Regulate McMansions in order to provide more housing

Expecting population growth, Portland, Oregon is looking to limit house sizes:

The zoning changes are in the planning stages, and it won’t be until early next year that City Council will vote on whether to approve the changes.

New zoning laws could limit the size of homes, allowing single-family homes to be half the size of the lot. A standard lot in Portland’s inner eastside, which is primarily zoned for single-family homes, is 5,000 square feet. The proposed zoning code would limit that home to 2,500 square feet…

The city says it’s heard complaints over so-called “McMansions,” or homes that are much larger than the rest of the houses in a neighborhood…

The new zoning proposal also calls for increased flexibility in building duplexes, and on corner lots triplexes could be built. The city says increasing density will give families more options where to live.

This is an interesting approach to regulating McMansions. Rather than emphasize their poor architecture, excessive use of resources, or threat to neighborhood character, instead stress that the land could be used for more housing units. And because Portland has both stricter development boundaries regarding its metropolitan region as well as expectations for population growth, zoning for higher density could make sense. It would be interesting to see if this approach cuts down on criticism that property owners should be able to do what they want.

There are probably already a number of McMansions in the Portland area but it is interesting to contemplate a major city or region without any McMansions.

Data on Americans’ preferences for small towns

Following up on yesterday’s post, here is some survey data from recent decades which shows the preference Americans have for living in small towns:

  • From a 1985 Gallup survey: “In the latest poll, the category preferred by the largest percentage of those surveyed, 23 percent, was a small town with a population of less than 10,000. This group, combined with the 17 percent who said they preferred to live on a farm and the 8 percent who wanted to live in a rural area but not on a farm, accounted for the 48 percent who preferred less populated settings.”
  • From footnote #2 in the first chapter of Wuthnow’s Small-Town America: “[A] 1985 Roper Poll found that 61 percent of those surveyed thought a small town was best for “the kind of friends you’d have,” compared with only 12 percent who thought a big city would be best (26 percent volunteered “no difference”). Small towns received equally large or larger preferences as places for leading a healthy life, privacy, and raising children.”
  • From Pew in 2009: “Americans are all over the map in their views about their ideal community type: 30% say they would most like to live in a small town, 25% in a suburb, 23% in a city and 21% in a rural area.”

A significant issue may be what exactly counts as a small town. A good number of Americans think a small town can include a suburb – this is different than traditional definitions of rural small town. From the same Wuthnow footnote:

Poll results are difficult to interpret because, as I mentioned in the preface, many Americans who live in large metropolitan areas imagine themselves to be living in small towns. In a 2006 poll conducted by the Pew Research Center, for instance, 26 percent of those who responded said they lived in a small town, 16 percent said they lived in a rural area, and 57 percent said they lived in a city or suburb (51 percent said they would prefer a small town or rural area if they could live anywhere)… If those responses were taken at face value, 78 million Americans lived in small towns, whereas the US Census showed that only 52 million lived in unincorporated places of under 25,000 (including incorporated places of that size that were in metropolitan areas), and indicated that 222 million Americans lived in urban areas, whereas the poll responses suggested only 174 million…

However you want to put it, a good number of Americans may still prefer small-town values but they now express that by living in suburbs.

America’s small towns are now in the suburbs

A piece arguing that rural small towns are at the core of America misses an important point: many of the American suburbs are now the small towns of today.

There’s been a recognition, he says, that communities must adapt or die. After his book, Hollowing Out the Middle, was published, Carr heard from a number of people from different regions, who were trying a variety of rejuvenation tactics. For example, a career academy in Iowa had begun providing training for high-school students, both college-prep and vocational. Elsewhere, educational and civic jurisdictions were pooling resources and asking employers for input about their needs.

But if such initiatives are to succeed, Conn suggests, they’ll have to listen to Arthur Morgan and stay open-minded. Immigrants can boost local economies; small towns should welcome them, not oppose them. Government is not the enemy of small towns, but many in small towns have grown to distrust government at all levels: The TVA, a giant federal project, was largely a success, and so was rural electrification, another federal project. Today, many small towns rely heavily on state and federal money to keep their economies afloat. Resentment of cities, especially the often mistaken impression that cities soak up all the government spending, is counterproductive. Even Morgan recognized that “the village was too small a unit to fulfill the destinies of human society.” The United States needs its cities. But it need its small towns and rural areas, too.

The population shift of Americans away from small towns and rural areas from the early 1900s to today is quite dramatic. But, it was not just cities that grew: the suburbs came out as the biggest winner with over 50% of Americans now residing there (roughly 30% live in big cities and under 20% live in rural areas).

Even though there are plenty of existing American small towns, for many Americans the true small towns are now suburbs. They have some similar features to the small towns of earlier decades including what residents perceive as a more responsive local government as well as significantly fewer people than the big city. At the same time, they differ significantly: they are not as close-knit, any small suburb is not as cut off socially or geographically from larger population centers, and urban amenities are not far from the suburbs.

Finding the price and usage at which to not own a car

Two researchers crunched the numbers and have some thoughts about when you should not own a car:

The decision for owning a vehicle or using mobility services is unique to every individual. If you purchase a highly efficient vehicle for less than $25,000 and drive it more than 15,000 miles per year until it falls apart, then you should definitely own a car if your goal is to save money.

But, if you drive less than 10,000 miles per year, face long waits in traffic, or place a high value on your time that would otherwise be spent driving, our calculations show that mobility services might be the cheaper option. Geography can also play a role—it’s not a coincidence that there have historically been so many taxi cabs in New York City, where the high cost of parking and slow pace of traffic consume time and money.

As noted before on this blog, owning a car can be a substantial part of middle-class expenses. With their physical layout, the sprawling suburbs probably then do not make much sense for not having a car. Yet, those denser suburbs for the older millennials and companies hip to them may be the true spots where suburbanites can ditch their cars. A combination of walkability, some mass transit, and car sharing in these denser suburbs could be enough to push people toward limiting car ownership.

On the other hand, perhaps driverless cars will render this all moot within a short amount of time. Within ten or twenty years, few of us will even need to own a vehicle if we just buy into a car sharing option.

Recommendations to help with SCOTUS’ innumeracy

In the wake of recent comments about “sociological gobbledygook” and measures of gerrymandering, here are some suggestions for how the Supreme Court can better use statistical evidence:

McGhee, who helped develop the efficiency gap measure, wondered if the court should hire a trusted staff of social scientists to help the justices parse empirical arguments. Levinson, the Texas professor, felt that the problem was a lack of rigorous empirical training at most elite law schools, so the long-term solution would be a change in curriculum. Enos and his coauthors proposed “that courts alter their norms and standards regarding the consideration of statistical evidence”; judges are free to ignore statistical evidence, so perhaps nothing will change unless they take this category of evidence more seriously.

But maybe this allergy to statistical evidence is really a smoke screen — a convenient way to make a decision based on ideology while couching it in terms of practicality.

“I don’t put much stock in the claim that the Supreme Court is afraid of adjudicating partisan gerrymanders because it’s afraid of math,” Daniel Hemel, who teaches law at the University of Chicago, told me. “[Roberts] is very smart and so are the judges who would be adjudicating partisan gerrymandering claims — I’m sure he and they could wrap their minds around the math. The ‘gobbledygook’ argument seems to be masking whatever his real objection might be.”

If there is indeed innumeracy present, the justices would not be alone in this. Many Americans do not receive an education in statistics, let alone have enough training to make sense of the statistics regularly used in academic studies.

At the same time, we might go further than the argument made above: should judges make decisions based on statistics (roughly facts) more than ideology or arguments (roughly interpretation)? Again, many Americans struggle with this: there can be broad empirical patterns or even correlations but some would insist that their own personal experiences do not match these. Should judicial decisions be guided by principles and existing case law or by current statistical realities? The courts are not the only social spheres that struggle with this.

Chicago’s bid for Amazon HQ#2

Here are a few details of what Chicago is offering Amazon to attract its second headquarters:

“Chicago offers unparalleled potential for future growth for businesses of all sizes and is the ideal place for Amazon to build its HQ2,” Emanuel said in the news release. “This bid will demonstrate to Amazon that Chicago has the talent, transportation and technology to help the company as it reaches new heights and continues to thrive for generations to come.”

Developers of four Chicago sites have provided details of their Amazon bids to the Tribune. Those sites are Lincoln Yards, the planned redevelopment of the former A. Finkl & Sons steel plant and other land along the Chicago River in Lincoln Park and Bucktown; the vacant old main post office along the river and Congress Parkway; 37 acres owned by broadcast company Tribune Media along the Chicago River near Chicago Avenue and Halsted Street; and the former Michael Reese Hospital site and nearby land in Bronzeville.

Chicago’s bid highlighted Chicago’s transportation network, talent pool, diverse economy, airport access, quality of life and proximity to research centers, according to the news release…

On Sept. 7, the day Seattle-based Amazon announced plans to invest $5 billion on creating a second headquarters, Emanuel told the Tribune the city planned to make a bid, and said he’d already spoken with Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos multiple times about bringing HQ2 to Chicago.

No word on the tax breaks and incentives the city and state are offering. I’m guessing they are plentiful.

At the same time, why wouldn’t Chicago have a good chance at this?

  1. Chicago is a top #10 global city.
  2. A central location. I know we are in the Internet/social media age and all but location still matters.
  3. A strong transportation network with multiple airports, rail connections, highways, and shipping.
  4. While the city may be losing residents, the region is still growing slightly and has plenty of workers.
  5. An wild card factor: if President Trump continues to use Chicago as an example of a (Democratic) city with problems, would Bezos and company like to stick it to him and show they are committed Chicago? Lots of cities can offer land and other incentives but Amazon could claim to be a significant part of turning Chicago around. (Whether a single headquarters could do this is another story but there are business considerations as well as political narratives at play here.)

Now to see how long it takes Amazon to announce a decision.

Argument that obesity and McMansions are linked

One “muckraker” tries to suggest that bigger houses – such as McMansions – make it easier for people to be obese:

No, the truth is that like cars, McMansion houses, food portions and soft drink sizes, Americans are getting bigger every day–and because it is happening everywhere, few notice. Worse, the harder we try to lose poundage with low calorie foods, fitness centers and personal trainers, the bigger we are becoming. Even people in non-industrialized countries are packing on the pounds as Big Food peddles it high calorie, addictive processed food in “new markets.”

A correlation without causation argument. And you do not have to go McMansions to make the same claim: the average size of new homes has increased from roughly 1,000 square feet to 2,500 square over sixty years. But, how might we really show that having other bigger items in our lives leads to having other bigger items in our lives? Would the reverse also be true: that if we had increasingly smaller items in our lives, we would desire smallness over all? If these are all linked, perhaps we could tie this to the big American frontier or the large American ideals at the founding of the country.

Perhaps there are other arguments to be made here. Do McMansions offer more space for people to spread out? Or, could heavier people be more likely to purchase McMansions (and is this related more to their stage in life)?