I talk a lot about the apartment I used to live in in Sacramento, because it really was a great place to live as a baby lawyer making $56,000 a year at the attorney general's office. The building was seven one-bedroom apartments with a patio in the back. No garage, no gym, no elevator, nothing super-luxe, but it was cheap, adequate housing.
This kind of cheap, no-frills apartment is called a "dingbat." It originated in Los Angeles, and has been called "apartment building architecture at its worst."
So, let's talk about how these kinds of cheap, adequate buildings used to get built. Today, you think of building apartment buildings as something that requires a ton of special expertise, an army of lawyers, and a lobbyist. But it wasn't always like this, in simpler times when we didn't get in our own fucking way.
Hop in the DeLorean with me and let's talk about how things were, back when my dad was in college.
Our destination is my old stomping grounds of Oakland, California, in the 1950s and 1960s back when the zoning law was more relaxed, the bureaucracy less overbearing, and the neighbors less annoying. (My principal source on this is a 1964 report called "The Low Rise Speculative Apartment", put out by none other than my alma mater, UC Berkeley.)
The baseline is: it was easy to build new housing in America in the postwar era. This is the period where big, boxy high-rises were being built on Russian Hill in San Francisco, Greenwich Village in Manhattan was getting white brick towers on Fifth Avenue, and the Bunker Hill towers were being built in Los Angeles. At the time, the major construction companies were focusing on new luxury high-rises, which offered the safest returns on investment and which were easiest to finance.
But this ease of building also applied to smaller-scale development. Back in the day, you could show up at City Hall with the fee, a set of building plans that matched the zoning, and you could get to work. The zoning was also looser: until 1961, Oakland had no minimum parking law, and most residential areas had no limit on how many apartments you could put on a lot, provided that you met the building size and height limits.
And there's one really, really critical part of this: the basic dingbat design is so simple that construction speeds were extremely fast. During this period, it was normal to go from start to finish in less than a year. For comparison, it takes five years on average to build a small apartment building in San Francisco today - three years of bureaucracy and two years of construction.
The basic design of a dingbat was so simple that a third of the people developing these dingbats had no apparent connection to the real estate business at all. Simply put, the demand was there, big business wasn't filling the need, and so ordinary businessmen - not professional "developers" - found a market niche: funding and building small, basic apartment buildings in working-class neighborhoods.
This cheapness and basicness is critical, because this is what makes it financially possible to mass-produce new apartments in working-class suburban neighborhoods like Jamaica in Queens, Compton, or East Oakland. (That is, you'd build dingbats in places which have lots of shitty, expensive tract homes built 50-100 years ago.) You could, with a little bit of cleverness, and nicer finishes, build more upscale dingbats in places with more expensive land, like Long Island, West LA, or Piedmont, and sell them as condo buildings.
A side effect of these kinds of dingbat-friendly reforms, is that you also make it easier for homeowners to make a few extra bucks by adding extra apartments. In Berkeley, especially, it's fairly common to see lots with a single-family home in the front, and a dingbat behind - a situation where the homeowner decided to put up the apartment building behind his house for extra income. After all, the land is free.
What I want to stress is, these aren't technological problems. They're bureaucratic and political ones. Designing a cheap, compliant building isn't hard. But navigating the zoning board is. And these problems would be a lot easier to solve if we just got out of our own stupid way.