“More luxury at lower cost.” The pitch rolled across the cover of a brochure that introduced thousands of aspiring homeowners to Clairemont Villas, a San Diego subdivision that promised new homes in a world without trade-offs.
“Private and protected.” “Beauty and convenience.” A single-family house in a quiet suburb — but just a few minutes’ drive from new schools and a new shopping center along with downtown and the beach.
It was a California fantasy. Over six colorful pages the brochure sold buyers on an indoor-outdoor lifestyle where the living room opened to a yard and children played behind a redwood fence.
The fairy tale ended with the map to an address on Clairemont Drive. That’s where a row of model houses sat bunched up on a corner, waiting to be walked through.
Sixty-five years later, Margie Coats, 79, still remembers the tour. Her father drove the six of them — two parents, four sisters — to a weekend showing where in her teenage naïveté she asked a salesperson if the furniture was included. The family paid $13,250 for Lot 118 and a year later moved into 5120 Baxter Street. This was in 1957, back when the surrounding Clairemont neighborhood was booming with new subdivisions and mass-produced suburbs were still a national experiment.
Neighbors in Clairemont Villas picked from a selection of four Craftsman houses that had the same cabinets, similar floor plans and an option to add a washing machine. (Clothes still had to be dried on a line.) Most of the residents were young families with parents who worked a mix of trade and professional jobs that had roughly the same paychecks.
Ms. Coats’s father, Paul Shannon, was an aeronautical engineer who had left the Navy to work in private defense. This afforded them the relative affluence of a four-bedroom house with a yard that was bigger than any of their neighbors’. It became the block’s social center.
“That was where everybody congregated on the weekends,” Ms. Coats said. “People would pitch in: Somebody would bring beer, somebody would bring hamburgers, somebody would bring hot dogs, and we would just all gather.”
Ms. Coats has not ventured far since: She moved about 40 feet away and has spent almost her entire adult life living across the street from her childhood home. Her former yard is the first thing she sees whenever she leaves the house, a view that allowed her to follow the daily progress of a construction project that over the past few months transformed 5120 Baxter from the suburban vision of the 1950s to a projection of California’s tighter, taller future.
In June, as Ms. Coats told me about the house and the neighborhood from the doorstep of her bungalow, she gazed toward a fresh foundation that had entombed the back half of Lot 118 in concrete. Over the next few weeks, a construction crew erected a two-story building that filled in a green rectangle from the Clairemont Villas brochure. A few feet away, the original four-bedroom house was loudly gut-renovated into a pair of apartments.
When the workers head to their next job this month, they will leave what amounts to a triplex rental complex on the type of lot that in the seven decades since Ms. Coats’s family moved in had been reserved for single-family houses. It’s part of a push across California and the nation to encourage density in suburban neighborhoods by allowing people to subdivide single-family houses and build new units in their backyards.
Dan Logue, 60, a teacher who lives on Baxter Street, said he was excited about the project, and backyard houses generally, because they allowed homeowners to develop their own land. (“Neighborhoods change as people die off, and that’s just reality.”) Ms. Coats was so-so. She said she was worried about less parking but also about San Diego’s housing problem and hoped the new units would do some good. (“I’m not going to go down to the City Council and beat my head against the wall and say, ‘No, no, no.’”)
Cary Gross, 63, who owns a tile company and lives next to Ms. Coats, is against it. He invested on a single-family block 25 years ago with the expectation that it would stay that way. “They say they’re doing this so everyone can have the American dream,” he said. “But what about the American dream of living in a single-family neighborhood?”
The house at 5120 Baxter Street has been home to three families and contains any number of stories. The one I’m going to tell you is about the house’s place in California’s spiraling affordable housing crisis and the state’s efforts to halt it.
The suburban dream that Ms. Coats’s family bought into has become the American housing system. Reforming it is key to any number of existential problems, including reducing segregation and wealth inequality or combating sprawl and climate change (transportation accounts for about a third of the nation’s carbon dioxide emissions). But the process will be long and difficult, as single-family neighborhoods are America’s predominant form of living and homeowners broadly enjoy them.
The implications go way beyond geography. The America that prevailed when Ms. Coats’s family of six moved to Baxter Street was a more middle-class country, where women had about 3.5 children on average. Today inequality is much starker, and the fertility rate has been cut in half as adults remain single longer and have fewer or no children after they pair up. Members of the millennial generation continue to lag their parents in homeownership, and 20 percent of U.S. households are multigenerational — up from 12 percent in 1980 — as families grapple with the cost of living.
In other words, the pressure to remake neighborhoods like Clairemont is due not to some sudden shift in what people want out of a home but rather to the sweeping social changes that have already played out inside them. As the Columbia University historian Kenneth Jackson wrote in “Crabgrass Frontier,” his seminal history of America’s suburbs: “No society can be fully understood apart from the residences of its members.”
A Very Different California
The Clairemont neighborhood in 2021. Roger Kisby for The New York Times