Irony of getting away from society: resources are needed

An interesting article about intentional communities includes this insight into why they might not be available to everyone:

And perhaps these communities are not as immune from worldly flaws as they might like. For example: Many of them struggle to be accessible to people other than middle-class white folks. Sky Blue, a Twin Oaks resident who also serves as the executive director of the Fellowship for Intentional Community, said there are “a lot of racial [problems] and racism that are embedded in intentional communities.” Even despite good intentions, “Liberal white people who have a desire for diversity don’t necessarily understand what it means to be inclusive,” he said. “They’re going to create culture in [their] intentional community that is going to be comfortable for them, which isn’t necessarily comfortable for people of color, or people with disabilities, or people who are gay or trans.” Ethan Tupelo, a doctoral candidate at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, who lived at Twin Oaks before he began studying intentional communities academically, said residents talked about this issue a lot when he was there. “It’s a bunch of white people sitting around wondering where all the people of color are,” he said. “It’s nice that you’re thinking about that, but it’s also frustrating.”

Tupelo sees a structural explanation for the inaccessibility of intentional communities: It takes a lot of cash to get off the grid. “Even when starting a new community, you need the capital to do it in the first place if you want it to be a legally recognized thing, as opposed to squats,” he said. As Nicolas and Rachel Sarah’s experience at the Downstream Project shows, becoming untangled from capitalism also means becoming much more vulnerable. It’s tough to imagine a comprehensive way of replacing health insurance, not to mention programs like welfare, in a world without government.

To truly get away from big government, big society, and capitalism, it really helps to be pretty well off. This is one of the disadvantages of being powerless: you are at the mercy of others rather than having options.

This reminds me of some of the attention I see given to tiny houses: it seems like many of those interested are not working-class people struggling to get by who need affordable housing but rather educated white people who want to minimize some distractions in life and focus on what they really want to do (pay attention to family, travel, etc.). Or, those interested in minimalism: they appear to be middle and upper-class people who are seeking a new way of living because of unhappiness with the “typical” American/Western consumeristic lifestyle.

How about a foundation starts giving away money and resources to those who don’t have their own means to form intentional communities?

Imagine corporate highways with autonomous vehicles

Pair self-driving vehicles with highways that can coordinate their movement and corporations may be interested. More on those highways:

Amazon was awarded a patent for a network that manages a very specific aspect of the self-driving experience: How autonomous cars navigate reversible lanes…

In the patent, Amazon outlines a network that can communicate with self-driving vehicles so they can adjust to the change in traffic flow. That’s particularly important for self-driving vehicles traveling across state lines onto new roads with unfamiliar traffic laws…

The patent also indicates that the roadway management system will help “assign” lanes to autonomous vehicles depending on where the vehicle is going and what would best alleviate traffic…

The main difference is that Amazon’s proposed network would be owned and operated by Amazon, not each individual automaker. It also appears to be designed so any carmaker’s vehicles can take advantage of the technology.

We’ve seen highways funded or operated with private money. But, imagine a highway built and run by Amazon for the primary purposes of moving Amazon traffic. With the traffic management capabilities and the autonomous vehicles, you could reduce the number of required lanes, increase speeds, and cut labor costs. Roads still aren’t cheap to construct but this may be feasible monetarily in particular corridors.

Even better: an Amazon Hyperloop.

“McMansions are the visual front line of right-wing American culture”

This is a view from afar but I wondered how long it would take to connect McMansions and resurgent conservatives in America.

This is the sort of problem one can run into when using the McMansion as a symbol: it is painting with very broad strokes. Some might see McMansions as a sign of the right-wing, presumably people who don’t have great taste and like to overconsume in the suburbs. But, is this true of most McMansion owners? Are there no liberals who own such homes? All those teardown buyers (plus the people who sold them the property) are right-wingers? There might be a grain of truth to it but I doubt the ending is constructive to building any relationship or convincing those same people not to purchase a McMansion.

Trying to split Naperville’s downtown streetscape improvement costs

Downtowns need regular upkeep and maintenance but paying for streetscape improvements can be a tricky matter:

In an estimated $15 million project that’s expected to take six years once it begins, the city plans to upgrade sidewalks, install new benches and street furniture and enhance street corners throughout its commercial core…

City staff members are proposing the work be paid for over 15 years, with the city contributing half and downtown property owners the other half.

They say it’s a fair cost distribution because a strong downtown improves the city as a whole…

Problem is, those same downtown property owners who could be asked to foot the bill for sidewalks and benches also are still paying off the Van Buren Avenue parking garage — and will be until 2021, 20 years after it was constructed. They’re also paying for ongoing downtown maintenance and marketing through a separate special tax that’s renewed every five years.

As is suggested in the article by local leaders, perhaps this is simply the price of doing business in a popular suburban downtown: you chip in to help make the downtown better. This sort of public-private partnership can work well when there is a vibrant business scene. But, I could also imagine that these added costs make it more difficult for certain kinds of businesses to participate.

It would also be interesting to know how these streetscape improvements compare with efforts of others – whether municipalities or shopping centers – to improve their appearance and amenities. One way to view retail competition is as an arms race: who can create and foster the most vibrant scene? Who has the mix of stores, restaurants, recreational opportunities, parking, weather, and events that would lead consumers to go there rather than somewhere else? Not making such proactive improvements, even though they may be costly, could lead to falling behind.

Naperville adds another corporate headquarters

It isn’t the full headquarters for the company – just the North American headquarters – but Naperville is gaining another impressive office as Chervon North America announced plans to move in:

A Chinese maker of power tools plans to bring more than 200 jobs to its new North American headquarters in Naperville over the next three years.

Chervon North America, the U.S. arm of Nanjing, China-based Chervon Holdings, confirmed plans to move workers from Michigan and several suburban Chicago locations when it opens a new headquarters in Naperville sometime in the spring…

Chervon also considered locations in California, Texas, Georgia, North Carolina and Tennessee, Turoff said. The company is not receiving any incentives from the Illinois or Naperville governments, Turoff said.

“In the end our decision came down to three key factors: proximity to talent, proximity to current and acquired employees (and) Naperville’s pro-business attitude,” Turoff said in the email.

No tax breaks needed. This has been the story of Naperville for several decades now: the community is attractive to a number of businesses. This started with the move of Bell Laboratories just north of the city in the 1960s along the East-West Tollway. Since then, white-collar firms have moved into the suburb, attracted by the quality workers and bucolic setting. These moves have boosted the reputation of Naperville even as it has helped attract even more residents. It is the sort of cycle that many suburbs would like to emulate but would have a hard time pulling off.

Going forward, it will be interesting to see whether this can continue for Naperville. There is increased competition for businesses. Naperville has a very limited amount of open land for new commercial or residential development (unless they make a major decision to build up). This space for Chervon opened up because another major company decided not to use the space.

CHA takes care of its own finances, waiting list grows

The Chicago Housing Authority doesn’t exactly have a distinguished history in serving those that need housing and that trend appears to be continuing:

While tens of thousands of families languished on a waiting list for assistance, the Chicago Housing Authority paid off practically all of its debt and overfunded its pension plan, according to a report released Friday by the bipartisan Center for Tax and Budget Accountability.

The agency also socked away hundreds of millions of dollars in cash reserves even as its ambitious plan to replace thousands of demolished public housing units lagged years behind schedule…

By the end of 2016, the waiting list for housing assistance stood at more than 119,000 households…

Originally, the [Plan for Transformation] was supposed to be completed in 2009, but by then the CHA had delivered just 71 percent of the promised units. The goal was eventually pushed back to 2015. By the end of that year, however, more than 2,000 units still hadn’t been built, the report found. The plan is now expected to be completed by the end of this year.

As the article notes, this is an interesting contrast to many other governments and taxing bodies in Illinois that are struggling to meet their budgets and fund their pensions. But, the trade off here repeats a pattern that the CHA has followed for decades: it doesn’t actually provide enough housing for the needs of city residents.

Once the public housing high rises were torn down (such as the Cabrini-Green towers coming down several years ago), the topic of public housing has not received much attention from the media or the public. However, why don’t we hear more about the slowed Plan for Transformation? What about the growing waiting list (it is not a new problem)? Ultimately, have the efforts since the early 2000s actually improved the housing situation in Chicago or simply moved the problems around (and out of the public view)?

I know there is a lot of concern about the lack of trust the public has in government institutions. From my perspective, a lack of trust in the CHA is entirely warranted (it may never have been warranted given its checkered history) and it would take a lot to reverse this.

Defining a McMansion, Trait #4: A symbol

When I tell people that I have published about McMansions, the same question almost always arises: “What exactly is a McMansion?” My paper defining the McMansion answers this but in a series of posts here, I want to update the definition based on what I have seen in the last five years.

The fourth trait I see in the term McMansion is using the object as a symbol for a larger concept or concern. With this trait, the particular characteristics of the house – size (absolute or relative) and the architecture – matters less than what the McMansion is related to. I don’t think what the McMansion is linked to has changed all that much since I published my paper but I will highlight two areas in which I have seen the McMansion connected to in recent years.

The housing bubble that started in the United States in 2006 has had long-lasting consequences. The use of “McMansion” grew in the early 2000s as housing did well but the term was also used a lot as the housing market plunged. The McMansion became a symbol for the problems with the hot housing market: people bought bigger houses than they needed and it all fell apart. Certain locations were even more prone to McMansions with plenty of open space (exurbs) and questionable/adventurous architecture (Las Vegas). This even left half-completed McMansions and vacant neighborhoods, scary situations lending themselves to use in thrillers and horror films.

But, here is my question: just how much were McMansions responsible for the burst housing bubble? What about the construction of luxury housing in many major cities in the United States? What about the mortgage industry extending loans for all sorts of housing? McMansions are an easy target with this narrative: too many Americans bought ugly large homes that they couldn’t afford. The solution is to stop the construction and purchases of McMansions, for builders and buyers to make more rational decisions.

I’m not sure this fits the data. Housing construction is still down but as noted in the first McMansion traits post on size, more large homes are being constructed than ever. McMansions haven’t disappeared nor are they ruining the housing market now. My take is that it is that it is convenient to blame McMansions but there is a complex story of how the housing bubble built and burst that includes McMansions but not as a primary cause.

A second area in which the McMansion is used as a symbol has to do with referring to the sort of people who purchase or support McMansions. This is usually done in a negative manner. Who are these people who keep buying McMansions? They are people like Brock Turner. They are conservatives living away from cities. The culture wars may even include McMansions.

And yet, people keep building and purchasing such homes. The critique of McMansions, like that of suburbs, seems a bit elitist as the aim is not just at the houses but rather at the uneducated rubes that desire them. Some think that shaming McMansion proponents is the answer; make fun of their homes and priorities and they will change their ways. I would guess this is not a very effective strategy and other options might work better. Admittedly, some of these other options would take some time, such as educating Americans about architecture or working to enact local regulations that allows certain developments and home styles or promoting denser forms of urbanism that trade the private goods of McMansions for vibrant social contexts.

One danger of using an object as a symbol for other concepts is that the connection doesn’t always apply even if there is a grain of truth. McMansions were indeed part of the housing boom of recent decades but did they cause the economic crisis? Are all people who buy McMansions – homes that offer a lot of space as well as an eye-catching facade – conservatives with backward ideas and no interest in the common good?

Coming soon: a wrap-up to this four part series of McMansion traits.