The Million Dollar Platypus

Open Houses, Panorama City, 2022.   $950,000
Open Houses, Panorama City, 1948. $10,000.           USC Digital

While shopping at Aldi on Sunday, Mrs. UpintheValley was approached by a realtor lady in Kardashian makeup waving a glossy brochure for an open house.

$950K. In Panorama. In a mixture of morbid fascination and crass self-interest we went.

You can learn a bit about the evolution of the Valley from the above two photos.  When land was cheap and abundant, houses were spaced well apart, bare bones, without luxuries, priced for accessibility to first time home buyers.

Today you put a second floor on the old starter home footprint, then squeeze three of them onto a 7000 square foot lot, tarted up with glue-on crown moldings, quartz countertops, central air and three bathrooms, then gate it off from Others.

A platypus is a cluster of free standing homes that don’t actually touch so they are technically not condos, but you can stick a broom out the window and scratch your neighbor on the shoulder while he’s sitting on the john. The lots extend mere feet beyond their foundations, there are no yards or common areas, the ground floor is a garage door, and the compound is ringed by a wall. Neither fish nor fowl, to quote a prominent New Urbanist.

Such developments are frequently abutted by other platypi, eroding the meaning of private property, or at least privacy, as the decades speak to each other over the fence. Feeling a little smug about how much sleeker, more modern your digs are than the 90s monstrosity next door is part of the pleasure principle.

Also, I’ll say this: the rooms were absurdly spacious. Made us feel like we still living in a dorm, or an early apartment, which is the idea. High ceilings, cool air flows, a giant flat screen are a nice distraction from the fact you will be indoors all day long. No yard, a hot patio and Nordhoff street,  a stroad really, inhospitable to pedestrian traffic, offering few nearby amenities. You enter the platypus on wheels, drive all the way inside the house, press a button and the door rolls down behind you. Like you’re living in Rancho Cucamonga, only with a shorter commute.

Foundation and Slabs, Lakewood, 1950.       William Garnett

Then there is that $950,000 price tag. For perspective…the $10K Kaiser Houses of 1948 would be $119,000 today, perfectly priced for a young couple in their 20s.  Nothing is priced for first time buyers anymore, nor for savers and strivers. Starter homes are priced for multi-generational households, five earners under one roof, or for the offspring of the wealthy who are gifted six figure down payments.

But this is where we are now.

A single family ranch house, among the neighborhood’s last, stood where these nine houses are. In 2010 it was purchased for $265,000, then sold for $1.65 million in 2020, merely for the dirt underneath. That profit is baked into the sales price, $155K per unit, paid to the guy who invested cash at the bottom of the mortgage meltdown and waited a decade.

Unjust? Yes. More unjust than one family sitting on that much land in a city in dire need of higher density? That’s a delicate question.

Walking upstairs in one of the unfinished units we noticed the floor sagging several inches in one corner. Back outside one could see the support pillar had been knocked off its foundation at some point, and then a supplemental pier had been placed underneath it, with mixed results.

Los Angeles is poised between greed and precarity, just slightly off its foundation.

7 thoughts on “The Million Dollar Platypus”

  1. Some new “single family” homes, 30 of them, are just finishing up on Sepulveda and Archwood.

    They are modern, front eight lane wide Sepulveda and have not a speck of nature, only two long alleys between three long corridors of tall housing.

    They occupy the entire body of land. Why is it not feasible to reserve 25% for park and trees and build a 20 story tall tower?

    We really ought to be more imaginative in how we build so we can do better than the sardine spaced, techno homes shoved into postage stamp lots, selling for nearly a million each.

    1. Or they’re renting forever. So many doing that. I’ve never quite understood the thinking there.

  2. That pillar and pier! Stick frame houses are usually pretty resilient to lateral shaking, but one good 6.0 and part of that second floor pancakes onto the first.

  3. i live in ny, ny and i had to reread your article a few times just to comprehend what goes on out there in terms of real estate. i thought this is really crazy and then realized that it’s the same logic that goes on here. my landlord “renovates” the apartments in our building between tenants by gutting them adding marble countertops and squeezing in extra bedrooms and 1/2 baths. the newbies pay 3 times the rent for the news spaces that those of us with grandfathered leases do.

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