Citing religious reasons to give up a McMansion for a doublewide mobile home

Even with the criticism of McMansions, I don’t think many would follow the path of this chaplain/columnist to downsize from a McMansion to a mobile home:

The first thing I grappled with was, “Are you living within your means?”

While it sounds like a question from your financial adviser, it really gets at the spiritual issue of greed. If greed prevents you from reducing your spending, you’ll have a problem, since retirement will often cut one’s income nearly in half…

We sold our suburban home and moved into a doublewide mobile home at half the cost of our old two-story McMansion.

As the months passed, the numbers proved workable. Any greedy impulses that remained began to subside. Honestly, it wasn’t that hard to do. We were ready. Our kids were out of the nest and finished with their schooling.

However, we couldn’t have addressed the first question if we had not answered the bigger spiritual question: How much is enough?

While there are plenty of proponents of downsizing, there are two ways that this path is unique:

  1. Downsizing to a mobile home. There are few housing options less liked than McMansions but this would qualify. People think of trailer parks and lower-class residents. They think of dirty homes and lower property values. Often, the discussions of downsizing involve moving to something tasteful and/or customized. The new home may be smaller – wasting less space than the McMansion – but it is not necessarily cheap nor sacrificing much in terms of location and neighbors. For another example, those portrayed on TV as interested in tiny houses are often middle class residents who want a lot of amenities and a calmer life but don’t really want the cheapest housing possible.
  2. The choice is guided by religious values with a wish to live simply in order to avoid greed. Rather than a secular impulse to consume less (for a variety of reasons including environmental concerns, saving money for other desires such as exciting experiences, and avoiding the appearance of conspicuous consumption), this McMansion move gets at an important religious question: how much is enough? I’ve seen very few religious approaches to McMansions. An unwritten stereotype of who owns these places probably puts a lot of southern conservative Protestants into McMansions. But, there are few American religious leaders telling people not to live in places like McMansions, even if they may generally caution people to live too lavishly. (Ironically, McMansions might seem like a good deal then to many religious people because you get a lot of square footage for your money.)

In sum, propose to McMansion critics that we should swap McMansions for doublewides for religious reasons and the idea may not be greeted favorably.

Assessing the Water Street development in Naperville

Several Naperville political and business leaders talked yesterday of the impact of the now open Water Street development:

There were lengthy delays, caused by the recession and by repeated rounds of changes to the plans. First there were condos, then a Holiday Inn, and finally developers proposed what actually got built: a 158-room Hotel Indigo that incorporates elements of Naperville’s history into its design.

Naperville Mayor Steve Chirico thanked the residents who supported public officials as they took “tough votes” in support of the hotel, shops and riverfront improvements…

Investors Peter Foyo and Dominic Imburgia, for whom the new plaza and fountain are named, told the crowd they were honored to put their money toward a project that created jobs in their hometown and beautified a public place for a bustling future…

Pradel said by the looks of it, he’d never guess the new Water Street District was in Naperville. Not the Naperville where he grew up, seeing the strip of land south of the waterway remain relatively underused for decades upon decades.

It is quite a sizable project along the Riverwalk in downtown Naperville; it is hard to miss. And I wouldn’t expect many local leaders to say bad things about a just completed project. However, here are some questions I would ask about the development moving forward:

  1. Is it a portent of things to come in downtown Naperville and elsewhere in the community? Naperville has very little open land remaining so for population and business growth, redevelopment is key. But, redevelopments can take a myriad of forms, including new larger structures. Is Naperville ready for more structures of this size?
  2. Who benefits the most from this new development? It would be worth keeping track of the jobs and taxes generated by this new development. In the long run, are the developers or the city residents benefiting? (Of course, both could benefit but the construction of a larger structure came at the expense of other options. And growth machines – collections of local politicians and business leaders – tend to do things that are in their financial self-interests.)
  3. How many residents will use the new structure and visit the business establishments? The construction of a downtown hotel is an interesting move, suggesting that there may be an interest for visitors to stay downtown rather than at the numerous other hotels in the community (particularly along the business corridor along Diehl Road and I-88). In other words, is this for the use of residents or others?

See earlier posts about Water Street in Naperville here and here.

The big Baby Boomer house does not necessarily equal a Mcmansion

A recent analysis on Realtor.com uses the term McMansion as shorthand for a large house owned by a Baby Boomer. Here is the crux of the argument regarding the habits of millennials:

“They’ll buy a smaller house with fancier amenities, close to town, rather than chase square footage,” Dorsey says.

This argument has been made for several years now: millennials are willing to live in smaller homes but desire certain amenities. But, is every big house a McMansion? No, no, no – a minority of American homes are over 3,000 square feet but not all of them are McMansions. Even if they meet the size requirement, they may not be teardowns, suffer architecturally, or exist in lonely suburban communities or all house crass consumers or the nouveau riche. And do all Baby Boomers live in McMansions? Of course not. There may be broad patterns at play here – Baby Boomers have plenty of houses to sell, millennials may not want all of those particular homes – but using loaded terms like McMansions or suggesting incompatibility across entire generations may be going too far.

Side note: this Baby Boomers vs. millennials in the housing market is gaining steam across media sources. How will the Boomers sell all of their houses? (See earlier posts here and here.) What do millennials want in houses and communities? (See earlier posts here and here.)

Will a major need for affordable housing lead to population gains in less desirable places?

As I read another story the other day about a need for affordable or reasonably priced housing – this time for aging baby boomers – it led me to a hypothetical question: would people move to less desirable locations if housing there was significantly cheaper? Many Americans have retired to cheaper locations that also have other amenities like nice weather (think Florida and Arizona). But, would they move to cheaper suburbs within a metropolitan region that perhaps has a lower quality of life or move to a new state that is cheaper but less glamorous (think a move from the Chicago region to Kansas or Youngstown, Ohio)? In other words, would they trade fewer amenities for cheaper housing? Is cheap housing so big of an issue that many people will move to acquire it? Conservatives argue that people should vote with their feet. And the continued population gains of the Sunbelt suggest that they do, to some degree. But, people have particular ideas about what they expect when they move. For retiring, they often want to go somewhere warm. For affordable housing, they want to go to nice communities.

These desires strike me as normal in our society: people want a nice yet affordable place to live. However, is this possible? Does the movement of people to particular locations drive up prices and long-term costs (providing a higher quality of life has to be paid for by someone)? In the end, can you really have it all: an affordable place to live but with great care or nice amenities or a high quality of life? Maybe not.

Imagine affordable housing is such an issue in the Bay Area that a large group of retirees decides to move to a small town in North Dakota. With the money made on the sale of their homes in the Bay Area (or the large rents they save), they have money left over to both save for the future and put into the local community. Granted, North Dakota doesn’t have the same kind of life as the Bay Area – no major city, different weather and topography, and social connections left behind – but the housing is certainly cheaper and the anxiety about day to day existence might be reduced. This might sound far-fetched outside of some odd religious group…but if housing is such a need, why couldn’t it happen?

Wrong direction on Lake Shore Drive in “When Harry Met Sally”

I noticed this again recently: the movie When Harry Met Sally gets an important feature of Chicago wrong early on. As described by IMDB:

When Harry and Sally drive from the University of Chicago to New York, they should drive on the Lake Shore Drive heading to the south (to the direction of Gary), not to the north (to the direction of downtown). So they should not be on the Lake Shore drive on the north of downtown.

It is not clear how this mistake was made but it could be an easy one to make for multiple reasons:

  1. The University of Chicago is an island onto itself on the south side of Chicago. It takes several miles and multiple social worlds to get to the better known, wealthier, whiter part of Chicago (the Loop and North Side). Perhaps this is commentary about where University of Chicago students end up?
  2. Would the view along the southern portion of Lake Shore Drive be recognizable to many people? The views of Chicago are very different at these different ends. The southern approach to the city provides a more industrial, working-class view while the north side emphasizes high-rises and waterfront amenities.
  3. Perhaps this could further fuel Chicago’s sense of inferiority compared to New York City: “they don’t even know the north and south sides of our great city!”

The price to get your business on those blue highway amenities signs

It is a surprisingly complicated – and possibly costly – process to promote your business on a blue sign along the highway:

Roadside advertising programs are administered by individual states, though specific service signs like the one in the picture above tend to be farmed out to contractors. One of the biggest of these contractors is a company called Interstate Logos, which works with transportation agencies in 23 states to not only install the huge blue panels, but also to work with businesses to run the programs…

But even if your business meets all the requirements, and you’ve submitted your online application, there may be competition from other nearby businesses. As for which of those businesses get to be on the signs, that depends on the state’s policy. Colorado rotates the businesses at the end of each contract year, but other states like Michigan give preference to businesses nearer the highway, while still others like Washington use a first come-first serve (with waiting list) approach…

Typical mainline logo signs are about 48 inches by 36 inches, so based on WSDOT’s ballpark figures, it’s probably safe to figure about $300 to $500 per sign (this agrees with the Lexington Herald Leader’s claim of $1,253 for four logos)…

The sites says that in 2010, Kentucky Logos—contracted by the Kentucky DOT—paid the state $618,904.91. That’s great for the state, but according to the report, of the businesses on the 1,568 signs in the state, only 1 to 2 percent leave annually. So it seems the businesses are happy, too.

America: combining public services (highways) with business opportunities (advertising a select number of places for travelers to spend their money).

More thoughts on these signs:

  1. Why not include signs for big box stores? Places like Walmart or Target or Costco could provide most or all of these amenities in one stop.
  2. I don’t think the signs are as effective in denser areas where there a lot more options as you approach the exit. They can highlight a few options but you can already see a lot more signs in the distance.
  3. The lodging and camping signs seem outdated. How many people now drive down the highway and pick out a hotel at the side of the road? That sign space could be better used for other amenities.
  4. How effective are these advertisements compared to other forms? Does McDonald’s get a bigger return on the blue sign or a forty foot tall arch or a combination of both?

“[American] Dream Hoarders”

A Brookings Institution scholar examines the upper-middle class and how their choices separate themselves from the middle class:

A great, short book by Richard V. Reeves of the Brookings Institution helps to flesh out why these stories provoke such rage. In Dream Hoarders, released this week, Reeves agrees that the 20 percent are not the one percent: The higher you go up the income or wealth distribution, the bigger the gains made in the past three or four decades. Still, the top quintile of earners—those making more than roughly $112,000 a year—have been big beneficiaries of the country’s growth. To make matters worse, this group of Americans engages in a variety of practices that don’t just help their families, but harm the other 80 percent of Americans…

The book traces the way that the upper-middle class has pulled away from the middle class and the poor on five dimensions: income and wealth, educational attainment, family structure, geography, and health and longevity. The top 20 percent of earners might not have seen the kinds of income gains made by the top one percent and America’s billionaires. Still, their wage and investment increases have proven sizable. They dominate the country’s top colleges, sequester themselves in wealthy neighborhoods with excellent public schools and public services, and enjoy healthy bodies and long lives. “It would be an exaggeration to say that the upper-middle class is full of gluten-avoiding, normal-BMI joggers who are only marginally more likely to smoke a cigarette than to hit their children,” Reeves writes. “But it would be just that—an exaggeration, not a fiction.”

They then pass those advantages onto their children, with parents placing a “glass floor” under their kids. They ensure they grow up in nice zip codes, provide social connections that make a difference when entering the labor force, help with internships, aid with tuition and home-buying, and schmooze with college admissions officers. All the while, they support policies and practices that protect their economic position and prevent poorer kids from climbing the income ladder: legacy admissions, the preferential tax treatment of investment income, 529 college savings plans, exclusionary zoning, occupational licensing, and restrictions on the immigration of white-collar professionals.

As a result, America is becoming a class-based society, more like fin-de-siècle England than most would care to admit, Reeves argues. Higher income kids stay up at the sticky top of the income distribution. Lower income kids stay down at the bottom. The one percent have well and truly trounced the 99 percent, but the 20 percent have done their part to immiserate the 80 percent, as well—an arguably more relevant but less recognized class distinction.

The anxiety of being upper middle class: never quite wealthy enough to have all the goods and experiences of the highest group and always striving to stay above the normal/middle people.

Four quick thoughts:

  1. There is a certain lifestyle to be had here. See, my post a few days ago about a healthy lifestyle may have had some merit…
  2. As described here, many of the efforts appear aimed at avoiding downward mobility. In other words, there is some point in income, education, and lifestyle that cannot be crossed going the wrong way. But, there must be people who have this happen through events like losing a job or a major illness. What happens to them? For the “average” upper middle class person, what really are the odds that they would fall down a rung?
  3. There is a suggestion from the author that Americans shouldn’t and/or can’t just ask the 1% to sacrifice; the top 20% need to sacrifice as well. To put it mildly, this would not go over well. Given their anxieties as well as their tendencies to pull up the bridge after crossing the moat, efforts like affordable housing or school integration or significant increases in taxes will be met with opposition. They would use the rhetoric of the middle class – “we worked hard to get here – anyone could do it” – while pushing hard to protect their own status.
  4. Is the ultimate goal of this group to become truly wealthy? Most of them won’t have that opportunity and must know it. Or, is the goal is to simply not be middle class and have some more advantages than most people? Perhaps it really is about the children: is this the group that more than any other tries to give their kids every advantage as a supposed act of sacrifice?