The suburban lawn and patio as protection against COVID-19

If people gather for Thanksgiving, experts are advising they meet and eat outside. Here is one example:

How much safer is an outdoor meal than an indoor meal?

Much, much safer. Almost all transmission of this virus happens indoors.

Even if people are close together?

Eating outdoors doesn’t mean you’re invincible. Still try to stay six feet apart. If you huddle together around a cramped table and have close, face-to-face conversations with the people next to you, you could absolutely infect them.

This is time for the patio or lawn, found in millions of single-family homes and in many suburbs, to shine. The lawn does not just have to be a status symbol; it can confer health benefits by allowing people to spread out.

This is not the first time that the suburban lawn was said to boost health. In the gathering urbanization of the nineteenth century, suburban lawns provided space away from polluted and noisy cities. Listening to the radio the other day, I again heard mentioned how River Forest, Illinois was intentionally built with features meant to highlight nature.

Before COVID-19, the suburban lawn was also said to aid good health. It helps people get outside to work and move around (canceled out by the use of gas-powered equipment?). It encourages kids to play in a safe space. Depending on the season and/or weather, the patio and yard can act as an outdoor extension of private living space.

Now, the lawn and patio can be a private spot away from COVID-19. Outsiders are not welcome. The fresh air, breeze, and distance can limit transmission. Nature, or “nature” in many suburban settings, can serve as an oasis. All that lawn and patio maintenance can be put to use. And, hopefully, people can stay COVID free.

The rush and consternation in finalizing a manuscript for submission

I have gone through this process many times…and it still is not much fun. Here is what submitting a paper to an academic journal can look like:

  1. Come to the point when you feel that you have said all that there is to be said and in a satisfactory way. Perhaps this comes in response to feedback from a previous submission or from your own thinking and conversations. This may have been a quick turnaround or a lengthy period of contemplation and rewriting. Time to find the submission page for a journal.
  2. Go through the author’s guidelines for that particular journal. Even with commonly-used bibliographic formats and some consistency of how papers are put together, there might be changes or small details to attend to. Formatting ensues.
  3. Time to submit the paper. Go through a process that looks similar across journals but might ask for slightly different information or in a different order. Get the details right and look over key parts of the paper again including the abstract and keywords. Approve your submission.

Time to sit back and wait. Will it make it past the editors? Linger in peer reviews? Come back with mixed reviews, get a revise and resubmit, or be accepted? In some ways, the publication process is just underway.

I understand why the process is what it is: each journal has its own approach as does each publisher. The publishing system is meant to provide peer review for academic work, helping to insure good research is published. Even going through the final steps for submission as outlined above can help crystallize arguments and writing.

But, simplifying the process, even within publishers or within disciplines, could help researchers feel better about their submissions. Some of this cannot be changed; it is still a vulnerable point to send off a manuscript into the great unknown and to reviewers who may or may not like what is there. Some of it can be changed: the basic details are usually the same even across venues.

Ghost towns of the Midwest, sand dunes edition

While Americans might associate ghost towns with the West, communities elsewhere across the United States have also disappeared. Here is the case of one such community on the eastern shore of Lake Michigan:

Silver Lake, Michigan

A small town once stood on the riverbank, where the river bends before ending its journey at the lake. For several decades in the mid-1800s, the village of Singapore was a humming lumber and shipbuilding hub. Residents and sawmill workers processed the plentiful white pine trees of western Michigan, then loaded them onto schooners for Chicago and Milwaukee.

The founders of Singapore had big dreams. They envisioned their town, then located north of present-day Saugatuck on the southwestern Michigan shore, as the next important Midwestern city, rivaling the growing metropolises in Illinois and Wisconsin…

After the lumber trade waned and a series of fires roared through the area, leading to the destruction of many of Singapore’s houses, the town was abandoned. By 1875, according to Eric Gollannek, executive director of the Saugatuck-Douglas Historical Society, the lumber boom was over, the mills were dismantled and moved to St. Ignace, Michigan, jobs dried up and the village slowly disappeared.

Eventually, what was left of Singapore was buried beneath the sand.

The sand dunes of Lake Michigan are an underrated natural feature. Since I have seen them on top of a house or two at Silver Lake (see the image above), it is not surprising that they cover the remains of a town.

I would guess that the early decades of Midwest settlement is a ripe time for finding ghost towns or abandoned communities. Many early settlers had dreams that their town would prosper in the future. But, time, outside social forces, and internal decisions helped seal the fate of some places while others thrived.

The possible forces at work are numerous. Perhaps it was the changing of transportation technology; the coming of the railroad, the slowdown or rise in traffic along a road, shifting harbors and waterways. Perhaps it was the consolidation of residents or trading activity in one community as opposed to another. Perhaps it was the presence of a particular industry or the the decline of an industry. Ecological conditions can change as well, ranging from droughts to major storms to fires to human activity that changes the landscape in significant ways.

Today, it is hard to imagine that established communities of a particular size could disappear. Yet, history suggests this has happened before. It may not take sand dunes or cutting down many trees (something that happened all around Lake Michigan) but the communities of today are not guaranteed to be the communities of the future.

Combating abysmally low response rates for political polling

One pollster describes the difficulty today in reaching potential voters:

Photo by Breakingpic on Pexels.com

As the years drifted by, it took more and more voters per cluster for us to get a single voter to agree to an interview. Between 1984 and 1989, when caller ID was rolled out, more voters began to ignore our calls. The advent of answering machines and then voicemail further reduced responses. Voters screen their calls more aggressively, so cooperation with pollsters has steadily declined year-by-year. Whereas once I could extract one complete interview from five voters, it can now take calls to as many as 100 voters to complete a single interview, even more in some segments of the electorate…

I offer my own experience from Florida in the 2020 election to illustrate the problem. I conducted tracking polls in the weeks leading up to the presidential election. To complete 1,510 interviews over several weeks, we had to call 136,688 voters. In hard-to-interview Florida, only 1 in 90-odd voters would speak with our interviewers. Most calls to voters went unanswered or rolled over to answering machines or voicemail, never to be interviewed despite multiple attempts.

The final wave of polling, conducted Oct. 25-27 to complete 500 interviews, was the worst for cooperation. We could finish interviews with only four-tenths of one percent from our pool of potential respondents. As a result, this supposed “random sample survey” seemingly yielded, as did most all Florida polls, lower support for President Trump than he earned on Election Day.

After the election, I noted wide variations in completion rates across different categories of voters, but nearly all were still too low for any actual randomness to be assumed or implied.

This is a basic Research Methods class issue: if you cannot collect a good sample, you are going to have a hard time reflecting reality for the population.

Here is the part I understand less. This is not a new issue. As noted above, response rates have been falling for decades. Part of it is new technology. Some of it involves new behavior, such as ignoring phone calls or distrust of political polling. The amount of polling and data collection that takes place now can lead to survey fatigue.

But, it is interesting that the techniques used to collect this data are roughly the same. Of course, it has moved from land lines to cell phones and perhaps even texting or recruited online pools of potential voters. The technology has changed some but the idea is similar in trying to reach out to a broad set of people and hope a representative enough sample responds.

Perhaps it is time for new techniques. The old ones have some advantages including the ability to relatively quickly reach a large number of people and researchers and consultants are used to these techniques. And I do not have the answers for what might work better. Researchers embedded in different communities who could collect data over time? Finding public spaces frequented by diverse populations and approaching people there? Working more closely with bellwhether or representative places or populations to track what is going on there?

Even with these low response rates, polling can still tell us something. It is not as bad as picking randomly or flipping a coin. Yet, it is not accurate enough in recent years. If researchers want to collect valid and reliable polling data in the future, new approaches may be in order.

An ADU as an investment opportunity on HGTV’s Flip or Flop

Last night’s new episode of Flip or Flop, Season 9 Episode 7, featured a home with an ADU (accessory dwelling unit). And this unique feature of the home offers a chance to make more money:

After Tarek and Christina realize the garage in the backyard is now a living space, Tarek lays out the argument: this is not just a studio space or a he/she-shed. It is possibly a rentable unit. This may make this property even more enticing.

This got me thinking. ADUs are supposed to help provide more housing units in more expensive markets like Portland and Los Angeles. Instead of building denser, taller housing in single-family home neighborhoods, ADUs take advantage of existing yard space, garages, or other buildings on residential properties.

But, while the ADUs might provide more housing, they may not necessarily provide housing that is that much cheaper. Take the example from Flip or Flop: with a home valued at over $1 million in North Hollywood, they estimated they could rent the studio ADU with a full bathroom and kitchen for $2,000 a month. How many people could afford this?

Further, such units could become a tool for residents and developers to generate more revenue. In such competitive markets, adding any kind of residential unit presents an opportunity. The ADU could enable a homeowner to generate money from their property. An investor interested in a single home or one with multiple homes could generate even more money with ADUs.

To truly provide housing that is more plentiful and at a reasonable price, it seems like a lot of ADUs are needed. They cannot provide as many units as large multifamily developments might. Yes, they do not disturb the existing character of a neighborhood much. But, if the ultimate goal is to broadly expand housing options, the occasional ADU in an expensive area might not be enough.

Demolish a vacant mall anchor store, build new apartments

The construction of Fox Valley Mall in Aurora, Illinois was important for the suburb, particularly since it was in Aurora and not in Naperville. But, as shopping malls and suburbs change, the former site of Sears at the mall may soon be apartments:

Google Street View, November 2018

The vacant Sears store at the Fox Valley Mall could be razed early next year to make way for a three-building apartment development and kick off a new phase of life for the 45-year-old mall.

Aurora aldermen will vote next week on a request to rezone roughly 11 acres of the property along Route 59 side of the property to allow the buildings.

The buildings, each three stories tall, would have a total of 304 studio, one- and two-bedroom apartments…

A 2020 report for the city said that, including the closed Sears and Carson Pirie Scott department stores, 40% of the mall’s store space was vacant.

Adding residential units to shopping malls is a fairly common suggestion. With retailers in trouble, apartments fill the space more permanently, can address housing issues in communities, and could provide a ready population of potential customers for the nearby mall and other proprietors.

With the proposal working its way through local government, three things are worth watching regarding these apartments:

  1. How, if at all, will the apartments be connected to the mall? If they are completely separate buildings and are not marketed as being right next to the mall, then they could be like any new apartments. But, perhaps the mall is a draw for those who might want to be close to shopping, an indoor walking site, and food options.
  2. What kind of apartments will these be? Given their location, these will probably not be cheap apartments. In addition to being close to the mall, the apartments are near lots of other shopping and dining as well as potential employers, the location is just west of Naperville, and a busy Metra station is just to the north.
  3. How much of the mall will survive within five or ten years? The apartments could help revive the mall area or help hasten its demise.

Bringing McMansion critique to TikTok

McMansionHell was a web favorite when it launched. Now criticizing McMansions works on TikTok:

Photo by Tina Nord on Pexels.com

TikTok user @cyberexboyfriend is every realtor’s worst nightmare.

On his account, which boasts 32,000 followers and counting, he hosts a popular series in which he tears apart random McMansions he finds on Zillow.

It all started on Nov. 3, when @cyberexboyfriend posted a video captioned “roasting homes on Zillow.”…

Easily the funniest and most viral video in the series to date is the one in which @cyberexboyfriend critiques a $675,000 four-bedroom home, also located in Mckinney, Texas.

It is easy to criticize McMansions. They can have cartoonish features, ranging from turrets to garish facades to oversized garages to odd proportions. Much effort is put into their facades with less attention paid to other sides of the home. The interior may have some questionable choices. In an era of hot takes, social media, and concerns about housing and inequality, a quick skewering of a McMansion draws attention.

On the other hand, these real estate listings are for real homes. Numerous American communities, often wealthier suburbs, have McMansions. And at least a few people are willing to buy them.

Does this approach to McMansions help more people avoid purchasing such homes, either because the social stigma is potentially higher or because they are alerted to the problems with McMansions? Or, does it reinforce existing views people have about McMansions?

I have suggested before that if people had to choose between modernist homes and McMansions, they might choose McMansions. Those who criticize McMansions publicly are not likely to live in or near such homes. If you are against McMansions, you might also have concerns about sprawling suburbs and instead prefer denser suburban communities and cool styles like midcentury modern, interesting ranch homes, or older more traditional styles.

This may ultimately come down to taste in single-family homes based on social class, access to resources, and experiences with different kinds of communities. While political polarization in the suburbs is real, polarization by home style could be present alongside it.

Changes in housing costs in metropolitan regions are more easily navigated by some

Rents may be down in parts of San Francisco but some people moving within the region or outside of it have encountered higher housing prices:

While rents in San Jose have fallen 6 percent since January, tech havens in Santa Clara County — including Mountain View, Sunnyvale and the city of Santa Clara — have seen rents fall by at least 11 percent during the covid pandemic, according to a new study by Apartment List. Rents also declined in the East Bay.

The exodus of now working-from-home techies from the Bay Area has left openings and rent discounts at complexes near the tech giants. The uncertainty of the pandemic has driven renters back home, to spacey outer-suburbs or to remote towns and resort communities such as Lake Tahoe…

The demand for more living space and the shortage of homes for sale has driven up single family home prices in Silicon Valley, with suburban buyers pushing median prices to $1.33 million in Santa Clara County and $1.63 million in San Mateo County in September, according to CoreLogic data…

Popov said rent declines have generally decreased the farther away you get from San Francisco. Outer markets in Salinas and Sacramento, for example, have seen rents climb.

The effects of COVID-19 illustrate how housing prices within a region or within contiguous regions do not necessarily all follow the same patterns. Even as one area might experience less demand in one part of the market – rental units in particular neighborhoods communities, other portions of the market – such as single-family homes – may be more expensive.

In a market like this, those who can move around have some advantages. First, those with resources and particular occupations can move away from areas with more cases of COVID-19. This could have a direct effect on health. Some of these workers might return when COVID-19 is no longer a concern but for now they can be in less dense areas and work from home.

Second, some people are more able to move than others. Even if prices are going up in desirable locations, they can pay more. They have particular occupations that allow them to work from home, an option that is less possible certain job sectors. Perhaps their social networks and connections to local institutions are more fluid and accessible remotely.

This discussion occasionally comes up when people look at available jobs throughout the United States. The question will arise: how come more people do not move to go where the jobs are and take advantage of the economic opportunities? Moving is not a simple task. It involves more than just having a good job or not.

The same can be true of housing costs. The price of renting or buying a home can vary dramatically from place to place. Yet, a large number of people may not move one way or the other for a variety of reasons. And since jobs and housing prices are linked for many, it can be hard for many to simply leave the expensive Bay Area or move within the region to take advantage of lower rents or costs in some areas.

From Brookings: Biden wins through suburban voters

William Frey looks at presidential voting by geography and concludes that suburban voters gave Biden his victory:

In the 2016 election, rural and nonmetropolitan America gave Donald Trump enough of a margin to beat Hillary Clinton in seven key states. Ahead of the 2020 election, Republicans worried that Trump would lose his rural edge, in light of reduced support there in the 2018 midterm elections. But this was not the case. Instead, Trump’s loss to Joe Biden was due mostly to voters in large metropolitan suburbs, especially in important battleground states…

However, large suburban areas in 2020 registered a net Democratic advantage for the first time since Barack Obama’s victory in 2008. This is significant because more voters reside there than in the other three categories. In terms of aggregate votes in these large suburban counties, there was a shift from a 1.2 million vote advantage for Trump in 2016 to (at last count) a 613,000 vote advantage for Biden—a nearly 2 million vote flip. In addition, Biden benefitted from more modest Republican margins in small metropolitan areas. These advantages for the President-elect were even greater in key battleground states…

The three northern battleground states of Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin—which flipped to Trump in 2016—again entered the Democratic fold in 2020. Here, even more than in the national analysis, the 2016 to 2020 suburban shifts to either greater Democratic or smaller Republican support were instrumental in Biden’s victory…

Suburban voting patterns also made a difference in the Sun Belt, especially in large southern states where suburbanization has been rampant. The focus here is on two such states: Georgia, where Biden is ahead and a recount has been announced; and Texas, which Trump won, but where urban and suburban voting patterns closed the longtime Republican-Democratic gap.

This is the most detailed analysis I have seen thus far. The predictions were right: the 2020 presidential election depended on the suburbs!

It also brings several other features of American and political life into relief:

  1. Joe Biden was nominated in part because of his electability. In the long run, his electability in one particular kind of place was particularly important: suburbs. Trump, to some degree, knew this but his approach was more combative and did not have the appeal he hoped.
  2. While political analysis suggests middle suburbs are battleground areas, I wonder if this signals that these suburbs are also in the middle of all sorts of other trends including demographic changes, cultural tastes, and suburban inequality. To build on earlier posts, perhaps finding middle America right now involves going to a Walmart in a middle suburb or an emergency room in a middle suburb.
  3. Many people have discussed the electoral college in recent years. Here is a crazier proposal based on more recent trends: instead of the electoral college by states, how about an electoral college by cities, suburbs, and rural areas? With concerns on either side that cities or rural areas are controlling political outcomes, could there be some way to weight the results such that all three geographies could influence the outcome? Grouping votes by states obliterates any distinctions between places.

Census data on how Chicago would have lost more residents in the 2010s if not for international migration

I was looking at Census Bureau data recently on population change in metropolitan statistical areas from 2010 to 2019. Here is what I found about Chicago:

The data shows the Chicago MSA lost nearly 3,000 residents over the decade. This is something urbanists, demographers, and Chicago area leaders have been tracking and trying to explain.

The data above helps provides details on this population change. The net migration data shows the region gained nearly 200,000 residents via international migration. If you rank all of the MSAs over the decade, Chicago was #10 on the list of international migrants. Chicago continues to be an important center for immigrants (even as it lags behind New York, Miami, Los Angeles, Houston, Washington, Boston, Dallas, San Francisco, and Seattle).

This means that if the Chicago area had fewer international immigrants, it would have lost a lot more people. If international migration was more like San Diego or Tampa or Minneapolis, the region would have lost more than 50,000 people. While I suspect few in the Chicago region would like to lose any residents over a decade, the situation would be much worse without the city and region continuing to attract immigrants.