Thumbs Down to the 'Emoji House'

By Dave Fratello | August 9th, 2019

According to the all-knowing Google, the "Pink Emoji House" in El Porto is a "tourist attraction."

Ask the neighbors. They'll tell you the same thing. And they are feeling this way about it --> 

In case you've been out of town, or living under a rock, somehow missing the local & international media frenzy, here's the story in brief.

An old El Porto duplex was bought early last year as an investment property. Seeking to maximize return, the owner evidently conducted a brazen series of (illegal) short-term rentals, got reported and paid a $4,000 fine. (Many facts, including the short-term rental matter, come from the first story and definitive opus from the local weekly Easy Reader. See that detailed story here.)

Apparently angry at the neighbors for reporting the illicit rentals and shutting down the little gravy train, the owner ordered the home repainted hot pink with silly-face emojis. The neighbors, for sure, feel directly targeted by the "shut up" message of one emoji, and in at least one case, personally mocked by the features of another.

The damn place has gone viral since.

And that fact may change how the story eventually ends.

Take a few minutes, if you can, to hear directly from the neighbors. Seven appeared before the city council this week to make their case. We found it compelling, and quickly saw how the international snickering about the brassiness of the homeowner is misguided.

(In the "public comments" portion of this week's meeting, the first 13 minutes are all about the Emoji House. Click that link to view the neighbors' comments, and, hopefully, to gain some sympathy.)

You have neighbors saying things like:

- "[our] street is a little micro-neighborhood, and she has just turned it upside down"

- "we are flooded with people"

- the paint job is "not only awful, but it's threatening"

- "this degrades our home"

- "this is a damned nuisance"

The property itself was a dilapidated, cobbled-together duplex sporting a 1931 original build date when it was sold in Dec. 2017 for $1.250M.

The property seemed almost beyond repair at the time (we had clients interested who toured), and in fact a developer bought it. But the developer flipped it for $100K more ($1.350M) to the current owner in March 2018. She appears to have "saved" the house by making it habitable, before turning it into a hotel with those illicit short-term rentals.

Well, no one's happy now, except the media glorying in a "funny," quirky story with first-world drama and tension and colorful characters and, sheez, a colorful house. And it may be a story reflective of our times, in which an entitled, in-your-face, I'll-say-whatever-I-want attitude is emboldening people of all stripes. Sometimes it seems like vindictiveness is "in."

But now we're looking ahead toward the endgame. Some day there won't be emojis on the house. How will that change come about?

The initial artwork, and the neighbors' initial reactions, posed one set of questions:

Does a homeowner have the right to just paint "whatever" on their home?

Do neighbors have any right to object? On what basis?

Sad to say, but many people have been down a path like this before, and the homeowner usually wins.

You don't clip the grass? You let the house degrade so it's a complete eyesore? You overload the front yard with Christmas decorations and then don't take them down? You paint it hot pink?!? Or paint a suggestive mural of a bikini-clad young woman on your garage door? A young man? Cover every square inch of the exterior in provocative political signs?

You're going to get away with almost all of those things, and for a long time.

It's hard, and it should be, for a city government to step in and tell a homeowner how they must make a property look.

People who love a uniform look and feel, and strict regulations on such matters, choose to live in housing tracts with byzantine CC&Rs.

Most of us don't, so we're subject to living around others' freedom.

The neighbors have been pushing arguments as to why the ridiculous paint job should not be allowed. They've focused on calling the emojis a "mural," "graffiti" and even a "sign" advertising the "business" of the home as a rental.

The "sign" argument seems a stretch, but it's true that it could be a magic bullet if the paint job gets viewed as commercial in nature.

The "mural" label works to a degree, because the city is in the midst of formulating "mural" regulations, with an eye toward encouraging public art. Just ask the city to regulate away murals on houses, or at least those that are intended to spite neighbors. Yeah, well, good luck with that. (The Planning Commission meets about the topic Aug. 28. The city attorney has already warned that their mural regs need to be "content neutral." Because, art.)

"Graffiti" is an interesting attack brought before the city council this week. It's true that Manhattan Beach outlaws "graffiti" and prescribes penalties for those who create it. However, the municipal code defines "graffiti" as "any unauthorized inscription, word, figure, picture or design." We kinda stopped at the word "unauthorized." If the homeowner commissioned the emojis, as she chirpily says she did, how can it be "unauthorized?" Unauthorized by the neighbors? Yikes.

The truth is, you don't want the government coming into a vague situation and trying to impose order. It sucks that the police have to come handle crowd control in front of the viral property, but that does not, in itself, suggest that the local cops can order a whitewash of the house. The city is going to tread very carefully, and basically try to get everyone to mediate a solution before acting.

And yet, the seeds of the destruction of the Emoji House seem to have been planted by the homeowner herself, soon after the paint job was complete.

In early June, as the paint dried, the homeowner apparently tried to gin up interest in her work, posting on Nextdoor.com: "does anyone know about the emoji house on 39th street - this house is so colorful and happy, does anyone know who has does this artwork?"

Eventually, the media bit. Thanks to the media, we now know "who has does this artwork" (MBC declines to promote the painter). But now, also thanks to the media, online and TV and international as it is, the Emoji House has crossed into new terrain.

It is now a nuisance.

The government gains power when there is a public nuisance. The neighbors, now more clearly harmed, gain power. Can you imagine the impact on property values if the Emoji House remains as a permanent fixture? New solutions become possible.

This is where the neighbors were most compelling before City Council, calling the home:

- "nothing more than a public nuisance and a personal attack"

- an "aggressive, flagrant public nuisance"

- "a damned nuisance"

It's still a challenge to see how the city imposes a solution, but it's in a better position regulating a nuisance than in regulating paint.

None of this ends quickly, though.

The homeowner can go ahead and feel invulnerable for a while, enjoy the media glow, see her house on TV and online, watch Google call her once-dilapidated duplex a "tourist attraction," and figure she's never going to have to lift a finger.

But it could be money that solves the problem for the neighbors.

216 39th Street Manhattan Beach CAWe're wondering, who, exactly, rents the place so the mural-commissioning owner actually earns some money?

One of the two units, 216 39th, is on the market for $3,500/mo. It's at 60 DOM at a hot time of year.

The other unit, 218 39th, was leased in June for $3,500/mo. Think the tenants are enjoying?

(Point of order: Those real estate listing photos don't look to be current.)

Looks to us like the owner wanted the property to generate revenue. If it doesn't, then what?

Whitewash?

Or sale?

The homeowner, true to our times, seems not to be the type to back down in the slightest, preferring to gaslight the world as to her motives and intentions. But that only continues if the property is performing.

It looks to us like the owner got a functional property for land value. It's worth more now.

If she profits from a sale, and a new owner re-paints the property grey or beige, or rips it down, can the neighbors stand to see the current owner go out with a "win?"

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