You’ve seen them, popping up like mushrooms all over Los Altos. My husband and I call them “Oreo houses.” They are typically new construction, often built on spec, with the “For Sale” sign going up as soon as the lollipop trees are in the ground. They are painted stark white, almost always with matte black trim, the color scheme of an Oreo cookie.

Often the Oreo house will have board and batten siding so that the shadows of the battens relieve the starkness of the white. The roof is usually gray metal. Sometimes the Oreo house will have touches of natural wood – maybe the garage door and the front door. Sometimes a facing of gray rock adds additional texture.

When I first spotted an Oreo house, maybe back at the beginning of the pandemic, I thought it a strange color scheme. Don’t they know that stark white will show every speck of dirt? And every trail of rust or moss from a downspout? And that the white paint will yellow in the sun? The black trim was such a harsh contrast. And the black front door – so unwelcoming. I shrugged mentally and thought, “Each to his own taste. No more unusual than the lavender house with pink trim up on Los Altos Avenue, or the purple house with the stainless-steel door on El Monte Avenue.”

But then I saw another one. And another. Now almost every residential street in Los Altos has at least one Oreo house. Furthermore, the decor seems to be contagious. Traditional ranch houses from the 1950s suddenly have their used brick painted over in stark white, with matte black shutters and window trim. Even the handsome 1920s Prairie School home with its outbuildings on El Monte Avenue across from the Almond Avenue intersection has, between one of my trips to downtown and another, been painted stark white. The venerable Los Altos train station (now a restaurant), has been repainted from its traditional adobe/redwood colors to Oreo. And on Miramonte Avenue, the contagion has swept across the entire shopping center at Blossom Valley.

As many of our children are being forced to emigrate to more affordable housing in Texas and Idaho, are these ghostly white houses an omen of our future as a ghost town?

There is hope. An otherwise completely Oreo house on El Monte sports a bright-blue roof instead of the common gray or black. If I could only spot one with a red door.

Allyson Johnson is a longtime Los Altos resident. To read her blog, visit allysonjohnson.com.