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Home identity crisis brewing in San Diego

Builders in San Diego County expect to construct more than 100,000 new homes over the next decade. Many will be tract homes in new developments. Unlike some municipalities, the city of San Diego has few rules when it comes to how different the houses must look. That has
KPBS reporter Joanne Faryon asking, one day, will we all live in the same house?

This is a typical street in a typical neighborhood in a typical suburb in San Diego. There are SUVS parked in driveways, kids on scooters and skateboards. The houses, well, they're pretty typical too, with a double attached garage, terra cotta tile roof. And the color, the color?

Joanne: I just want to know what color your house is?"

Neighbor: "It's like a peachish color, it looked pink at first, but its peachish, its peachier.

Neighbor: It's a terra cotta peach.

Neighbor: A sort of pinkish, might be mauve, sort of salmon.

Neighbor: What is it? That pinkish range, reddish pinkish color, terra
cotta color.

Petra Wagner bought her three bedroom, two and a half bath eight years ago when
she and her family moved to San Diego from Germany. Her real estate agent brought her to this Rancho Penasquitos suburb because it had good schools. At first, Petra liked her house and her neighborhood, but then a funny thing happened after she moved in. Petra noticed her house looked like most of the other houses on her street.

Wagner: We had someone knock on our door in the middle of the night because he
thought he was going to the neighbors house, because they all look the same."

The stranger went so far as letting himself in. He only realized he was in the wrong house when Petra's husband stopped him as he tried to go upstairs.

When Petra's suburb was developed twenty years ago, some of the builders offered 12 models. By today's standards, that makes this subdivision nearly custom. Now, most builders offer only three or four floor plans in tracts that range between 90 and 170 homes.

Bob Manis works in the development review department for the city of San Diego. He says city hall has policies encouraging builders to design homes that look different, but there are only two codes in his binder full of regulations that address how different houses have to look.

Manis: There's one that says proposed designs should avoid repetitious
development patterns that are inconsistent with the goals of the land use plan.

There are no codes requiring builders to offer different floor plans. In fact, as long as the outside of the home looks different, in theory, the homes could all be identical on the inside.

The city of Poway has building codes that address housing diversity. Builders must offer a minimum of three floor plans for the first fifty houses, and for every fifty houses more they add to the development, they must add a new floor plan.

Building mass-produced homes, or cookie cutter homes on the outskirts of town began in earnest almost 60 years ago in Levittown New York. There was a housing shortage after World War II and new homes in Levittown were built quickly and they were cheap.

The Building Industry Association of San Diego County says suburbs are built for the same reasons they were built in the fifties. It's cheaper to mass-produce, and families are drawn to what suburbs have to offer. Donna Morafcik speaks for the Association.

Morafcik: "To get a new home, there's value for their money, you have a community, there are parks and schools that are built, everything is new.

Mirle Rabinowaitz Bussell is a faculty member in UC San Diego's Urban Studies and Planning Program. She reluctantly bought into a new subdivision when she moved to San Diego because it made sense for her young family. But she says suburbs aren't an efficient use of land. They rely too much on cars and don't encourage racial and economic diversity.

Bussell: I think there's the concern when you're in the suburb everyone pulls into the same sense of homogeneity. You all start to act the same way. Everyone lives in the same four or five plans. It kind of takes on that stepford wives connotation think its that sense you lose your identity because your houses are not necessarily a reflection of your personality.

Petra Wagner remodeled her home. No one mistakes her house for her neighbors anymore.

Wagner: Maybe we don't think about it all the time, but maybe people would be different, they would be more open to changes and more tolerant, yeah.

Joanne: "For the record, I live on this street in a pale terra cotta colored house. And some of the houses are a different color.

Neighbor: I just noticed that John's and Cedrics and that other guys house is all the same kind of yellow color and I always thought they were suppose to be staggered like every other house.

There are actually two colors on this street.

Neighbor: Like a muted pinkish color, I think that's pretty much it, its yellow or that.

For KPBS, I'm Joanne Faryon

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