Are McMansions about maximizing exchange value?

A commentator takes a look at a new, oversized condominium building and discusses use value versus exchange value:

The house on this lot was rebuilt into two large condominiums.  Each is about 3,000 s.f. and priced at $849,000.  It’s a way to maximize the return for the property owner.  I can’t say the building is very attractive, but it is one block from the forthcoming Monroe and Market Street development adjacent to the Brookland Metro Station, and is two blocks from the Metro.

It’s too bad buildings such as this are oversized for the lot in a manner that degrades the visual qualities of the rest of the block.  Use values, including aesthetics, are subsidiary to the exchange value of place (maximizing financial return) in this instance.

To complete the circle about use value, one could also look at the experience of the homebuyers. Are these large housing units worth the money? Even if these big homes don’t quite fit in the neighborhood, they could be nice places to live. As noted above, they are spacious, located near desirable mass transit stops, and are probably have some nice interior features (surely granite countertops, stainless steel appliances, and hardwood floors!). Even the New Urbanists that wrote Suburban Nation admit that Americans have superior private realms in our homes. (Of course, there are others, like Sarah Susanka and Winifred Gallagher who suggest these spacious, comfortable homes may not be good fits after all.)

Lurking behind this analysis is Marx’s discussion of use value, exchange value, and capitalism. In a capitalistic system, much can be commodified: Twitter followers, positive online reviews, and houses. Particularly during the 20th century, American homes became more than just shelters: they were expected to increase in value and become investment vehicles. (One could look at some data to see if these oversized housing units are flipped more quickly than other kinds of housing as owners look to make money.) Builders and developers can make even bigger money on houses. One very influential idea in urban sociology in the last few decades is the growth machine model, the idea that boosters, business leaders, politicians, and developers work together to make profits by transforming open land into valuable land. From the early days of the American suburbs when streetcar operators built their lines into the countryside and then offered free rides to the end of the line to show people lots and potential to McMansions today, much development, aesthetically pleasing or not (actually, aesthetics may indeed just help increase the value!), is about making money. Commodifying the home can move the discussion away from other important aspects f purchasing and owning a home like community life, environmental responsibility, and providing affordable housing.

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