In the past decade, a number of communities across the United States have debated and enacted ordinances intended to regulate teardowns, often termed McMansions. Austin, Texas has gone through this process and Kathie Tovo, a candidate for the city council, discusses her take on the “McMansion ordinance”:
AC: One more fundamental criticism that’s been leveled at your campaign is that your goal of “complete communities” – the live-work-play ideal with affordable family housing – may be at odds with some policies supported by some of the neighborhood associations you’ve been affiliated with. The Austin Neighborhoods Council, for instance, seemed supportive of the McMansion ordinance, which some people argue has facilitated sprawl by preventing the sort of home expansions that would keep growing families in the city.
KT: I guess I just don’t buy that argument, especially about McMansion. Because, for one thing, a lot of people were really concerned about the McMansion ordinance; it was going to kill the building industry in Austin. It really hasn’t, and a lot of the McMansions weren’t adding density to our neighborhoods because they were typically being occupied by a couple of people. I think that you can add on a considerable amount to your house and not be a McMansion. Absolutely, we want to be sure our land development code allows for people living in small bungalows that might have accommodated families 40 years ago when we want them to be able to add on in ways that are appropriate. I think there’s a lot of room for doing that without running up against the McMansion standards. And as you look at older neighborhoods, people are adding on. And in looking at our Families and Children [Task Force] research – families with kids will live in smaller spaces, including multifamily residences, if the spaces are well-designed. I’m married to an architect, and he’s done some additions to older houses for families that wanted to stay in the central city but the house was really too small for their modern standards.
[Editor’s note: In response to this question, Tovo later added the following to her answer via email:
KT: This criticism has little grounding and shows a lack of understanding of the research in this area or the work that has been done by groups like the city’s own Families and Children Task Force. Neighborhood associations tended to be big supporters of many of the amenities that enhance the quality of life for families across the life span: parks, open spaces, sidewalks, and safe pedestrian and bike routes.
The reasons families with children have been leaving the central city are complex…Suggesting that unregulated development will somehow lead developers to create more affordable housing or more family friendly housing is incorrect.
(And for the record – the trend of families leaving the central city pre-exists the McMansion Ordinance.)]
This candidate makes several interesting points:
1. There is an argument out there that cities lose out when they create such ordinances as it drives out middle-class and upper-class residents. If these possible residents can’t tear down an older home and build the kind of suburban home that they desire, they are going to take the tax dollars and go elsewhere. In the long run, the city loses out on the sort of stable residents and tax base that it needs. I’ve seen this argument made in Dallas as well. Tovo suggests this isn’t really the case; people were leaving Austin even before the ordinance, suggesting other factors are also at work.
2. Tovo makes an architectural critique of McMansions, suggesting that people “will live in smaller spaces, including multifamily residences, if the spaces are well-designed.” I wonder if the ordinances/regulations in Austin go far enough to make sure housing units are well-designed.
3. Tovo wants to make clear that she is not opposed to people adding on to their homes – but this has to be done “in ways that are appropriate.” She is trying to chart a middle path between the two poles in the teardown debate: the rights of the community versus the rights of individual property owners.
4. Tovo suggests that unfettered, free-market housing policies will not lead to “more affordable housing or more family friendly housing.” Other communities agree with this as they offer incentives and regulations to insure that some of these structures are created alongside more typical single-family homes.
It sounds like Tovo is trying to tread carefully in these comments (perhaps also highlighted by her follow-up email after the interview). Overall, it sounds like she is promoting New Urbanist type neighborhoods that are walkable, diverse, affordable, and well-designed.
You can read the “McMansion ordinance” here on Austin’s official website.