What might be behind a debate over affordable housing in a new Naperville development

Naperville’s Housing Advisory Commission recommends 20% of the units should be affordable housing in a proposed new development of roughly 450 residential units. Let the debate commence:

“Here’s our chance,” said Becky Anderson, a city council member and liaison to the housing advisory commission. “We own this land, so let’s make the most of it and … make sure that we include some more affordable housing.”

The city is required to provide a report by the end of June 2020 to the Illinois Housing Development Authority listing the number of units needed to comply with the 10 percent minimum and identifying sites or incentives to help reach the goal. In a position paper, the housing advisory commission said the city failed to submit such a report by the last deadline in 2015.

Mayor Steve Chirico said it’s best to use multiple sites — not only 5th Avenue — to work toward the requirement…

Mayoral candidate Richard “Rocky” Caylor, however, said incorporating 20 percent affordable units into plans for 5th Avenue sites could help take a step toward 10 percent….

Dan Zeman, who lives in the Park Addition subdivision one block north of 5th Avenue, said he originally was skeptical of affordable housing on the sites slated for redevelopment. But once he researched the topic, he decided “maybe I was just being a NIMBY,” and thinking “not in my backyard.”

A few guesses about what might be lurking behind this affordable housing discussion in Naperville:

  1. As far as I know, the Illinois requirements have little teeth and operate more like recommendations. The repercussions for Naperville for not meeting the targets might be limited.
  2. This is a sizable project near the downtown train station and within walking distance of the downtown. Because of the size and location, this is an important project.
  3. What people actually mean by affordable could differ. The current mayor is quoted in this story saying it is about “entry-level workforce housing.” Does that mean young professionals or people who work in retail or service jobs? Naperville is a wealthy large suburb.
  4. This could be a proxy conversation about poorer residents in Naperville. The poverty rate in Naperville is only 4.4%. But, do Naperville residents and leaders want more poor residents? The status and image of the community is important to many.
  5. Deconcentrating affordable housing may seem like a reasonable idea but would the city follow up in other new projects? Are there other sizable projects in the works (such as a development on the southwest side of the suburb) that could also include affordable units?

The bigger and feature-filled “New American Home”

What the National Association of Home Builders displays as the “New American Home” just keeps getting bigger and bigger:

The first New American Home that N.A.H.B. built, in Houston in 1984, was 1,500 square feet and cost $80,000. By 2006, at the peak of the housing bubble, the N.A.H.B. home – a lakeside McMansion in Florida with a tri-level kitchen island and a waterfall off the master suite – was over 10,000 square feet and listed for $5.3 million in what is today one of the nation’s foreclosure capitals, Orlando.

That 1984 project was the smallest; square footage hasn’t dipped below 2,200 since 1985. The 2018 version, also in Florida, is “Tuscan”-inspired and is close to 11,000 square feet, with eight bathrooms and both an elevator and a car elevator in the garage. The 2019 version, to be unveiled soon, is 8,000 square feet and has an “inner sanctum lounge” and a view of the Vegas strip.

NewAmericanHomeSquareFootage

The N.A.H.B. house may be meant to highlight trends, but they’re not necessarily the trends homeowners want (and certainly not what most people need). Instead, they’re what builders, kitchen and bath manufacturers and real estate agents would like to sell them: Think cathedral ceilings, granite countertops, gift-wrapping rooms and, more recently, “smart” appliances like a refrigerator that can text you when you’re low on milk and eggs.

Many builders will tell you that though these houses are large, they are more efficient – even that they have a small carbon footprint. But this is like bragging about the good gas mileage of an S.U.V. While a 10,000-square-foot house built today uses less energy than a 10,000-square-foot house built a decade ago, a home of this size requires a phenomenal amount of energy to run. (And most likely has an S.U.V. or two in the garage.)

I see enough from the NAHB to guess that they have some influence in the housing industry, particularly among national or larger builders. That their show home put together each year keeps getting bigger on average and with more and more features suggests the emphasis is on new and profits. At the same time, it might be hard to show a direct causal link between these annual productions and what homes are actually built. Builders in the United States have constructed many large homes in recent decades but the median square footage has dropped slightly in the last few years.

I suspect it would also be interesting to analyze the architectural and design choices for the New American Homes. Americans may like big homes but not necessarily modern ones. How many of these homes are modernist, Craftsman, or Mediterranean (and which styles are studiously avoided)? Are they all open concept in the main living areas? Is storage a priority and/or large garages? This sort of project could then be expanded to model homes in different areas or among different builders to think about how what builders present influence buying patterns.

Census 2020 looking to go online

Reaching younger Americans is part of the reason plans are underway to move parts of the decennial 2020 census online:

Millennials (born from 1981 to 1996) and Generation Z (born after 1996) account for about 35 percent of the approximate 325 million people in the U.S., according to estimates, and census officials say their traditional means of outreach — mail-in questionnaires, landline phone calls and door-to-door surveys — are failing to connect with this significant segment of the population.

The Census Bureau plans to conduct its first-ever online headcount, which it predicts will generate 60 percent of the total responses for 2020…

However, social scientists suggest that millennials and Generation Z could have a hard time appreciating the importance of the census, having grown up amid a distorted media landscape of instant online gratification, “fake news” and a culture of likes on social networks…

Last month, census communications chief Burton Reist was quoted as saying endorsements from celebrities such as LeBron James are being considered. He described a hypothetical situation in which the NBA superstar urges young people during halftime to pull out their cellphones and “answer the census.”

Moving data collection online would seem to offer a lot in terms of lower costs and easier data tabulation. But, as the article suggests, it brings along its own issues such as cutting through the online clutter and working with celebrities to pitch the online data collection.

On one hand, this might lead to the conclusion that it is still difficult to use web surveys to collect information on a broad scale. Unless a research company has a panel of possible participants in a recruited and relatively representative panel, reaching the broader public on a voluntary basis is hard.

On the other hand, perhaps this should be taken as a good sign: the Census Bureau clearly indicates their data collection has to match what people actually use. Going door to door may not be feasible going forward. If people are online or using devices for hours a day, online surveys might be more attractive.

Almost regardless of how this turns out in the 2020 count, it will be an interesting experiment to watch. What will the online response rate be? How will the Census Bureau have to go about advertising online data entry?

I lived in a suburban house with radioactive thorium in the front yard

The first home my parents purchased was on the southwest side of West Chicago, a small suburb in the western part of DuPage County. While the community was the known for the railroad, industry, and a sizable population of Mexican residents, what we did not know was in the ground in our front yard also came to define the suburb.

The 1954 ranch house on a quiet street with no sidewalks was relatively unassuming: the home was just over 1,200 square feet, had a one car garage, three bedrooms, and a decent-sized yard. The self-contained subdivision was near a grocery store and some strip malls and was a ten minute car ride from the suburb’s downtown.

WestChicagoHouse.png

When my parents went to sell the home in 1988, a discovery was made: the front yard had radioactive material from a local plant. A Chicago company produced lanterns and opened a facility in West Chicago in 1932. The radioactive waste material from the plant, thorium, was then offered to the community as fill. The city and residents took the fill and used it all over the suburb. The plant was later acquired by Kerr-McGee and when the radioactive thorium was discovered throughout the community (after years of struggle), a good portion of the community became the Kerr-McGee Superfund site and the last of the contaminated soil was removed in 2015.

This front yard revelation had implications for selling the home: no one would want it. Supposedly, the radioactivity in the front yard was enough to equal that of an x-ray if someone sat between the two trees in the front for 24 hours. Eventually, Kerr-McGee purchased the home and years later, many yards on that street were torn up to remove the radioactive material.

It is hard to know if the radioactivity had any effects on those of us who lived in the house. Nothing obvious has emerged yet. We may have emerged unscathed. It was not Love Canal. Perhaps this could be considered an odd footnote in a suburban upbringing. Yet, at the same time, few suburbanites would expect to find they had purchased radioactive land. Furthermore, few Americans have a personal connection to a decades-long and costly fight to clean up and remove (this cost an estimated $1.2 billion alone) radioactive thorium.

The dystopian sociological origins of the concept of meritocracy

What exactly meritocracy means requires going back to the origins of the term in the 1950s:

As the tech writer Antonio García Martínez pointed out, “It’s worth recalling that the word ‘meritocracy’ was coined as a satirical slur in a dystopic novel by a sociologist.” Martínez is referring to The Rise of the Meritocracy, 1870–2033, published in 1958 by the British sociologist and politician Michael Young. Young’s work was indeed intended as a social satire, positing a future in which trends in the British educational system were carried out to their absurd conclusions.

Written in the style of a doctoral dissertation by a scholar in the year 2034, The Rise of the Meritocracy imagines a world in which social class has been replaced by a hierarchy that places at the top those who could advance educationally through rigid testing standards. But those standards simply end up reinscribing the old class system, leading to a popular revolt.

Writing in The Guardian in 2001, a year before his death, Young looked back ruefully on how the irony of his coinage had been lost on the likes of Tony Blair, who was then making “meritocracy” the keystone of the Labour Party’s educational policy. “I have been sadly disappointed by my 1958 book, The Rise of the Meritocracy,” he wrote. “I coined a word which has gone into general circulation, especially in the United States, and most recently found a prominent place in the speeches of Mr Blair.” His book, he added, was “a satire meant to be a warning (which needless to say has not been heeded).”…

But our friend Throgmorton didn’t simply see meritocracy as some sort of Platonic ideal—he jingoistically claimed that the United States was already a meritocracy, and the world’s only example of it. Not only did he overlook the peculiarly British irony in which Young couched the term, he also missed out on an irony much closer to home: In 1959, five years after the Supreme Court outlawed segregation in public schools, African Americans were still being systematically denied equal access to education across the South.

It sounds like people wanted the idea of meritocracy to be true or they could justify their existing ideologies with such a term. And then the concept simply takes on a life of its own separate from its origins. It is hard to imagine a ruling class – whether there by wealth or educational achievement or battle – that does not have an ideology that justifies their presence there and rise to that position. At what point will meritocracy fail to provide enough justification? And, if meritocracy is at some point no longer defensible, what ideology comes next to explain those in power?

This origin story also may serve as a reminder that satire is difficult to present to the public. It is a relatively lesser-known genre and can easily be misunderstood. Plenty of recent examples suggest satire is often taken as truth (think incidents with The Onion or the Babylon Bee) until a respected source goes out of their way to point out the original point.

 

Promote smaller, cheaper housing by calling it “missing middle housing”

Even if the median size of new American homes is smaller in recent years, this does not mean it is easy to construct smaller new homes in communities:

To propel the movement, he recommends using the term “missing middle housing,” rather than terms such as “upzoning,” “density” and “multifamily,” which he says have a negative connotation.

“I can’t imagine a single neighborhood in the country where people will get excited about the term ‘density,’ ” Parolek said. “Even things like ‘multifamily’ can be a scary term that’s past its life span.”

His larger recommendation is for cities to change their zoning ordinances. Parolek advocates for form-based zoning, which allows more flexibility for what can be built on a property…

“Zoning in and of itself is a system that encourages single-family home construction in cities,” Parolek said. “Most cities don’t have effective zoning for missing middle housing, so the easy thing to do is to build a single-family house. There’s no neighborhood pushback and less risk. There’s a reason it’s being done, but it’s not responding to what the market wants.”

Very few neighbors or communities would be excited to live next to or approve cheaper housing. The assumption is that more expensive housing is good: it will bring in more tax dollars, typically has fewer residents (so lower local costs), and connotes a higher status. In contrast, it is thought cheaper housing brings down surrounding property values and the kind of people who live in cheaper housing are not as desirable as higher income residents.

Would communities react better to “missing middle housing”? Perhaps. Many places talk about the need to have housing where hard working professionals with a stake in the community, like teachers and firefighters, can reside in the place where they work. Or, it is desirable to provide denser housing for young professionals and retirees to keep them in the community. Yet, as Parolek notes, the goal is still to move people toward a single-family home (with some flexibility for townhouses and condos) in the long run. Changing zoning is not easy because many people purchase a home and then work hard for years to protect the value of that home. Cheaper housing may be more acceptable if located away from existing larger and more expensive housing, if it is allowed in the community at all.

Missing from even this suggestion about “missing middle housing” is an acknowledgement of the necessity of housing for lower-class and poorer residents. True affordable housing needs to go beyond the middle-class and provide housing for those working in the retail and service industries. But, I don’t think most communities and America as a whole wants to talk about this kind of housing.

New Bel Air homes of over 17,500 square feet cannot be called McMansions

In recent years, a number of extra large houses have been constructed in Bel Air. But, these are not just regular McMansions:

Rosen rallied his neighbors in a mini-revolt against City Hall. The result was 2017’s Bel Air mansion ordinance, a more rigid version of the ordinance imposed on the rest of Los Angeles. While many of the hauling trucks are now gone, the wealthy enclave is still grappling with the legacy of its McMansion years. Between 2014 and early 2017, the city issued 28 permits for mansions in Bel Air of 17,500 square feet or larger, most of which are still under construction, according to an analysis by The Real Deal. The projects are exacerbating a spec-home building spree that rattled longtime Bel Air residents and is dramatically altering the landscape of the area, not to mention its real-estate market.

As of Wednesday there were 12 homes in Bel Air of 15,000 square feet or larger currently sitting empty and unsold in, according to MLS data cited by Steve Lewis, President of CORE Real Estate Group in Beverly Hills.

These are not regular McMansions in suburban neighborhoods: these are megahomes going for megaprices and constructed by and for the ultra-wealthy.

Meanwhile, on Chalon Road, Thomas Barrack Jr., the Colony Capital CEO and pal of President Donald Trump, is nearly done building out an eight-acre compound with a 77,000-square-foot mansion being designed by Peter Marino. Barrack is building it on behalf of the royal family of Qatar. Other competing giant offerings, including the Mountain, a 157-acre plot in Beverly Hills Post Office now listed for $650 million, and a 120-acre site owned by an entity linked to the late Paul Allen asking $150 million, don’t have plans or permits in place for mega-mansions, Blankenship said.

Massive spec mansions on the market right now include Bruce Makowsky’s 38,000-square-foot estate at 924 Bel Air Road, asking a much-reduced $150 million, and the Mohamed Hadid-developed mansion at 901 Strada Vecchia, which is the subject of an FBI probe and a lawsuit from neighbors who want to see it torn down.

Granted, it sounds like some of the activity in Bel Air may be consistent with several features of McMansions: big homes, teardowns, and status symbols for the wealthy. For those who live in Bel Air, it could be disconcerting to see the scale of new construction. But, this article focuses primarily on the really big homes, the ones that are not just someone upgrading from a 2,000 square foot ranch to a 5,000 square foot home with a mishmash of architectural features. The last example in the piece illustrates this difference between a McMansion and mansion: a billionaire/actress couple want to tear down a home under 8,000 and more than double the square footage in a new home. Again, that is a scale far beyond the average upper middle-class American (and that does not even include the price it takes to buy into this particular neighborhood). Perhaps the real goal of using the term McMansion here is to denigrate the new homes and not grant them the status of mansion.

I would argue McMansions are roughly 3,000 square feet to 10,000 square feet. The bottom end may seem rather small but this size home could be quite large if constructed in a home of small homes. The upper end is a rough cutoff when a home goes from regular big home to extra large/wealthy big home. Size is a critical factor in defining a McMansion and these Bel Air homes are way beyond McMansion limits.