height of the boom.

"It was like they were the only ones keeping the lights on around here," said Russell Hancock, president, Joint Venture: Silicon Valley Network.

In some cases the Google money was easy to follow. Hugues de Vernou, president of Village Imports in Brisbane, said he was able to keep his specialty food business going, in part thanks to Google's food orders. "We are very grateful to have them as a client," he said. "They are extremely innovative in the technology world and certainly very selective as far as their food."

Indeed, the Google effect might have been felt as far away as France, where suppliers wrapped up Bucheron and Pont l'Eveque cheese and other delicacies for de Vernou to deliver to Mountain View.

Ackerman collects a wide variety of examples, from new charitable ventures to wars for cooking talent. Overall, it seems the Google effect seems to run more to comic books than conspicuous consumption. This is, however, an area where $2 million homes are considered "mid-market."

The Age of Apoplexy

Surveying the many recent incidents of outrage at this or that speaker, Kurt Andersen worries that "we're turning into a nation of weenies and permanently enraged censors." I'm tempted to reproduce his concluding paragraphs--subversive indeed in the righteous pages of New York--but won't so you'll click through and read the whole article.

For continuing updates on campus speech battles, check out FIRE's blog The Torch.

The Great Divide

My latest Atlantic column looks at one of the most important phenomena shaping American political culture: the regulatory regimes that largely determine the cost of housing. These are long-term differences that persist regardless of short-term blips in the housing cycle, and they both reflect and reinforce differences in political and cultural values.

In 2000, my husband and I moved out of our mid-1970s three-bedroom town house in Los Angeles and into a brand-new three-bedroom town house in Uptown Dallas. At the time, the two were worth about the same, but the Dallas place was 1,000 square feet bigger. We've moved back to L.A., and we're glad we kept our old house. Over the past seven years, its value has roughly doubled. By contrast, we sold our Dallas place for $6,500 less than we paid for it.

It's not that we bought into a declining Dallas neighborhood: Uptown is one of the hottest in the city, with block upon block of new construction. But the supply of housing in Dallas is elastic. When demand increases, because of growing population or rising incomes, so does the amount of housing; prices stay roughly the same. That's true not only in the outlying suburbs, but also in old neighborhoods like ours, where dense clusters of town houses and multistory apartment buildings are replacing two-story fourplexes and single-family homes. It's easy to build new housing in Dallas.

Not so in Los Angeles. There, in-creased demand generates little new supply. Even within zoning rules, it's hard to get permission to build. When a local developer bought three small 1920s duplexes on our block, planning to replace them with a big condo building, neighbors campaigned to stop the proj­ect. The city declared the charming but architecturally undistinguished buildings historic landmarks, blocking demolition for a year. The developer gave up, leaving the neighborhood's landscape—and its housing supply—unchanged. In Los Angeles, when demand for housing increases, prices rise.

Dallas and Los Angeles represent two distinct models for successful American cities, which both reflect and reinforce different cultural and political attitudes. One model fosters a family-oriented, middle-class lifestyle—the proverbial home-centered "balanced life." The other rewards highly productive, work-driven people with a yen for stimulating public activities, for arts venues, world-class universities, luxury shopping, restaurants that aren't kid-friendly. One makes room for a wide range of incomes, offering most working people a comfortable life. The other, over time, becomes an enclave for the rich. Since day-to-day experience shapes people's sense of what is typical and normal, these differences in turn lead to contrasting perceptions of economic and social reality. It's easy to believe the middle class is vanishing when you live in Los Angeles, much harder in Dallas. These differences also reinforce different norms and values—different ideas of what it means to live a good life. Real estate may be as important as religion in explaining the infamous gap between red and blue states.

Read the rest here (free link good for three days).

Update: I should note, since some people have misunderstood, that we are not complaining about the price we got for our Dallas townhouse. We were very happy in that house and that neighborhood and considered our mortgage payments consumption rather than investment. One reason we were able to sell quickly is that we were realistic about the inventory-flush market.

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