The other day, we arrived home after I picked up the kids from school, and my daughter runs to the front door and grabs a business card someone left stuck in the doorjam. I assumed it was one of those junk cards for tree trimming. But no. This card had the logo for the television show “Criminal Minds,” and I immediately knew this was good. On the back, it said, “Please call me regarding filming at your front door.”
We ran inside, threw our stuff down, and I beelined for the phone. We’re interested in filming on your front porch, the location scout tells me. It’s between your house and two others. But we really like your house. Oh! I’m thinking, trying to keep my cool and muffle my elation, and also my slight disappointment that our house wasn’t their slam-dunk choice. Yes, I say, we’re available on those dates, yes, feel free to come and look over the property again. Yes, you can completely take over everything (I didn’t say that, but was thinking it.) Yes, yes, yes.
We live in a Los Angeles suburb, so this kind of thing is pretty commonplace and reflects a recent resurgence in local filming. In fact, our neighborhood seems to be a perennial favorite for location scouts. We’re always seeing those yellow signs with the black block letters alongside the road, with cryptic messages like “DM” or “Hungry Man,” directing cast and crew to some undisclosed locale. Our neighbor’s house is always getting picked. But us? never, so far. And mind you, this is no trivial neighborly rivalry over who’s got the best Christmas decorations. This is high-stakes suburban competition. Because if you get picked, the payoffs are, well, let’s say — huge. You enter the world of lavish Hollywood production budgets and they don’t hold back if you have what they want. In our suburb, this is the ultimate lucky break. Your house earns you immediate cold hard cash.
It got me thinking about the ways people milk value out of suburban homes — beyond accruing equity and profiting off surging real estate values. This actually has a long history. Back in the early 20th century, suburbanites rented rooms to lodgers, grew backyard produce, or took in laundry. In the 1920s and 1930s, people in L.A.’s working-class suburbs raised chickens, goats, and produce in backyards to eat or sell, and the same was happening in African-American suburbs and blue-collar suburbs across the nation. I surmise that these practices subsided in the 1950s and 1960s, apart from the occasional Tupperware party where housewives could generate some extra income at home.
But I think we’ve seen a boom in these home-based enterprises since then. You’ve got your home offices of telecommuters, rentals of guest rooms, candy-makers who started out in their suburban kitchen then expanded from there, people selling home-grown produce, Etsy crafters working out of the house, meth labs, and on and on. Zoning laws might restrict things to a degree, but I think there’s a lot of enterprising activities going on behind those suburban front doors. Take us, for instance. In the last few years, we’ve sold persimmons off our huge backyard tree (to the tune of about 75 pounds last year), we’ve run an e-store out of our garage, and my husband and I both work in a shared home office.
And why not? It’s high time our houses started paying for themselves a little more, given the outsized gouging they do on our wallets. Especially in overheated housing markets like Los Angeles, the income-to-home value ratio has grown completely out of whack since 1970. Consider these statistics on L.A. County, which I compiled from US Census data. It gives you a rough idea of how things have changed since 1950:
When my father bought our family’s suburban home back in 1966, not too far from here, it cost him about 3 years worth of salary. Nowadays, it takes 8 years of salary if you’re lucky, and don’t hit a housing bubble, recession, and the rest.
I think this resurgence of house-based economic activity may be a direct result of this income-to-home value mismatch. And if suburbs are going to continue their stubborn resistance to affordable housing, it makes sense for them to loosen any and all regulations on how we can squeeze the most out of our homes, and to use these domestic spaces in the most economically creative and productive ways we can (excluding those meth labs, of course).
For us, right now, it’s all about “Criminal Minds.” After sitting on pins and needles for a few days, I got a call from my favorite location scout and — guess what? We scored the gig! About 20 members of the crew just stopped by to scope things out. And next week, they’re going to film a scene where a woman gets attacked on our front porch. Let’s just say this is the kind of neighborhood crime I love and welcome to my house anytime.
Becky Nicolaides is a historian of suburban America who lives and works in a Los Angeles suburb. Her blog, Suburban Me, is a series of personal reflections about contemporary suburban life in the Southland considered within a cultural and historical framework. She is also the author of My Blue Heaven (University of Chicago Press, 2002) and co-editor with Andrew Wiese of The Suburb Reader, 2nd edition (Routledge, 2016).