Frank Underwood gets in on the critique of McMansions

The second episode of Season One of House of Cards includes this commentary regarding McMansions:

Frank Underwood: Such a waste of talent. He chose money over power – in this town, a mistake nearly everyone makes. Money is the McMansion in Sarasota that starts falling apart after 10 years. Power is the old stone building that stands for centuries. I cannot respect someone who does not see the difference.

Watch the YouTube clip here.

Underwood’s statement hints at three facets of the criticisms of McMansions:

1. Sarasota represents the booming Sunbelt flooded with new money and new developments. McMansions are often associated with the sprawling suburbs of recent decades that quickly gobbled up land.

2. He suggests McMansions are about money (represented by a lobbyist here) and not about longer-term influence (power in this case). Critics suggest people buy McMansions – which often stretch them beyond their financial means or at least lead to a big mortgage – in order to impress people.

3. Critics argue McMansions are not of the same kind of quality construction as other houses or structures. With builders/developers interested in quick profits and providing as much space for as little money as possible, McMansions won’t stand the test of time. Of course, even stone buildings require some work but people expect them to last longer than suburban tract homes.

Frank Underwood might claim he is everything McMansions are not: he is not worried about first impressions but rather plays the long game of influence and power, he has attended schools like The Sentinel (modeled after The Citadel, a name suggesting stone and permanence) and Harvard Law, and he is from the old traditions of South Carolina (one of the original colonies, not an upstart booming suburb).

Naperville named safest American city over 100,000 people recently named Naperville the safest American city:

The rankings were based on evaluations from 215 cities with populations of more than 100,000 residents and included analysis of the city’s violent and property crime data, including murder, assault, robbery, burglary, larceny and vehicle theft rates.

Niche, a Pittsburgh-based ranking and review web site, used the 2013 FBI Uniform Crime Report “Crime in the United States,” an annual publication that reports the number and rate of violent and property crime offenses. They then used a formula to determine the city’s safety ranking, which includes weighting the crime by category: murder rate at 30 percent; assault and robbery at 20 percent each; and burglary and larceny at 10 percent each.

Two Naperville officials are quoted in the story praising crime prevention efforts. This helps but my guess regarding the bigger factor is the wealth of the community. According to the latest (2013) Census estimates: Naperville has a median household income of $108,302, the poverty rate is 4.1%, and the percent of residents with a high school degree is 96.5% and 65.9% have a bachelor’s degree. There are plenty of wealthy communities in the United States but they tend to be smaller. Once you get cities bigger than 100,000, it is hard to find many that have the number of educated and wealthy residents as Naperville.

52% of Beijing’s residents live in suburban-like areas

Beijing has grown to over 21 million residents but more than half live beyond 12 miles of the city center:

More than half of Beijing’s 21.5 million residents live outside the Fifth Ring Road, a beltway built in the early 2000s that traces a circle roughly 12 miles in diameter around the city, the Beijing Municipal Statistics Bureau said Thursday. Nearly 52% of the city’s roughly 8.2 million migrants—who lack local household registration, or hukou—are suburban dwellers.

The data mark the first time Beijing authorities have mapped the distribution of residents with reference to its six ring roads (a seventh is under construction), numbered progressively as they radiate from the city center. Experts say the numbers highlight the uneven spread of public services—typically clustered in the capital’s central areas—and reflect socioeconomic realities faced by low-income rural migrants.

The clustering of residents on Beijing’s outer fringes will become more pronounced over the coming years, as the city center has limited capacity for accommodating further population growth, Song Yueping, an associate professor at Renmin University’s School of Sociology and Population Studies, told the Beijing Times. Furthermore, new arrivals from outside the capital typically earn less and can only afford cheaper suburban housing, the newspaper quoted her as saying.

This sounds remarkably similar to recent stories about the difficulties in providing social services or mass transit in the American suburbs. Several other thoughts:

1. Many big cities in developing countries are sprawling. They may not stretch to 40-60 miles out like the biggest American cities but the rapid growth of new developments (whether funded by the government or through shantytowns) has to go somewhere.

2. If this followed the pattern of American development, we might expect to see new “urban” centers pop up in the suburbs, revolving around clusters of businesses and jobs as well as denser pockets of residential development.

3. The fact that the population can be so easily measured by the ring roads is interesting in itself. This suggests central planning that can keep putting in the ring roads. But, such roads might also help encourage sprawl along these roads as well as potentially lead to heavy traffic. Additionally, the ring roads likely serve as physical and social markers to differentiate sections of the city.

Taxing McMansions and other buildings by roof size to cover stormwater costs

Want a McMansion or another building that covers a lot of ground in Mississauga? You will have to pay more for stormwater costs:

In a move that’s a first for the GTA, Canada’s largest suburb and its sixth largest city will soon charge home owners and businesses for storm water costs based on how much of their property is covered. If you have a very small house that causes little run-off water, you will pay nothing. But if your home is in the highest of five size categories, it will cost $170 in 2016 for your share of the city’s storm-water management costs. It’s an approach that Toronto is also looking at ahead of its 2016 budget process, according to a city spokesperson…

Councillor George Carlson, council’s resident environmentalist, has championed the innovative approach since it was first examined in 2011. He recognizes the impact of climate change, but said development trends are also at the root of the problem. “You can’t use pipes the size of Dixie straws when we need massive concrete culverts,” he said after the meeting. “There were streets in Mississauga that looked like Venice in July of 2013 (when a major storm event wreaked havoc across the GTA).”

“But look at all the asphalt and parking lots and McMansions in this city. All of that covered land is sending more and more run-off water into pipes that were probably already too small. I can see the king and queen needing to live in a castle, but does every third person have to?”…

Charges to businesses will be based on a formula that measures the total covered amount of space, but they will be able to save up to 50 per cent of their fee by putting in measures such as catchment basins and permeable material to prevent storm run-off.

It will be interesting to see how this works out. The Councillor quoted above said he thinks this could have an impact on building sizes down the road. Communities with lots of sprawling development often have water problems and solutions range from permeable pavement to green roofs to taxes like these. But, many of these solutions are after the fact which can get quite costly (just see the massive Deep Tunnel project in the Chicago area).

If the real estate pressure is there to build McMansions, I wonder if there are ways around such a fee. (To be honest, $170 a year doesn’t sound like much for the types who buy McMansions.) What if people built underground to get extra space and to minimize the roof size (a la the luxury underground facilities in London)? Presumably there are height restrictions in the community that would limit building up.

“The McMansions are coming!” to Modesto

Maybe the broader statistics don’t matter – opposition to McMansions is often strongest at the local level, like when teardowns arrive in Modesto:

In the old College area of Modesto, I’ve spotted an unsettling trend – the sprouting of what folks in the Bay Area call “McMansions.”…

These behemoths bring nothing to the locales, and basically boil down to somebody wanting to live in an older neighborhood in a development-style home with maximum square footage. You can imagine how people who have lived among one-story neighbors feel when a McMansion glares down at them. Many choose to move or erect tall plants as barriers in an effort to recapture a sense of privacy.

McMansions are a hot issue in the Bay Area, with existing homeowners protesting the intrusion. But few cities have any restrictions or guidelines in place for protecting and/or building in older neighborhoods. Those who do have recognized the value of managing older neighborhoods to bring value to their town. Along the same lines as preserving historic downtowns for their appeal, they preserve historic neighborhoods.

Large homes equal larger tax revenues from the city’s point of view. But as historic old neighborhoods succumb to McMansions, it’s just a matter of time before these areas look like the row houses in the 1970s Archie Bunker sitcom; they will have ruined the “old” neighborhood ambiance they sought.

Not a positive view of teardown McMansions. I wonder how this works in communities like Modesto which have been hit hard by foreclosures (though some Central Valley cities are not below national foreclosure rates). Can a city afford a NIMBY approach to McMansions if the housing stock isn’t doing so well on the whole? At least the teardowns suggest there is some demand for living in certain neighborhoods in Modesto – not all communities have even that.

This question regarding teardowns could also apply elsewhere: are big teardowns and gentrification better than no development at all? Both involve changing the character of a neighborhood, particularly upgrading the housing options. Both are often viewed negatively by residents already there. Both typically involve outsiders and new residents. Of course, these aren’t the only choices available in neighborhoods but are they better than negative conditions or decline?

Seeing the return of McMansions as a statistical blip

New American homes were bigger than ever in early 2015 but some see this as an anomaly:

The median size of a home built in the U.S. in the first quarter registered 2,521 square feet, up 76 square feet, or 3%, from the fourth quarter, according to Commerce Department data released Tuesday. It was the first increase for that measure after three consecutive quarters of decline.

Robert Dietz, an economist with the National Association of Home Builders, suggests that last quarter’s increase is due more to a smaller amount of housing construction in the first quarter relative to previous quarters than to a return to a market focused on megahomes…

The market has slowly shifted in the past year to allow for the gradual return of entry-level buyers, who tend to buy smaller, less expensive homes. Hiring and wages have improved, and federal regulators have moved to slightly loosen mortgage-qualification standards and reduce some costs of Federal Housing Administration-backed loans.

That contributed to a 7.6% increase in the number of construction starts for single-family homes in the first four months of this year in comparison to the same period a year earlier. It is likely that expanded volume included an increasing number of smaller, less-pricey homes.

It will take some time to sort this out. There is nothing that says smaller homes have to become a bigger slice of the market – but it is also not inevitable that the average home will get larger. Homes were bigger than ever starting in 2013 and a number of commentators, including developers themselves, have noted the lagging lower/smaller end of the new housing market. Unless the broader economy does significantly better in coming quarters, I suspect big homes (and luxury housing units) will continue to drive the housing market.

White population of Detroit increases 12,000 in recent years

The tide of white flight out of Detroit has reversed slightly in the last few years:

No other city may be as synonymous as Detroit with white flight, the exodus of whites from large cities that began in the middle of the last century. Detroit went from a thriving hub of industry with a population of 1.8 million in 1950 to a city of roughly 680,000 in 2014 that recently went through the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history. In those decades, the city’s population has gone from nearly 84 percent white to a little less than 13 percent white.In the three years after the 2010 U.S. Census, though, Detroit’s white population grew from just under 76,000 residents to more than 88,000, according to a census estimate. The cheap cost of living, opportunities for young entrepreneurs and push by city-based companies to persuade workers to live nearby have made a big difference, experts say…

Blacks appear to be weary of waiting for Detroit to turn things around and have been migrating to nearby suburbs in search of comfort, better schools and lower crime.

The city’s black population was nearly 776,000 in 1990. By 2013 it had dipped to an estimated 554,000.


The first paragraph cited above is key: the level of white flight in Detroit was so staggering that even an increase of 12,000 white residents in three years might just be seen as a major success. However, this pace would need to pick up and/or continue for a decade or two before there could be legitimate claims about a rebound. Of course, as the later paragraphs above note, even black residents have left in large numbers in recent decades. Would it be considered a success if the white population continued to grow but the black population continued to leave?

In other words, there is still a lot to be done here before we can qualify the changes as successful for the whole city.

A number of city-dwelling Americans say they live in suburbs

A new survey from Trulia shows some city residents see themselves as living in a suburb, highlighting the blurry lines between urban and suburban areas in some cities:

To develop a standard definition of suburban that reflects what residents experience, the online real estate site Trulia, where I am the chief economist, surveyed 2,008 adults from across the U.S. We asked them to describe where they live as urban, suburban or rural, and we purposely did not define these terms for them. We also had each respondent’s ZIP code, which we used to identify his or her city, metropolitan area and state of residence. For this research, we treated ZIP codes as neighborhoods even though many ZIP codes encompass more area than what people may think of as a neighborhood.

It turns out that many cities’ legal boundaries line up poorly with what local residents perceive as urban. Nationally, 26 percent of Americans described where they live as urban, 53 percent said suburban and 21 percent said rural. (This comes close to the census estimate that 81 percent of the population is urban if “urban” is understood to include suburban areas.) Within “principal cities” of metropolitan areas (the census designates one or more cities in each metro as “principal”), respondents split 47 percent urban, 46 percent suburban and 7 percent rural, though those percentages include people in many small cities and metro areas. Looking only at respondents in the larger principal cities (those with a population greater than 100,000) of larger metropolitan areas (those with a population greater than 500,000), the breakdown was 56 percent urban, 42 percent suburban and 2 percent rural. That means close to half of people who live within city limits describe where they live as suburban.

Our analysis showed that the single best predictor of whether someone said his or her area was urban, suburban or rural was ZIP code density. Residents of ZIP codes with more than 2,213 households per square mile typically described their area as urban. Residents of neighborhoods with 102 to 2,213 households per square mile typically called their area suburban. In ZIP codes with fewer than 102 households per square mile, residents typically said they lived in a rural area. The density cutoff we found between urban and suburban — 2,213 households per square mile — is roughly equal to the density of ZIP codes 22046 (Falls Church in Northern Virginia); 91367 (Woodland Hills in California’s San Fernando Valley); and 07666 (Teaneck, New Jersey)…

Furthermore, the new census population data shows that the fastest-growing large cities tend to be more suburban. Among the 10 fastest-growing cities with more than 500,000 people, five — Austin, Fort Worth, Charlotte, San Antonio and Phoenix — are majority suburban, and a sixth, Las Vegas, is only 50 percent urban. Only one of the 10 fastest-growing, Seattle, is at least 90 percent urban.

Several quick thoughts:

1. As this article notes in addition to a number of scholars, it is difficult to measure exactly what the suburbs are. The Census Bureau definition put the suburbs between central cities in metropolitan areas and rural areas though geographically limited by county lines. As this survey notes, there are official geographic boundaries but then there are also the lived experiences of residents.

2. It is not surprising that Sunbelt city residents may be more likely to see themselves as suburban. These cities are often much bigger than cities in the Northeast and the Midwest which were hemmed in by more restrictive annexation laws around the turn of the 20th century.

3. This gets more complicated in surveys if you allow people to choose that they live in a small town as many suburban residents would choose that option.

When government policy reinforced and added to residential segregation

The federal government may today be viewed as a party that wants to end residential segregation (see a recent argument by conservatives) but this was not always the case:

On how the New Deal’s Public Works Administration led to the creation of segregated ghettos

Its policy was that public housing could be used only to house people of the same race as the neighborhood in which it was located, but, in fact, most of the public housing that was built in the early years was built in integrated neighborhoods, which they razed and then built segregated public housing in those neighborhoods. So public housing created racial segregation where none existed before. That was one of the chief policies.

On the Federal Housing Administration’s overtly racist policies in the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s

The second policy, which was probably even more effective in segregating metropolitan areas, was the Federal Housing Administration, which financed mass production builders of subdivisions starting in the ’30s and then going on to the ’40s and ’50s in which those mass production builders, places like Levittown [New York] for example, and Nassau County in New York and in every metropolitan area in the country, the Federal Housing Administration gave builders like Levitt concessionary loans through banks because they guaranteed loans at lower interest rates for banks that the developers could use to build these subdivisions on the condition that no homes in those subdivisions be sold to African-Americans.

Both of these policies had long-term effects that helped lead to poor urban neighborhoods and whites moving to the suburbs. The federal government had enforcement power and resources to do things that other parties could not.

But, the federal government wasn’t the only force at work. Take Chicago, for example. Local government units, such as the city or the Chicago Housing Authority, made decisions about segregated public housing projects (a few projects were initially all white while the majority were non-white) and where they were to be located (largely in existing poor areas and as a burden to punish certain aldermen). Realtors weren’t exactly open to showing housing to blacks outside of the Black Belt. Residents tended to react angrily for decades when blacks moved in with little interference from police or local officials; see cases from the late 1910s to the 1951 case in Cicero where white mobs made their voices known. This all happened even until the late 1960s where Martin Luther King Jr. was opposed in fighting for open housing during the summer of 1966 and Wheaton was the first Illinois community with an open housing law (passed July 3, 1967 – as a point of comparison, this was nearly one year before Oak Park in May 1968).

It wasn’t just a tyrannical or misguided federal government that promoted residential segregation or that still continues to promote similar ideas today…

Testing a pay-per-mile tax in Oregon

Looking for more revenue, Oregon is starting a test program of paying for miles driven rather than gasoline used:

The program is meant to help the state raise more revenue to pay for road and bridge projects at a time when money generated from gasoline taxes are declining across the country, in part, because of greater fuel efficiency and the increasing popularity of fuel-efficient, hybrid and electric cars.

Starting July 1, up to 5,000 volunteers in Oregon can sign up to drive with devices that collect data on how much they have driven and where. The volunteers will agree to pay 1.5 cents for each mile traveled on public roads within Oregon, instead of the tax now added when filling up at the pump…

Private vendors will provide drivers with small digital devices to track miles; other services will also be offered. Volunteers can opt out of the program at any time, and they’ll get a refund for miles driven on private property and out of state…

Drivers will be able to install an odometer device without GPS tracking.

For those who use the GPS, the state and private vendors will destroy records of location and daily metered use after 30 days. The program also limits how the data can be aggregated and shared. Law enforcement, for example, won’t be able to access the information unless a judge says it’s needed.


I suspect a number of governments will be interested in how this test works out. One big hurdle to overcome would seem to be privacy, though government tracking of vehicles may not be far off anyhow (through cell phones, insurance company monitoring devices, black boxes, toll booths/devices, license plate readers, etc.). The argument about deincentivizing electric or hybrid cars doesn’t really hold up because these vehicles still use the roads and add to the maintenance burden. Yet, ultimately this will be about revenue: is this a better model for bringing in the money needed for roads?