More worry over McMansions than LeBron’s teardown that replaced a midcentury modern

Are McMansions in Los Angeles disliked because of who might live in them or because of their architecture?

Newly signed Laker LeBron James’ $23 million digs on Tigertail Road in L.A.’s Brentwood come with a deep roster of industry neighbors, from stars (Jim Carrey) and execs (ABC’s Ben Sherwood, Scooter Braun) to reps (CAA’s Fred Specktor, Lighthouse’s Margaret Riley), writers (John Sacret Young) and movie royalty (or at least movie royalty-adjacent: John Goldwyn’s ex Colleen Camp)…

The tony community is taking well to its new neighbor, says one homeowner, who adds that there’s more concern about the explosion of “McMansions” in an area that boasts so many architecturally significant houses, like the William Krisel-built midcentury modern that was torn down in 2014 on the lot where James’ new home sits.

While James’ new-build eight-bedroom home has been under renovation since May as he adds a basketball court and indoor wine tap, the construction hasn’t been particularly disruptive, says the resident, given the large number of homes being built and updated throughout the neighborhood. “[His house] is set on the hillside, very tasteful and pretty, and it’s been low-key so far,” says the neighbor. “People were a lot more upset when Justin Bieber was looking around here.”

Even though James now lives in a large house that replaced an “architecturally significant house,” at least one neighbor does not think it is a problem for three reasons:

  1. The new house is “very tasteful and pretty.”
  2. LeBron James is not Justin Bieber. Not only is Bieber less popular than James, he has a Los Angeles reputation for parties and fast driving.
  3. The construction “hasn’t been particularly disruptive.”

So because Lebron James is simply a better-liked neighbor than Bieber, the construction of a mansion (or McMansion) can be overlooked? According to some, midcentury moderns are worth celebrating compared to McMansions.

Suburbs, “mutilated urbanism,” and “nature band-aids”

James Howard Kunstler’s TED Talk “The Ghastly Tragedy of the Suburbs” includes a discussion of the role of “nature” in suburbia. This excerpt starts at about 10:15 into the talk:

Then because the relationship between the retail is destroyed, we pop a handicapped ramp on that, and then to make ourselves feel better, we put a nature band-aid in front of it. And that’s how we do it.

I call them nature band-aids because there’s a general idea in America that the remedy for mutilated urbanism is nature. And in fact, the remedy for wounded and mutilated urbanism is good urbanism, good buildings. Not just flower-beds, not just cartoons of the Sierra Nevada mountains, you know, that’s not good enough. We have to do good buildings.

(photo: two pictures of tree lined pedestrian paths, caption: “Role of ‘Green’ In City Center Is Formal”)

The street trees have really four jobs to do, and that’s it. To spatially denote the pedestrian realm, to protect the pedestrians from the vehicles in the carriage-way, to filter the sunlight onto the sidewalk, and to soften the hardscape of the buildings and to create a ceiling -a vaulted ceiling- over the street, at its best. And that’s it. Those are the four jobs of the street trees. They’re not supposed to be a cartoon of the north woods, they’re not supposed to be a set for The Last of the Mohicans. You know, one of the problems with the fiasco of suburbia is that it destroyed our understanding of the distinction between the country and the town, between the urban and the rural. They’re not the same thing. And we’re not gonna cure the problems of the urban by dragging the country into the city, which is what a lot of us are trying to do all the time.

(new photo, unshown on screen)

Here you see on a small scale- the mother-ship has landed, R2D2 and CP3O (sic) have stepped out to test the bark mulch to see if they can inhabit this planet.

This last paragraph, in particular, always gets me: comparing two lonely bushes stranded in a suburban streetscape to aliens is funny.

But, his larger point holds: suburban settings often use nature as a possible enhancement and often afterthought rather than a fundamental feature of the space. Why save original trees when you can just plant new ones later? If there is not enough greenery, add a flower bed and some bushes. Make sure the suburban yards are always lush and green (even if this does not really happen in nature). Put in some parks here and there so people can experience wildlife displaced from other settings.

The suburban nature millions of Americans see on a daily basis is not the real nature that was once in these locations (though you would have to go back quite a ways before any human intervention and this is important to remember) or that could be there given different choices by local officials, developers, and residents.

Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring emerged from suburbia

Rachel Carson’s influential Silent Spring may have emphasized nature but according to Crabgrass Crucible: Suburban Nature and the Rise of Environmentalism in the Twentieth Century, the suburbs played an important role:

As global a vision as one might concoct, Silent Spring nevertheless had its firmest roots in suburban locales. The letter sparking Carsons’s commitment to write the book came from a woman in suburban Boston who had watched a DDT spraying decimate the birds in her own and her neighbors’ yards. Carson also drew heavily on the 1957 anti-DDT lawsuit on Long Island. Her research began with the trial transcript, and Marjorie Spock, leader of the lawsuit, then became Carson’s “chief clipping service.” The web of experts Spock had brought in to testify at the trial served as Carson’s own. They and others on whom Carson most relied lived and worked in suburbs, including Dr. Morton Biskind of Westport, Connecticut, and Wilhelm Hueper, at the National Institutes of Health headquarters in Bethesda, Maryland. Even Carson herself was, arguable, a suburbanite: though she loved her spot on the Maine coast, she spent most of the year in Silver Spring, Maryland, on the edge of Washington, D.C.

Silent Spring reached out to suburban readers in a host of ways, both subtle and overt. Ignoring cities, limiting her invocations of the urban to “a small town in the heart of America,” Carson flattered the conceit of the suburban better-off that their homes were not in any “suburbia,” that they led essentially nonurban lives. Factories also feel into the shadowy backdrop: quick-striking maladies and death among workers appeared only briefly and in passing. Dwelling at much great length on cancer and other chronic ailments, more likely to trouble a suburban readership, she studiously avoided mention of infectious diseases, whose absence suburb dwellers of this period, at least in metropolitan New York and Los Angeles tended to take for granted. On shifting from dangers to human health to threats to wildlife, Carson explicitly summoned the self-interest of the “suburbanite.” For the “suburbanite who derives pleasure from birds in his garden,” she wrote, “anything that destroys the wildlife of an area for even a single year has deprived him of a pleasure to which he has a legitimate right.” (256-257)

These two paragraphs remind me of several aspects of American suburbs:

  1. Given that more Americans lived in suburbs than cities by the early 1960s, does this simply reflect the movement of Americans in large numbers to suburbs?
  2. Could the wealth of suburbia – the ability to own a home, have a middle-class or higher lifestyle – provide more resources to pursue causes like environmentalism compared to being concerned with subsistence in other settings?
  3. From the beginning of American suburbs, they were touted as spaces close to nature. This argument was primarily made in comparison to cities which by the late 1800s were viewed as dirty and overcrowded. (Of course, the nature of suburbia has always been carefully shaped by humans rather than being untamed nature.)

More broadly, nature and the environment likely looks different from the suburbs than from urban or rural settings. If Sellers is correct in his argument about Silent Spring‘s suburban roots, perhaps it should be more widely read with the suburban context in mind.

In 1980, 55% of 25-35-year-olds owned homes

This report about the struggle millennials face in purchasing homes include numbers about how many young adults owned homes in the past:

Last year 32.3 percent of young people were homeowners, a slight increase from 2016 when it was 32.2 percent.

That’s still well below the 45 percent in 2005 and the peak of 55 percent in 1980.

While the report goes on to offer reasons why millennials have a hard time purchasing homes (short answer provided: student loans), the trend downward from 1980 is notable.

Or, perhaps we should think about it another way: perhaps 1980 was more unusual. This followed several decades of post-World War II prosperity and was before housing values rose significantly in many places. There was plenty of inequality but homeownership was within the reach of just over half of people just starting adult lives. Will we ever reach those levels again?

American homeowners with $5.8 billion of tappable equity

A new statistic hints at the shift of homeownership from having a piece of private property to the home as an investment: Americans have nearly $6 billion in home equity.

Homeowners now have a collective $5.8 trillion in tappable equity, the highest volume ever recorded and 16 percent above the last home price peak in 2006. The average homeowner with a mortgage gained $14,700 in tappable equity over the past year and has $113,900 available to draw. This is the amount over and above 20 percent of the value of the average home…

More borrowers are doing cash-out refinances, even at a higher interest rate, because they are leery of the variable rates on HELOCs. But overall, just 1.17 percent of available equity was tapped in the first quarter of this year, the lowest amount in four years. Why? They may not know just how rich they are.

What good is an investment if the owner is not cashing in on it? Seriously though, suggesting that Americans are sitting on a pot of gold – their own homes – is an odd proposition. Should they all sell at once? Already, some have wondered what happens when large numbers of Baby Boomers want to be out of their homes. All get home equity lines or credit or cash out refinances? This could drum up more business for lenders but may not necessarily be good for the homeowners. Or, the as the article hints at, what if housing values drop after large numbers of people tap into their equity? We have seen what can happen there by looking back at the late 2000s with many foreclosures and underwater homes.

All together, all that equity may actually be fairly hard for everyone to benefit from.

Chicago aldermen: from selecting public housing sites to blocking affordable housing

Even as Chicago’s mayor suggests more interest in affordable housing, a new report from the Chicago Fair Housing Alliance shows how Chicago aldermen used “aldermanic prerogative” to slow down, water down, or reject certain kinds of housing projects:

Much of the City Council’s power over development is unwritten and informal.

Typically, if a development in a ward needs a zoning change or permit, and the development is not supported by the alderman of that ward, the proposal is voted down if it ever reaches the full City Council. In some cases, a developer can make a proposal, and the presiding alderman or zoning advisory council will dictate changes — such as how many of the apartments will be condominiums and how many should be set aside for lower-income residents. Those negotiations have to be navigated before the proposal can reach the City Council. The development proposal can also linger in the zoning committee, which is another way it eventually dies from inaction…

The study’s authors examined how zoning laws were used to keep low-income public housing residents confined to certain communities and how private market rate housing has been engineered to confine lower-income residents to specific neighborhoods. They also reviewed case by case what happened with most recent efforts to create affordable housing across Chicago…

The report suggests that in order to ensure affordable housing, the city has to take steps to change the way business is conducted and develop a citywide protocol. That plan would have to force each ward to bear some of the weight of producing affordable housing.

Given Chicago’s long history of residential segregation, I would suggest this is primarily about race: wealthier and whiter neighborhoods do not want black and non-white residents to be able to move in. While the issue may seem to be housing with cheaper values or the preference that neighborhood residents have for local control, at the root, this is about controlling who can live in certain places. If given the opportunity, local officials will claim they are simply representing the interests of their constituents.

And this aldermanic power regarding housing has a long history. Here is part of the tale regarding the early days of public housing in the city retold in Alex Kotlowitz’s There Are No Children Here (p. 21-22):

The city’s aldermen first bullied the state legislature into giving them the power of selecting public housing site, a prerogative that had previously belonged to the local housing authority.

Then a group of leading aldermen, who were not above petty vindictiveness, chartered a bus to tour the city in search of potential sites. On the bus ride, they told reporters that they were out to seek vengeance against the Chicago Housing Authority and the seven aldermen who supported public housing, and they chose sites in neighborhoods represented by these aldermen. Like prankish teenagers, they selected the most outrageous of possibilities, including the tennis courts at the University of Chicago and a parcel of land that sat smack in the middle of a major local highway. The message was clear: the CHA and its liberal backers could build public housing but not in their back yards.

The complexes were not, in the end, built at these sites. Instead, they were constructed on the edges of the city’s black ghettoes.

In many instances, the primary way black and other non-white residents have been able to move into new city neighborhoods or suburbs is when whites are willing to leave.

 

Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel now rolling out affordable housing ideas

The Chicago Tribune summarizes the recent efforts of Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel to promote affordable housing in the city:

The Tribune’s Jeff Coen and Gregory Pratt recently reported on Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s stumbles as he’s tried to tackle the tricky issue of affordable housing. They discovered that in gentrifying neighborhoods where affordable housing is most needed, fees paid by developers to fund housing at below-market rates get diverted elsewhere. In many cases, that money shows up on the South Side, where housing needs are great, but where affordable housing isn’t as acute of a problem as it is on the North Side.

They also found that the amount of affordable housing being built in the city is falling short of City Hall’s projections. In 2015, when City Hall strengthened the city’s affordable housing ordinance, Emanuel’s team predicted the creation of 1,200 new housing units by 2020. But as of the end of the first quarter in 2018, a Tribune analysis showed that the ordinance revamp had yielded only 194 affordable housing units, or a five-year pace of 431 units.

With a re-election campaign underway, the mayor’s been spitting out housing initiatives with dizzying speed — by our count, six measures within a span of a week that, one way or another, aim to make housing more affordable. Among them:

  • The creation of a housing department that brainstorms long-term remedies to the city’s lack of affordable housing;
  • The establishment of a $30 million fund to funnel low-cost financing to developers buying apartment buildings in gentrifying neighborhoods, with the catch that the developers have to set aside at least 20 percent of the units as affordable housing for at least 15 years;
  • The expansion of the city’s transit-oriented development program to four heavily used CTA bus lines. The city’s TOD program currently encourages high-density housing and retail near train stations. Apartment builders in TOD areas must provide affordable housing. That requisite would apply to TOD projects near bus lines along Western Avenue, Ashland Avenue, Chicago Avenue and 79th Street.

Four quick thoughts:

  1. Chicago does not get as much attention regarding affordable housing as cities like San Francisco, Seattle, and New York City. Yet, the city has major affordable housing needs stretching back decades. Luxury condos may be common in the Loop, River North, and along the city’s lakeshore but numerous other neighborhoods need good and cheap housing. The list of city residents waiting for public housing is very lengthy.
  2. This lack of attention paid to Chicago compared to those other cities also hints at the relative nature of affordable housing. Chicago may be cheap compared to San Francisco but that does not mean that the city is relatively expensive compared to other big cities in the Midwest or the South.
  3. Perhaps just as important as how many affordable housing units are created is where the affordable housing units are located. If most of the units end up in wealthier and whiter neighborhoods, will this have a significant impact on worse-off neighborhoods?
  4. The Tribune mentions the looming reelection Emanuel faces: are these affordable housing ideas simply campaign fodder or is there going to be a sustained effort over time?