Blogging Bayport Alameda

January 12, 2022

What’s old is still old

Filed under: Alameda — Lauren Do @ 6:02 am

I felt this Atlantic piece deep in my core. As a person who sought out new construction time and time again because of the pain in the ass factor of maintaining an older home, I never understood the romanticization of old homes. Old electrical systems, failing plumbing, weirdo drainage, lack of insulation, no weatherization…hardest of passes. Highlights:

[A] housing market in crisis: Americans are paying ever more exorbitant prices for old housing that is, at best, subpar and, at worst, unsafe. Indeed, the real-estate market in the U.S. now resembles the car market in Cuba: A stagnant supply of junkers is being forced into service long after its intended life span.

In housing circles, one hears a lot of self-righteous discussion about the need for more preservation. And many American homes doubtless deserve to stick around. But the truth is that we fetishize old homes. Whatever your aesthetic preferences, new construction is better on nearly every conceivable measure, and if we want to ensure universal access to decent housing, we should be building a lot more of it.

And when you put it this way:

In the meantime, we’re stuck with a lot of old housing that, to put it bluntly, just kind of sucks. A stately Victorian manor in the Berkshires is one thing. But if you live in a Boston triple-decker, a kit-built San Jose bungalow, or a Chicago greystone, your home is the cheap housing of generations past. These structures were built to last a half century—at most, with diligent maintenance—at which point the developers understood they would require substantial rehabilitation. Generally speaking, however, the maintenance hasn’t been diligent, the rehabilitation isn’t forthcoming, and any form of redevelopment is illegal thanks to overzealous zoning.

Much of this flows from our national prejudice against new housing, especially if it’s billed as “luxury.” Attend a hearing for any given housing proposal and you’re sure to hear baseless speculation that new housing is shoddily constructed or unsafe.

The fact is that those much-lamented cookie-cutter five-over-one apartment buildings cropping up across the U.S. solve the problems of old housing and then some. Modern building codes require sprinkler systems and elevators, and they disallow lead paint. New buildings rarely burn down, rarely poison their residents, and nearly always include at least one or two units designed to accommodate people in wheelchairs.

Before you protest and point to your gut renovation as proof that old homes are fantastic you essentially have a new home.  You’ve stripped everything old out of the home to make it livable.  As pointed out, none of those Sears catalogue cookie cutter homes were built to last.  They were made to be easier to install and cheaper than the competition.  They’re not special because they’re old.  They’re just old.  And we shouldn’t allow the, as the author put it, fetishizing of old houses to stand in the way of building homes that can heat and cool efficiently, be appropriately sized for families of all shapes and sizes, and be accessible for differently abled people.


  1. A new Camry has better air conditioning than a classic Mustang, and power windows too. It’ll run longer with less maintenance.

    But which do want to take for a spin?

    Comment by dave — January 12, 2022 @ 7:12 am

    • Basic needs vs leisure. Getting from point A to B reliably, of course a Camry. A leisure drive, an old Mustang – does this mean old houses should be relegated to Airbnb use instead of everyday homeownership? Was that your argument?

      Comment by Reality — January 12, 2022 @ 8:58 am

    • Given that Camrys have pretty extensive followings, I dunno if this is the best “this or that” comparison.

      Comment by Lauren Do — January 12, 2022 @ 9:08 am

  2. You hate the old houses or the people living in them? But no concern about seven percent inflation, smash and grab crime, California’s failing schools, depressingly low test scores, continuing lockdowns, highest unemployment and most homelessness in the nation? And Newsom now backing legislation to double state taxes.

    Funny I don’t hate your Bayport home….but I sure wouldn’t drive anyone through it to “show them Alameda.”

    Comment by Really — January 12, 2022 @ 8:04 am

    • Love the “what about”isms. No one said you can like old homes and if you read the article it’s putting old homes up as inherently better because they are not necessarily and putting down new homes with generalist claims they are shoddy or poorly made or just ugly (with is subjective as hell). Something people do in Alameda constantly.

      Comment by Did you even read the article? — January 12, 2022 @ 8:22 am

  3. Old houses – one of my favorite topics.

    As Alameda’s population increases, the challenge of how we blend modern architectural design with the old is a task for the planners, the architects, the designers, the preservationists, and the builders. It’s an exciting time!

    Which brings me to the re-zoning of Webster Street. I participated in the North Park Street District zoning process back in 2013, and I’m hopeful to see something similar on Webster Street.

    The North Park Street District is comprised of 5 sub-districts:

    Mixed Use
    Maritime – Manufacturing

    I see Webster Street having at least 3 sub-districts, maybe four. It will be interesting to see how we blend the old and new. Oakland does it well. College Avenue/Elmwood District is a great model.

    But getting back to old houses — they are not for everyone, but for many its why we chose to live in Alameda.

    Comment by Karen Bey — January 12, 2022 @ 9:00 am

    • Webster Street businesses (WABA) needs to get their house in order. 10 years ago, they were in favor of higher density mixed-use to bring the street back to life. Now, they reversed course and standing on the side of “preservationists.” It might be the WABA president listening to a few poorly informed members, so things feel very muddied within that sphere. City staff should reach out to them and work on learning the issues and benefits. Local businesses will struggle unless foot traffic increases – I count at least 10 shuttered businesses on Webster, and the Taylor/Webster corner revitalization project was killed because of Article 26. West End’s future is looking bright, but all these ducks need to line up in a row first.

      Comment by Yes Really — January 12, 2022 @ 10:24 am

  4. Hmmm. Interesting discussion.New versus old. Well-built versus poorly built. I think that the aspect that you’re missing about old homes is that they tend to just supply what people want in a home.
    The style of new homes tends to change with like fashion on a runway. That can be problematic for new homeowners.
    And while the bones – electrical, plumbing, foundation – of a new home are great initially They still have to be fixed eventually. And newer style homes – slabs – that are easy to build are hella difficult and expensive to repair plumbing.
    But ultimately there needs to be some of everything very old to very new.

    Comment by Lucy — January 12, 2022 @ 10:27 am

    • old homes is that they tend to just supply what people want in a home

      Which is what?

      Comment by Lauren Do — January 12, 2022 @ 10:44 am

  5. There is also a regional aspect to this. Older buildings on the East Coast tend to be overbuilt (the old “good bones” idea) compared to newer houses which have the same cheaper slab/drywall construction you see everywhere now. Most things in CA have been built out of Kleenex boxes and stucco and so don’t age all that well.

    Comment by Anon — January 12, 2022 @ 11:15 am

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