Can neighbors act respectfully toward a nearby teardown McMansion owner?

McMansions constructed in established neighborhoods can draw the ire of neighbors but one resident of Frederick, Maryland suggests civility should win the day:

As for the Magnolia Avenue controversy, the proposed house to be built is certainly not a mass-built, PUD-style “McMansion.” I believe it is just like the one being built near West Second Street and College. I walked down Magnolia the other day and there are numerous, very nice modifications to existing homes that I believe are inconsistent with the original architecture and a couple of houses that have been remodeled that don’t look like others there. I don’t think those modifications would have been allowed if this neighborhood were in the historical preservation area. I think the Artises’ home will be a great asset to the neighborhood. But now is not the time to restrict the Artises’ property rights after they made a significant financial decision based on existing laws and regulations.

I have met the Artis family. They are really nice people, and I believe any neighborhood would love to have them as their neighbor. Regardless of how this all turns out, I hope that we all remember that this is about a family more than it is about a house, and that our comments and discussions should remain kind and respectful — because we may be getting some nice new neighbors soon. We can’t just roll up the sidewalks once we move in and not allow anyone else in.

Granted, this resident is in favor of property rights and does not seem to mind the particular proposed home. But, the larger question is intriguing: is a McMansion next door or down the street worth incivility for years or a lifetime? The examples cited in the media – such as neighbors suing each other or consistently bringing the issue to the local government – suggest this is hard to do. Many would feel strongly if their immediate surroundings were impacted in a way that they felt was (1) negative and harmful as well as (2) unnecessary. Some would say that the teardown McMansion infringes on their quality of life and finances. They would suggest their anger and actions are justified.

At the same time, there are thousands of teardowns across the United States each year. How do the neighbors treat each other? Do they welcome the new homeowner to the neighborhood? If they dislike the new home, is there a frostiness that lasts a long time or does it eventually thaw? (For example, would someone deny their kid the chance to play with the kid in the new McMansion?) Perhaps the real answer is that many communities do not have thriving local social interactions to start with so the teardown issues do not matter much in the long run.

For more background on this particular case in Frederick, read here.

Forests, McMansions, and using land

The construction of new McMansions can threaten forests and the logging industry:

But the terrain for logging is fast disappearing, and with it the jobs. The number of loggers has shrunk dramatically over the past 20 years, making Gale one of fewer than a dozen working in the area of the Rensselaer Plateau now, he said. The milling companies that once owned huge swaths of forest across the Northeast are gone, leaving the wooded tracts largely in the hands of investor groups and private-equity funds. The local economy embraced tourism, and well-heeled visitors from the city ― attracted to the bucolic charm ― wanted what Gale called “their own little slice of heaven.” Eager to turn a profit, the investors have been divvying up the land and selling it to developers building massive summer homes in the middle of what was once dense forest.

The transformation may seem invisible from the farm-lined state roads that slither out from Albany. But you can see it from above. Clearings pockmark the lush, green canopy, making way for McMansions. On a helicopter flight last month, HuffPost counted nearly a dozen new houses under construction.

One nonprofit is trying to halt the process by preserving forests that form the backbone of rural economies and play a critical role in combatting climate change. On Tuesday, the Conservation Fund, a national environmental and economic development advocate based in northern Virginia, closed a roughly $25 million deal to buy 23,053 acres of forest straddling the borders of New York, Massachusetts and Vermont…

In rural, wooded areas, the gentrification process can be economically devastating. That’s why privately owned forests like the ones the Conservation Fund buys welcome sustainable forestry, which helps clear out dead wood and make the forests less dense. Forestry-related industries currently provide 2.7 million American jobs and contribute $112 billion to the U.S. economy each year, according to the Land Trust Alliance, a conservation group.

Sprawl, often marked by the construction of suburban type housing (which can include McMansions), changes the use of land. Common concerns about this include the loss of farmland and habitats as well as changed water systems. Development also affects trees and forests as house builders often just clear sites completely. Trees can be replaced but it is much more difficult to recreate forests.

One aspect of this story that is different from some analyses of sprawl’s effect on nature is that it emphasizes the loss of rural economic opportunities. The idea here is that sprawling McMansions don’t just chew up land; they threaten long-standing local industries. Yet, the choice is sometimes presented this way: either suburban sprawl or untamed, untouched natural land. Is any land truly untouched by human activity? A lot of even protected spaces have been altered over the years for human purposes. This article takes a more realistic approach: the consequences of sprawl aren’t just lost land but the shifting of the land from one economic use (sustainable forestry) to another (the buying and selling of real estate).

The direct and indirect social pressure to buy the bigger house

One money manager explains the difficulty he experienced in not buying the largest house his financial resources allowed:

Our home is unimpressive. I love it, don’t get me wrong. We are very, very comfortable. It is way more than enough space for our family of four. Right now we’re even doing a full remodel of the basement. But I know that compared to many of my peers, our house isn’t the massive, brick-laden, towering McMansion that says “we’ve arrived.” We bought our home days before I quit my last job and launched this firm. We paid $265,000 and financed almost all of it as I was hoarding cash for us to live on since we had zero income.

I’ve had one client visit our home after our youngest daughter was born and I remember distinctly a feeling of anxiety that our modest home wouldn’t measure up to expectations. What I felt bordered on shame. Would people think I was “successful” if they saw our home? Does it present a picture of someone who is responsible, intelligent and capable? Does it represent someone who should be entrusted with managing client assets that now exceed $150 million?

I’ve come to terms with it, but these ideas still creep into my head. I like that we live well within our means. It brings me immeasurable happiness, quite frankly. But there is a lingering social pressure. A fear of a stigma that occasionally whispers from some deep recess in my mind. In general I’m not a person who is given to care much what other people think about me. (Seriously, ask my wife about this one)…

If I can feel these pressures, I imagine they could be stronger for many others. A house is a man’s castle, after all. A giant, expensive, cumbersome representation of your value to society. What would you think if your successful doctor or lawyer or local business owner lived in an average middle-class house? Is s/he in financial trouble? Recently bankrupted? Paying off bad debts? How many Americans would think “Wow, good for them. They have figured out what makes them happy and are spending/saving money in that way.” Can’t say I think it would be many.

There seem to be two kinds of social pressures hinted at here:

  1. Direct pressure where someone says or does something in response to the house.
  2. Indirect pressure where there are standards to uphold, whether within a neighborhood, business sector (the financial one here), or society.

At least in this piece, the money manager only suggests indirect pressure. No one negatively commented about his house or the client who visited did not withdraw their business because the house wasn’t as impressive as it could be. Yet, this indirect pressure – the feeling that there is a standard to conform to and violating that standard has negative consequences – can be consequential.

So where exactly does this indirect pressure to buy a large house come from? There are probably many sources including: conversations we have with family, friends, and acquaintances about what is the “proper” home (as well as observations of the actions of those same people); media depictions of homes (from TV shows to HGTV to commercials to news stories); financial, real estate, and governmental institutions that depict and enable the purchase of large homes; and a society that prizes and promotes consumerism as a primary mechanism of the economy as well as a key marker of our status.

How difficult it is to resist this pressure may depend on the individual as well as their social position. Of course, making a decision to consume something other than the large house – say, a tiny house instead – may also just be another decision made in the interest of conformity and status seeking.

Jake Paul, celebrities, and a behavior code for McMansion dwellers

Jake Paul is angering his neighbors while living in a Los Angeles McMansion and this raises a number of questions about with whom the term McMansion is used:

The 20-year-old, who first became internet-famous on the now defunct app Vine, has been living with friends and “coworkers” in a Beverly Grove rental near Melrose and Kilkea. Mic reports they use the house as ground zero for loud parties and for some of his “stunts,” including lighting a pile of furniture on fire in the house’s drained pool and popping wheelies on a dirt bike on the street…

Paul has been living in the McMansion-style contemporary—where rent is $17,459 per month, MLS records show—since June 2016. (Paul is reportedly pulling in “millions” of dollars and is an actor on the Disney Channel show Bizaardvark, so he can afford it.)

The house is described on the MLS as having five bedrooms and five bathrooms. It was recently a Spanish-style duplex, but building permits show a new house was built on the site in 2016.

Beverly Grove has long fought against McMansionization of the neighborhood. Now many neighbors may be wondering, if they didn’t build it, would Jake Paul have come?

Three related questions:

  1. Can people who live in McMansions criticize others for ruining the neighborhood? Or, are the people complaining about Paul also the same ones opposed to McMansions? As the last sentence quoted above suggests, once you start letting in McMansions, it is hard to stop them.
  2. Is there a behavior code for McMansion owners? If your neighbors already don’t like your house, which may often be the case with teardowns, perhaps it would be best to lay low and try not to ruffle many feathers. On one hand, there is a stereotype that McMansion owners are the types who drive in and out of their cars without seeing anyone else yet there are often presumed to be people who have to prove something (and this comes out through their house and maybe through other behavior).
  3. Are McMansions more acceptable for celebrities and wealthy people? When people generally use the term, they are referring to more middle or upper-middle class who are trying to show off their wealth. But, celebrities typically have more resources than the average person. At the same time, the truly wealthy celebrities live in mansions that are far beyond typical McMansions.

To sum up, I would argue that celebrities who don’t antagonize their neighbors are rarely accused of living in McMansions.

When to fight McMansions: with a move from a 8 BR to a 25 BR home

The Hamptons is often home to fights over McMansions (earlier posts here and here). A new squabble involves a wealthy venture capitalist looking to significantly enlarge his home and encountering opposition:

Ken Fox — whose company, The Stripes Group, has financed Blue Apron and Seamless/Grubhub — hopes to grow his quaint, 1880s shingled home into a 25-bedroom, 14-bathroom “McMansion,” his opponents complain.

“Find another town to destroy,” seethed one petition signer, Olivia Salina.

Fox’s eight-bedroom home — which he purchased for $10.7 million in 2012, known locally as “Mocomanto” — is on both the state and national historic registries, and sits on protected wetlands on the banks of Lake Agawam…

Some three dozen neighbors have joined them in writing protest letters to the zoning board, and as of Friday, more than 300 had signed a change.org petition urging village officials to oppose the plans…

Fox, meanwhile, told The Post through his lawyer that, as planned, Fox’s new house would still be smaller than many of his neighbors’.

Without knowing all the details on the ground, it is more difficult to know the merits of the concerns expressed by the neighbors.

But, this case does point to a broader issue with McMansions: when do communities decide to draw the line? There are several stages at which neighbors and communities can band together and take effective action:

  1. Before any McMansions are constructed. This, however, requires a lot of foresight. Perhaps some of this foresight is gained by watching what happens to other communities.
  2. With a few McMansions present. Community members notice changes and don’t like the new direction.
  3. After plenty of new McMansions have been constructed and the horse is already out of the barn.

I would guess that most disputes with McMansions occur in cases #2 and #3 where McMansions are already present in some number. If so, it may be more difficult to change the rules as the game is being played. If Mr. Fox is correct that there are already larger houses present, are the neighbors simply trying to stop others from joining them in having bigger homes? Or, would this particular structure be such an abnormal monstrosity that it must be stopped?

Since there are already large homes as well as McMansions in the Hamptons, I would argue fights like this one will be difficult to argue for opposed landowners to win in the long run.

Equating problematic McMansions with problematic American suburbs

Amidst other problems with McMansions, one writer connects McMansions to failed suburban hopes for community:

No dream in America was ever been born innocent. Suburbia brought with it all the patriarchal problems one would expect in a glorification of the nuclear family—gestures broadly in the direction of Mad Men. It proved to be a kind of social hell for women. And like everything in American history, racism and class also played huge roles in its conception…

The nearly 200 year old suburban dream was uniquely American in its focus on the utopic vision of private homeownership. We didn’t want a great city, we didn’t want a close-knit township. We wanted tract housing and privacy. Unsurprisingly, communities built to honor these dreams ended up being awful, lonely places to grow up. Crushing ennui aside, kids fell prey to a brutal social Darwinism at home. Currie characterizes it as follows:

The rejection of the idea of mutual responsibility, a righteous distaste for offering help, the acceptance or encouragement of a view of life in which a competitive scramble for individual preeminence and comfort is central, the insistence that even the most vulnerable must learn to handle life’s difficulties by themselves and that if they cannot it is no one’s fault but their own—these were not the idiosyncratic views of a few parents but pervasive themes in American society and culture during the years in which the teens were growing up.

And to put it all together:

Of course, not every suburban community is a benighted hellscape full of cookie cutter McMansion monstrosities where kids OD in the living room beneath 60 ft. vaulted ceilings that take half an oil field to heat. But enough of it is. And it’s hard to imagine a more opulent, well-resourced version of suburbia than the run we had in the Bush Jr. era. When looking at all this, we need to ask ourselves, will the kids be alright? Is this the best choice for the next generation? Will we have to endure nu-metal again?

Several quick thoughts:

  1. I find this last paragraph confusing: what does it mean that “enough of [suburbia] is” McMansions mean? Is there a critical line to cross where there are too many McMansions to separate suburbs as a whole from McMansions? Or, is just having any McMansions at all a problem?
  2. I see McMansions more as a major symptom of the problems of American suburban life rather than large problems in their own right. In other words, if all McMansions could be eliminated, this doesn’t mean that the difficulties of a suburban society go away. Indeed, the critiques leveled here against suburbia existed for decades before McMansions entered the scene in the 1980s and 1990s.
  3. There are hints here of the idea that certain kinds of housing and urban planning leads to certain kinds of community: suburbia filled with large, single-family homes limits community and makes life difficult for teenagers. This may be an easier argument to make when comparing the United States to other countries but is trickier across the gradations of density and population size. Do teenagers in rural areas or cities necessarily do better? Did postwar suburbs full of smaller cookie-cutter homes placed closely together (a formation also roundly criticized) have more community because of the homes or different societal conventions (and the housing and societal norms could definitely influence each other in a feedback loop)?

On the whole, I find a good number of concerns about McMansions are really about suburbia as a whole with McMansions serving as an easy target.

Fighting McMansions with higher densities in Sydney

Australia has a reputation for McMansions but some Sydney neighborhoods and suburbs have seen a shift in recent years toward higher densities:

But while Sydney’s Hills District has been synonymous with the Great Australian Dream – life in the suburbs with a large backyard and Hills Hoist – it is quietly carving out a new identity.

Five years ago, in nearby Rouse Hill, 90 per cent of homes were houses. Today, it’s 60 per cent, census data shows. Houses in these suburbs regularly sell for Sydney’s median $1.15 million, while five years ago the prices were below $700,000.

Signs of change came as early as the opening of Rouse Hill Town Centre in 2008. At the time, there were plans for mixed-use apartments, but not all the locals were sold on the idea…

“Developers prefer the small lot subdivision, townhouse and apartment-style dwellings over the mansion style lots because there are more buyers than can afford them,” he said.

It sounds like the shift toward more housing units is not a backlash against McMansions per se but rather a high demand for more housing. Why build one McMansion when several townhomes could fit on the same lot?

In the long run, creating more housing units has multiple advantages: more people can access these communities, the townhomes are a better use of land opposed to detached houses and large lots, and higher population densities could support more vibrant street life. But, there could be one downside: how much will the new units help make housing more affordable? On the whole, more units in the metropolitan region should help reduce housing prices. However, if these new units are primarily concentrated in hot and/or desirable neighborhoods and the townhomes are more of luxury units rather than starter units, swapping McMansions for townhomes might not help many of the regions average residents.

Final thought: numerous people have suggested replacing McMansions with higher densities through a variety of means (teardowns, subdividing existing homes, building fewer McMansions in the first place) but Australia seems to be ahead of the United States in this regard.