Argument: the US should move forward by saying “Death to the McMansion”

Patrick Doherty argues that housing is one area in which the United States can chart a needed course forward through “profound problems in its political and economic system.” The solution? “Resilient communities with smaller homes.”

Boomers and millennials, the two largest demographic groups in the country, are converging in a time-of-life moment where what they want is smaller homes on smaller lots in walkable, service-rich, transit-oriented communities. Boomers, who have just started turning 65, are empty-nesting and downsizing. But they are going to have to work much later into what they thought would be their retirement, and they fear the fate of their parents, who had their car keys taken away and ended up in the nursing home. Millennials are in the process of getting married and having kids, and according to market surveys, 77 percent simply don’t ever want to go back to the ‘burbs. At the end of the day, traditional subdivisions are isolating and expensive, while millennials are increasingly connected, are more into tech than cars, and are seeing their economic future more like their grandparents’—full of hard work and living on a budget.

Add it all up, and the National Association of Realtors estimates that—today—56 percent of Americans want the attributes of this new American dream in their next housing purchase. Yet only 2 percent of new units being built today fit these attributes. That’s a massive pool of pent-up demand, locked away by federal policy still supporting suburban growth at the expense of all other types of communities. Change the policy—without having to spend a dime—and we’re off to the races with new jobs in construction and infrastructure, plus homes and communities that reflect the way we want to live today. And they happen to be good for the planet, reducing energy, water, and waste by at least one-third.

But there is more. Three billion people around the world coming into the middle class in the next 20 years. When they do (and 200,000 people are literally leaving their villages every day), their incomes go up 300 percent—and so does their resource use. Since we’re already consuming 1.5 planets’ worth of resources, the McKinsey Global Institute is now saying we need a massive resource productivity revolution. That’s especially true in the United States, where we use 50 percent more material per unit of GDP than the top-performing EU countries. That waste could be profit.

America should be the leader of that resource revolution.

The larger argument seems to be this: the United States is locked into political and economic policies that no longer match our world. We need to adjust to two major changes in housing: (1) fewer people want to live in the type of suburbs that were built in force starting in the 1920s and then again after World War II and (2) building sprawling suburbs consumes a lot of resources that could better be used elsewhere.

Several things strike me:

1. Political and economic policies may be made as much or even more so for cultural reasons than for what is most effective or pragmatic.

2. That being said, changing these policies would be difficult to do overnight. There is still an ideology of the American Dream that includes owning a home. However, this may indeed be shifting toward denser homeownership but I think it would take some time (if just for younger generations to get older).

3. I would be interested in seeing a comprehensive national strategy by which this could be pursued. Perhaps this could start with removing the mortgage interest tax deduction. I’ve been thinking in recent days that this is also closely tied to gas prices and how the cost of driving affects where people want to live. Builders might need some incentives to provide different kinds of housing. Communities across metropolitan regions might need to band together to address common issues and stop fighting over residents and corporations. All of this is not easy but I imagine there are better ways to do this than simply talking about a bunch of things at once.

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