Building celebrity mansions that can stave off wildfires

The Woolsey Fire in southern California has claimed the large homes of numerous celebrities:

Early Monday morning, Cyrus tweeted that her Malibu home — a $2.5 million mansion she purchased with her fiance, Liam Hemsworth, in 2016 — had been destroyed. The Woolsey Fire, which has been burning swaths of Los Angeles and Ventura counties in Southern California since Thursday, has forced evacuations and threatened thousands of homes from Thousand Oaks to Malibu…

Butler focused the camera on the charred frame of his former house, surrounded by ash and the blackened shell of a truck…

In a post on his website, Young stated that he had just lost “another” house to a California fire, referring to the Malibu home he shared with Daryl Hannah…

As The Post’s Sonia Rao reported, the historic Paramount Ranch production set in Agoura Hills burned on Friday, while wildfire threatened the nearby homes of a slew of celebrities, including Guillermo del Toro, Alyssa Milano, Lady Gaga, Will Smith, Kim Kardashian-West and Kanye West, James Woods, Orlando Bloom, Melissa Etheridge, Rainn Wilson, Cher and Pink.

Given the amount of money wealthy people put into their homes, what features could help a home avoid wildfires? A few options:

  1. An exterior sprinkler/hose system to help keep the home wet and not burst into flames.
  2. A protective shell that could arise around the exterior of the home.
  3. Construction out of certain materials that would be more fire-resistant.
  4. Building homes within communities that have permanent fire breaks around them or other devices to help slow fires before they arrive at individual homes.

None of these options would be cheap but there could be an opportunity here. And if these options could be had at a reasonable price, perhaps they could make their way to the general market.

(Side note: see an earlier related post about creating a McMansion that could withstand other natural disasters.)

Death knell for Republicans in Illinois’s 6th congressional district?

Democrat Sean Casten unseated Republican incumbent Peter Roskam in a House race in the 6th Congressional District in Illinois. Does this signal the end of Republican dominance in this suburban district? Some points to consider:

  1. This has been a Republican district since the early 1970s. Before that, the District was represented by a Democrat since the late 1920s and dominated by Republicans between the Civil War and 1911. Long-time representative Henry Hyde passing the seat to Peter Roskam may be the recent history but the district has more variation over the years.
  2. The demographics of these suburban areas has changed quite a bit. Like many American suburbs, the Chicago suburbs have become increasingly non-white and more diverse in terms of social class. The area covered by the district today is not the same white, middle-class swath that it may have once appeared to be.
  3. Redistricting and changing boundaries has happened with the 6th in the past and could happen again in the future. Read more about Illinois redistricting efforts in the 1970s and early 2000s. Some background on this particular district:

Roskam replaced conservative icon U.S. Rep. Henry Hyde in Congress, but much of his old territory in eastern DuPage County is now represented by U.S. Reps. Mike Quigley of Chicago and Raja Krishnamoorthi of Schaumburg, both Democrats.

4. The patterns of voting in the Chicago area suburbs mirror larger trends about suburban voters. The 6th district as well as several other House districts are comprised of the middle ground between Democratic voters in the big city and close suburbs and Republican voters in more rural areas and outer suburbs. These are the battleground areas and this will likely continue in future election cycles.

All this said, there are no guarantees in this district. Multiple factors could sway voters in this district in the near and far future including changes in what the national parties stand for (and what presidential candidates are leading the way), increasing diversity in the suburbs, possible redistricting, and particular concerns and issues that may resonate voters in the middle suburbs. As the suburbs continue to be important areas for both parties to try to pick up seats, expect this district to continue to be contested for at least a few elections to come.

US now has 201 communities with median home values over $1 million

Rising housing values in the United States means more communities have a median home value of over $1 million:

Meanwhile, 29 cities and towns joined those with a median home value of $1 million or more this year, bringing the total to 201. Nineteen municipalities joined the million-dollar club last year.

They include San Jose, California, whose median value rose from $930,900 to $1.09 million; Fremont, California ($966,000 to $1.13 million); Burbank, California ($845,700 to $1.01 million); Newton, Massachusetts ($977,200 to $1.07 million); and Shelter Island, N.Y. ($903,500 to $1.15 million)…

Of the roughly 15,100 larger neighborhoods around the country analyzed by Trulia, 838 have median home values of $1 million or more and about two thirds of those are in California. Nearly 30 percent of California’s neighborhoods have a median home price of at least $1 million, the most by far of any state. New York, Florida and Washington followed.

It is not surprising that California leads the way given the housing issues in the state (recent example of lawsuits for housing in suburbs).

If I had to guess about the rest of the communities, they are (1) clustered around coastal cities in the West and Northeast (with exceptions being small, extremely high-end suburbs in the Midwest and South) and (2) most of the communities are suburbs. The first guess has to do with limited land, demand, and certain policies. I base the second conjecture on the facts that suburbs prize single-family homes, exclusion, and local control.

Amazon HQ#2 may be headed to a wealthy suburb

Crystal City, Virginia may be the new home of Amazon’s second headquarters site. Here are a few features of the suburban neighborhood located in Arlington:

With the Ronald Regan Washington National Airport two miles to the east, the heart of Washington D.C. five miles to the north, and a few stops on Washington’s Metro linking all three, Crystal City is in the right geographic spot for the Seattle-based company…

Today, the neighborhood, although a part of Arlington, has its own distinct downtown area. The walkable Crystal Drive is dotted with businesses, restaurants and public art, while public/private partnerships are bringing investment in parks and open space

Home prices in Crystal City might be more affordable than they are in Seattle, but that’s not saying much. The median home value in the 22202 area, a zip code Crystal City shares with neighboring Pentagon City, Aurora Highlands and Arlington Ridge, is $625,800, according to Zillow — nearly three times the U.S. median.

Might the lack of single-family homes also be attractive to Amazon?

Crystal City is dominated by one apartment building after another, most of which don’t have ground floor retail or restaurants that would create a sense of community or neighborhood vibrancy. Walk a few blocks away from the shopping mall during any evening of the week and it’s a quiet, almost desolate place. This lack of a community might have been the final piece that Amazon was looking for since it means they can come to town without much opposition.

A few quick thoughts:

  1. On one hand, it is interesting for Amazon to choose a suburban location. A sizable headquarters would be a boon for numerous communities, particularly cities that need a shot in the arm. On the other hand, this is an urban suburban location. The location is technically outside Washington D.C. yet it is a community of high-rises with little distance with the central city in the region.
  2. A location in this region contributes to the rising status of the Washington D.C. region. While other cities and regions may still be larger, this region with its collection of government, military, and business opportunities just keeps growing.
  3. It would be interesting to see how much Amazon would want to contribute to a thriving streetscape in the community. Based on several articles, it sounds like there is limited activity in this community after business hours. Does Amazon want to contribute money to trying to develop a vibrant urban neighborhood (even if it is located in a suburb)?

Suing for more suburban housing

A California law makes it possible to sue communities regarding housing:

Pro-housing activist Sonja Trauss, a pioneer in the YIMBY movement, was reading about a controversial 315-unit affordable apartment project in Lafayette in 2015 when she learned about a 1982 state law she’d never heard of before: the Housing Accountability Act.

The law said municipalities must approve a housing development as long as it is consistent with local zoning rules and general plan objectives, would not create a public health hazard or take water from neighboring farms, and would meet state environmental standards…

The California Renters Legal Advocacy Fund, or CaRLA — a group Trauss and her YIMBY allies formed in 2015 — is waging the sue-the-suburbs campaign. CaRLA has used the Housing Accountability Act to sue on behalf of developers in Sausalito, Berkeley, San Mateo, Sonoma, Dublin and Lafayette…

While the lawsuits will eventually result in some increase in the Bay Area’s housing stock — none of the projects in question have opened yet — the bigger impact so far has been to make municipal officials aware that violations of the Housing Accountability Act could result in expensive litigation.

How long until California changes the law to give communities more say over these matters? Not surprisingly, the end of the article mentions a counter group that a co-founder says is “not NIMBYs or anti-housing; for us the issue goes back to democracy and local control.” Suburbanites do like their local control.

This certainly would not be the first time the courts have been used to allow new housing construction in wealthier suburbs. It may be the only way to force compliance from suburbs that would rather not have cheaper housing and different kinds of residents. Unfortunately, it can be a very slow process within specific cases and overall progress is limited. Perhaps the threat of lawsuits and several successful cases in the past could force suburbs to move more quickly but I would guess some would still aim to drag out the process as much as possible.

Final thought: it would be interesting to track what happens to these developments allowed by the courts over time. Do communities eventually accept the housing units and residents? Would a positive response to a new development than encourage the community to pursue other similar developments? Or, does a court victory lead to hardened resistance?

The size, number, and color of disturbing McMansions in Napa Valley

New large homes in Napa Valley are causing some concerns for a variety of reasons:

“As though rising amid the St. Helena vineyards like a megalith” is how Zillow describes one home. It is 6,700 square feet and has 17 rooms, with such outdoor features as a pavilion, pool and tennis court.

Napa County Supervisor Diane Dillon said an area west of Highway 29 south of Rutherford pretty much looks like a subdivision of McMansions. Plus, the 5- to 10-acre parcels have the potential to be covered in patios and outdoor lights…

“The biggest threat to the valley isn’t wineries; it is the proliferation of mansions,” the APAC report stated…

One thing supervisors want to move quickly on is the color of large structures. Several noted that when the county demands earth tones, the result can be structures colored white – “white whales,” Dillon said some of her constituents call them.

Given the concerns here, I wonder why the County does not just make such guidelines for property that would not allow large homes. Instead, they are talking about various guidelines – how much of a property can be devoted to a home, the color of the home – to try to make the more palatable. If large homes are problems, why allow them?

There could be multiple reasons for this approach:

1. Looking extremely heavy-handed as a local government may not be desirable. In trying to find a balance between property rights and community goals or character, these local officials may not want to encroach too far on property owners.

2. It may be desirable to have wealthy residents on large properties. Perhaps this leads to more property tax revenues. Perhaps wealthy residents help enhance the status of the community. Perhaps big houses may have some problems but they are certainly preferable to small-lot subdivisions or multifamily units.

In the end, it sounds like the McMansions or mansions need to meet certain guidelines but limiting the total number of them might be the largest issue.

Suburban efforts outside Atlanta to secede and form a new community; about race and income or business development?

Voters yesterday in unincorporated suburbia outside Atlanta voted on a proposal to create a new suburb:

The proposal to form a new city, up for a vote on Tuesday, has roiled Henry County, raising tense debate about racial and economic disparity and voting rights. Once a sleepy rural, predominantly white region, the county has seen an influx of minorities and a solidification of black political power as its population has exploded in recent years. In 1980, whites made up more than 80% of Henry County’s population, but now they have dwindled to less than 50%…

If Eagle’s Landing manages to wrestle away the southern portion of Stockbridge — a section that includes its most affluent residential pockets as well as its main commercial corridor that brings in nearly $5 million of the city’s $9 million annual revenue — Ford has warned the city would be forced to impose a new property tax on remaining residents…

Backers of Eagle’s Landing counter that their aim is nothing more than to lure new fine dining and retail to a freshly coined community with a median household income of about $128,000 — more than double that of Stockbridge. Imagine, they tell their neighbors, a Whole Foods or a Trader Joe’s, a California Pizza Kitchen or a Capital Grille…

For more than a decade, rich, white pockets of metro Atlanta have led a national movement to form new cities out of unincorporated land in an effort, they say, for greater control, more efficient government and lower taxes. But this could be the first time a new city would take an existing city’s land without all the residents of the existing city having a vote.

Perhaps both arguments could be true: there is a race and class component to the proposal for a new suburb and backers of the change are interested in unique business opportunities that might come to a wealthier suburb. This reminds of the argument Freund makes in Colored Property. By the late 1960s, conservatives realized they could no longer object to non-white residents in or near their communities based on race. They instead switched over to economic arguments to justify ongoing residential segregation: people with fewer resources simply could not access nicer communities.

The matter about annexation law in Georgia is strange. The annexation of suburbs to big cities was fairly common in the late 1800s in the Northeast and Midwest as suburbs saw advantages in joining the big city. But, as cities changed, suburbs in those regions became less interested in being annexed. Laws usually reflect this: people being annexed or affected by annexations generally have to agree to the changes.

Even if race was truly not a factor (and it certainly sounds suspicious here), it also sounds like some growth machine activity is taking place. Local officials and businesses (developers?) see possible profits at stake in a suburban area with little wealth thus far. They get the state legislature to make some special regulations. Who exactly will profit here? How much of the money will come back to the (new) community?