The “Lickety Splits”: Working Around High Housing Costs in California

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Lately Katie has been down in Tennessee helping her mom convert the primary bedroom into a rental suite with its own exterior door and kitchenette. That revenue stream now helps to supplement her mom’s retirement situation. There’s talk of transforming an old backyard cabin on the property and possibly even a vintage Airstream travel camper into additional short-term rentals. I call these simple, low-cost, high-yield architectural tweaks the “Lickety Splits.”

The idea that a normal, single-family home can be retrofitted to create a studio apartment was completely normal until sometime after World War II. Then a collection of institutional changes was put in place to make such things illegal and culturally unacceptable. We’re now seeing a slow, choppy reversion to the mean. But there’s a limit.

Many local jurisdictions are reasonably comfortable with tourists and business travelers coming in, dropping off some cash at various establishments, paying a “hotel” tax, then leaving town. Sure, the zoning regulations and building codes explicitly forbid such things, but with the associated economic value these arrangements bring to the community, the rules can bend a bit. This ability to accommodate change is facilitated by well-funded corporations that cultivated a significant constituency and value proposition before the authorities even noticed. Government is fundamentally slow and reactive and selectively plays catch-up after the fact.

However, offering these same exact short-term lodgings as regular rentals for full-time occupancy is a whole different story. The primary tension comes from the expectation of who those year-round tenants are likely to be and the impact they’ll have. Who exactly lives in someone else’s spare bedroom, basement, converted garage, or backyard cabin? The answer is often, “No one we want to attract to our neighborhood.” It’s fundamentally about class, revenue, and social control.

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