Facebook as a replacement for the community formerly found in church and Little League

In a recent speech in Chicago, Zuckerberg explained his vision for Facebook:

Mark Zuckerberg wants Facebook groups to play an important role that community groups like churches and Little League teams used to perform: Bringing communities together…

“It’s so striking that for decades, membership in all kinds of groups has declined as much as one-quarter,” he said during a rally for Facebook users who’ve built large community-support groups on the site. “That’s a lot of of people who now need to find a sense of purpose and support somewhere else.”

He added, “People who go to church are more likely to volunteer and give to charity — not just because they’re religious, but because they’re part of a community.”…

“A church doesn’t just come together. It has a pastor who cares for the well-being of their congregation, makes sure they have food and shelter. A little league team has a coach who motivates the kids and helps them hit better. Leaders set the culture, inspire us, give us a safety net, and look out for us.”

One of the best things about the Internet and social media is that it allows people with specific interests to find each other in ways that can be difficult offline. Yet, it is less clear that these online groups can be full substitutes for offline social groups. A few specific questions about this based on what Zuckerberg said:

  1. It can be interesting to ask about the purpose of religious groups: how much are they about religious activities versus social activities? The answer might depend on whether one is a person of faith or not or an insider or outsider to such groups.
  2. Religious groups are unique in that they are often focused on a transcendent being. Other social groups often have an external focus but not quite the same kind. Is a Facebook group focusing on the same kind of thing as a religious group?
  3. Zuckerberg is hinting at the need humans have for social and spiritual connection. Can such spiritual connection be filled in an online setting in the ways that it occurs offline?
  4. Zuckerberg is right about the decline in civic membership but can this trend be easily reversed? For example, Robert Putnam in Bowling Alone points to a whole host of factors (from suburbanization to television watching) that led to this. If people are willing to join online communities in large numbers, is this because these communities offer different requirements than civic groups?

A reminder: this is not a new development. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has been clear from early on about his goals to use the platform to bring people together. See an earlier post about this here.

Higher home values may be good for many yet reduce the number of new homeowners

Rising home values are often seen as a good thing as homeowners dream of seeing a strong return on their housing investment. Yet, these higher values may just discourage renters from buying a home:

Renters are avoiding buying a home mainly because house prices are soaring. Just 52 percent of renters surveyed in a National Association of Realtors quarterly report said they feel now is a good time to buy — that is down from 62 percent of those surveyed one year ago…

More owners, 71 percent, think selling is a good idea today, up dramatically from 61 percent a year ago. There is so little supply on the market that homes are selling at the fastest pace on record. Great, if you’re a seller, but it begs the question: Why are so few homeowners listing their homes?

“They’re either content where they are, holding off until they build more equity, or hesitant seeing as it will be difficult to find an affordable home to buy,” said Yun. “As a result, inventory conditions have worsened and are restricting sales from breaking out, while contributing to price appreciation that remains far above income growth.”

Affordability is the culprit for both current renters and homeowners. Less than half of all respondents said homes are affordable for buyers. Of course, there are regional differences, with more saying homes are affordable in the Midwest and less saying so in the West.

The housing market often swings back and forth between buyers and sellers. Yet, we have several longer-term problems at play here:

(1) New homeowners having difficulty entering the market (coming off a burst housing bubble with fewer financial resources, millennials with other financial commitments, etc.).

(2) Perhaps shifts in how many younger Americans want to buy the same kinds of homes that are available (though some of this may be overblown).

(3) Housing prices for starter homes or entry-level properties that are too high in several high-demand metropolitan areas (Bay Area, New York City, southern California).

(4) Available credit and homes for those with more financial resources but fewer options for those with less.

In other words, the normal swing of the pendulum between buyers and sellers might not be enough to put the housing market back to rights.

Citing religious reasons to give up a McMansion for a doublewide mobile home

Even with the criticism of McMansions, I don’t think many would follow the path of this chaplain/columnist to downsize from a McMansion to a mobile home:

The first thing I grappled with was, “Are you living within your means?”

While it sounds like a question from your financial adviser, it really gets at the spiritual issue of greed. If greed prevents you from reducing your spending, you’ll have a problem, since retirement will often cut one’s income nearly in half…

We sold our suburban home and moved into a doublewide mobile home at half the cost of our old two-story McMansion.

As the months passed, the numbers proved workable. Any greedy impulses that remained began to subside. Honestly, it wasn’t that hard to do. We were ready. Our kids were out of the nest and finished with their schooling.

However, we couldn’t have addressed the first question if we had not answered the bigger spiritual question: How much is enough?

While there are plenty of proponents of downsizing, there are two ways that this path is unique:

  1. Downsizing to a mobile home. There are few housing options less liked than McMansions but this would qualify. People think of trailer parks and lower-class residents. They think of dirty homes and lower property values. Often, the discussions of downsizing involve moving to something tasteful and/or customized. The new home may be smaller – wasting less space than the McMansion – but it is not necessarily cheap nor sacrificing much in terms of location and neighbors. For another example, those portrayed on TV as interested in tiny houses are often middle class residents who want a lot of amenities and a calmer life but don’t really want the cheapest housing possible.
  2. The choice is guided by religious values with a wish to live simply in order to avoid greed. Rather than a secular impulse to consume less (for a variety of reasons including environmental concerns, saving money for other desires such as exciting experiences, and avoiding the appearance of conspicuous consumption), this McMansion move gets at an important religious question: how much is enough? I’ve seen very few religious approaches to McMansions. An unwritten stereotype of who owns these places probably puts a lot of southern conservative Protestants into McMansions. But, there are few American religious leaders telling people not to live in places like McMansions, even if they may generally caution people to live too lavishly. (Ironically, McMansions might seem like a good deal then to many religious people because you get a lot of square footage for your money.)

In sum, propose to McMansion critics that we should swap McMansions for doublewides for religious reasons and the idea may not be greeted favorably.

Assessing the Water Street development in Naperville

Several Naperville political and business leaders talked yesterday of the impact of the now open Water Street development:

There were lengthy delays, caused by the recession and by repeated rounds of changes to the plans. First there were condos, then a Holiday Inn, and finally developers proposed what actually got built: a 158-room Hotel Indigo that incorporates elements of Naperville’s history into its design.

Naperville Mayor Steve Chirico thanked the residents who supported public officials as they took “tough votes” in support of the hotel, shops and riverfront improvements…

Investors Peter Foyo and Dominic Imburgia, for whom the new plaza and fountain are named, told the crowd they were honored to put their money toward a project that created jobs in their hometown and beautified a public place for a bustling future…

Pradel said by the looks of it, he’d never guess the new Water Street District was in Naperville. Not the Naperville where he grew up, seeing the strip of land south of the waterway remain relatively underused for decades upon decades.

It is quite a sizable project along the Riverwalk in downtown Naperville; it is hard to miss. And I wouldn’t expect many local leaders to say bad things about a just completed project. However, here are some questions I would ask about the development moving forward:

  1. Is it a portent of things to come in downtown Naperville and elsewhere in the community? Naperville has very little open land remaining so for population and business growth, redevelopment is key. But, redevelopments can take a myriad of forms, including new larger structures. Is Naperville ready for more structures of this size?
  2. Who benefits the most from this new development? It would be worth keeping track of the jobs and taxes generated by this new development. In the long run, are the developers or the city residents benefiting? (Of course, both could benefit but the construction of a larger structure came at the expense of other options. And growth machines – collections of local politicians and business leaders – tend to do things that are in their financial self-interests.)
  3. How many residents will use the new structure and visit the business establishments? The construction of a downtown hotel is an interesting move, suggesting that there may be an interest for visitors to stay downtown rather than at the numerous other hotels in the community (particularly along the business corridor along Diehl Road and I-88). In other words, is this for the use of residents or others?

See earlier posts about Water Street in Naperville here and here.

The big Baby Boomer house does not necessarily equal a Mcmansion

A recent analysis on Realtor.com uses the term McMansion as shorthand for a large house owned by a Baby Boomer. Here is the crux of the argument regarding the habits of millennials:

“They’ll buy a smaller house with fancier amenities, close to town, rather than chase square footage,” Dorsey says.

This argument has been made for several years now: millennials are willing to live in smaller homes but desire certain amenities. But, is every big house a McMansion? No, no, no – a minority of American homes are over 3,000 square feet but not all of them are McMansions. Even if they meet the size requirement, they may not be teardowns, suffer architecturally, or exist in lonely suburban communities or all house crass consumers or the nouveau riche. And do all Baby Boomers live in McMansions? Of course not. There may be broad patterns at play here – Baby Boomers have plenty of houses to sell, millennials may not want all of those particular homes – but using loaded terms like McMansions or suggesting incompatibility across entire generations may be going too far.

Side note: this Baby Boomers vs. millennials in the housing market is gaining steam across media sources. How will the Boomers sell all of their houses? (See earlier posts here and here.) What do millennials want in houses and communities? (See earlier posts here and here.)

Will a major need for affordable housing lead to population gains in less desirable places?

As I read another story the other day about a need for affordable or reasonably priced housing – this time for aging baby boomers – it led me to a hypothetical question: would people move to less desirable locations if housing there was significantly cheaper? Many Americans have retired to cheaper locations that also have other amenities like nice weather (think Florida and Arizona). But, would they move to cheaper suburbs within a metropolitan region that perhaps has a lower quality of life or move to a new state that is cheaper but less glamorous (think a move from the Chicago region to Kansas or Youngstown, Ohio)? In other words, would they trade fewer amenities for cheaper housing? Is cheap housing so big of an issue that many people will move to acquire it? Conservatives argue that people should vote with their feet. And the continued population gains of the Sunbelt suggest that they do, to some degree. But, people have particular ideas about what they expect when they move. For retiring, they often want to go somewhere warm. For affordable housing, they want to go to nice communities.

These desires strike me as normal in our society: people want a nice yet affordable place to live. However, is this possible? Does the movement of people to particular locations drive up prices and long-term costs (providing a higher quality of life has to be paid for by someone)? In the end, can you really have it all: an affordable place to live but with great care or nice amenities or a high quality of life? Maybe not.

Imagine affordable housing is such an issue in the Bay Area that a large group of retirees decides to move to a small town in North Dakota. With the money made on the sale of their homes in the Bay Area (or the large rents they save), they have money left over to both save for the future and put into the local community. Granted, North Dakota doesn’t have the same kind of life as the Bay Area – no major city, different weather and topography, and social connections left behind – but the housing is certainly cheaper and the anxiety about day to day existence might be reduced. This might sound far-fetched outside of some odd religious group…but if housing is such a need, why couldn’t it happen?

Wrong direction on Lake Shore Drive in “When Harry Met Sally”

I noticed this again recently: the movie When Harry Met Sally gets an important feature of Chicago wrong early on. As described by IMDB:

When Harry and Sally drive from the University of Chicago to New York, they should drive on the Lake Shore Drive heading to the south (to the direction of Gary), not to the north (to the direction of downtown). So they should not be on the Lake Shore drive on the north of downtown.

It is not clear how this mistake was made but it could be an easy one to make for multiple reasons:

  1. The University of Chicago is an island onto itself on the south side of Chicago. It takes several miles and multiple social worlds to get to the better known, wealthier, whiter part of Chicago (the Loop and North Side). Perhaps this is commentary about where University of Chicago students end up?
  2. Would the view along the southern portion of Lake Shore Drive be recognizable to many people? The views of Chicago are very different at these different ends. The southern approach to the city provides a more industrial, working-class view while the north side emphasizes high-rises and waterfront amenities.
  3. Perhaps this could further fuel Chicago’s sense of inferiority compared to New York City: “they don’t even know the north and south sides of our great city!”