Los Angeles, CA
The Dingbat Demographic
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Current market fundamentals indicate that real estate developers will not be rebuilding the Dingbat apartment en masse any time soon. While it may be feasible to build a new “stucco box” typology in wealthier neighborhoods during the next cycle, most Dingbats will have to make do with rehabilitation, substantial or otherwise, for the foreseeable future. Alternate solutions that allow Dingbats to more actively and sustainably serve their residents, their communities and the public realm will be required if Los Angeles is to meet the demands of its residential future.
The Speculative Stucco Box
The Dingbat is the crystallization of pure real estate development rationale. In the late 1950’s the fundamentals for multi-family property development were good and investors were optimistic about the future. Americans’ personal savings had increased steadily since WW II and financial institutions had money to lend.[i] A dip in the population of home buying age increased demand for rentals.[ii] Multi-family development was treated favorably by the IRS. [iii] And building and zoning codes were less onerous and public participation in development approvals virtually unheard of. Given such an auspicious environment, it is not hard to understand how the Dingbat came to populate vast swaths of Los Angeles in neighborhoods as disparate as Venice Beach and Highland Park, all tarted up just “enough to get [tenants] in, not more.”[iv]
New Economic Realities
Today, these same measures reveal a vastly different economic landscape. Americans’ savings rates have plummeted since the ‘50s and ‘60s and as a nation we are largely in debt. [v] The credit crunch reduced banks’ ability to lend and dramatically tightened underwriting standards. The 1984 revisions to the tax code eliminated most of the tax benefits for multi-family investors. And citizen participation requirements have protracted the government approvals process and building and zoning codes are increasingly stringent. The social mobility to which the dingbat apartment originally aspired, both for its small entrepreneurial developer and its tenants, is not currently tenable and may never be again.
Emerging Demographic Futures
The Dingbat has the potential to support alternate aspirations, however, especially in light of coming demographic changes which promise to shift both housing needs and expectations. Nationally, babyboomers are rapidly aging and reshaping our attitudes about retirement. Non-traditional families are on the rise, with divorced single parents, grandparents raising grandchildren and single, never-marrieds forming an increasing number of new households.[v] In California, growth of the foreign born population is slowing and that of the second generation is accelerating.[vii] The homegrown population, those born and raised in California whatever their roots, are choosing to stay rather than migrate to other parts of the US.[viii] In Los Angeles, the housing affordability crisis continues, most acutely for those who are homeless or who have special needs.[ix] These are groups for which the American Dream of single-family homeownership, either for real or by approximation, may not be available, appropriate or even attractive.
The Dream of Multi-Family Homeownership
Coupling these coming demographic changes with new economic realities reveals a real opportunity for LA’s stucco box typology. The Dingbat Demographic proposes five possible dingbat futures, exploring how existing examples of the typology might be cheaply reshaped to accommodate emerging demographic demand and greater expectations regarding sustainability, identity and the cultivation of community. The Dingbat basics, large setbacks, side access, tuck under parking, flat surfaces, etc. are all reimagined to support new lifestyles, allowing new types of tenants to define themselves relative to a changing “American Dream.”
[i] Smith, Wallace F.. The Low-Rise Speculative Apartment Building. Berkeley, CA: The Center for Real Estate and Urban Economics Institute of Urban and Regional Development, 1964.
[ii] Smith, Wallace F.. The Low-Rise Speculative Apartment Building. Berkeley, CA: The Center for Real Estate and Urban Economics Institute of Urban and Regional Development, 1964.
[iii] Smith, Wallace F.. The Low-Rise Speculative Apartment Building. Berkeley, CA: The Center for Real Estate and Urban Economics Institute of Urban and Regional Development, 1964.
[iv] Beach, John & Chase, John. “The Stucco Box,” p. 13. (Dingbat Field Guide)
[v] US Department of Commerce: Bureau of Economic Analysis.
[vi] The State of the Nation’s Housing 2005, The Joint Center of Housing Studies of Harvard University.
[vii] Myers, Dowell; Pitkin, John & Ramirez, Ricardo, “The New Homegrown Majority in California,” USC Population Dynamics Research Group, April 2009.
[viii] Myers, Dowell; Pitkin, John & Ramirez, Ricardo, “The New Homegrown Majority in California,” USC Population Dynamics Research Group, April 2009.
[ix] City of Los Angeles Housing Element 2006 – 2014.