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Everyone in 'Her' lives in a swanky apartment. How can they afford that?

Published February 12, 2014 4:26 pm

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Spike Jonze's Oscar-nominated "Her" tells the story of Theodore Twombly, a lonely man in a futuristic Los Angeles who falls in love with his computer operating system. It's a rich exploration of relationships, but sitting through the film one question kept dogging me: How does Joaquin Phoenix's Twombly afford to live a financially comfortable life in such a swanky high-rise apartment?

Twombly writes letters for a living, composing poignant messages for strangers who for whatever reason can't write to their loved ones themselves. He's good at it, but the film also makes clear that Twombly is a mid-level guy, one of many people working a decent white collar job at a mid-size firm. Of course it's possible that in the fictional universe of "Her" letter writers simply make a lot of money, but there's nothing in the film indicating that a talented but unambitious glorified greeting card writer would be rich.

Except Twombly's apartment. In Jonze's vision of the future Los Angeles, the city has grown up. It's filled with skyscrapers and feels like a cross between Asia — Jonze shot some of the film in Shanghai — and Vancouver, Canada. Twombly lives in one these awesome futuristic towers.

Maybe this is just dramatic license. Or maybeTwombly is supposed to have a trust fund.

But assuming that's not the case — because that's no fun — the urban economics of the Twombly-Jonze future would have had to undergo a pretty major transformation from what we experience today to make the lifestyles in "Her" affordable.

The easiest way to imagine that happening is if zoning and building regulations were significantly relaxed.

To understand this idea, think of housing in terms of supply and demand. Right now in most major cities — including LA — there's a limited number of big, glassy apartments. So, the supply is limited. Demand, however, is high; there are enough wealthy renters and buyers that property owners can charge a premium for housing.

The obvious way to change that dynamic is to increase supply and build a lot more apartments. As the supply increases in the face of more-slowly increasing demand, prices fall. Suddenly, Twombly can afford his apartment in the sky.

So why aren't cities already building more apartments and make housing affordable?

The biggest obstacle —and the reason today's LA doesn't look like "Her" LA — is that cities' zoning and building regulations keep the supply of apartments low. Matthew Yglesias has written about this, explaining that some regulations — things like height limits and parking requirements — make it difficult to build as much housing as our technology would otherwise allow. If a city only permits 13-story buildings — as LA did for much of the 20th century — cities sprawl outward, not upward. If developers have to include parking spots with apartment buildings, prices go up and supply, because space is limited, goes down.

These supply-limiting policies are still a reality in many cities, including in LA. In Hollywood, for example, residents have resisted plans to allow bigger buildings — something that would have increased housing supply and potentially been a step toward the visual world depicted in "Her." Buildings in downtown LA generally also must include parking, even though a study last year showed that relaxing that requirement produced cheaper housing.

By contrast, in Jonze's vision of the future, these obstacles have evidently been cleared. Middle-class people like Twombly and Amy Adams' character, Amy, live in high-rises and get around on foot or via public transit.

This is of course a bit of an oversimplification — construction costs, subsidies, lending practices and other factors also shape the housing market — but given LA's historic growth rates and the skyscraper forest in "Her," it's reasonable to assume that Twombly lives in a city where apartments are cheaper relative to the present. Which is exciting; it means that the striking visual world Jonze created isn't all that far-fetched after all.

— Jim Dalrymple II

Twitter: @jimmycdii