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.

Washington Post declares that McMansions are back

The second largest economic crisis of the last 100 years was not enough to kill off the McMansion:

If there’s anything that typifies the boom times before the Great Recession, it is the McMansion. These sprawling houses proliferated around the country in the 2000s, as banks shelled out easy credit to fuel a housing bacchanalia they thought would never die…

As Americans have started building and flipping houses again, they are once again buying McMansions. Since 2009, construction of these homes has steadily trended upward, data from Zillow, a real estate website, shows. The median home value of McMansions is also rising, at a pace that eclipses the value of the median American home…

Many casual onlookers have forecast the death of the suburbs in recent years, especially as younger renters and buyers turn an eye to city centers. Skylar Olsen, a senior economist at Zillow, says that young people today have far more interest in living in urban environments. “That’s where jobs had been growing fastest over the course of this economic recovery over the past five years,” says Olsen.

Yet younger people who are starting families are still moving to the suburbs for more room, she says. About half of all millennials that purchased a home last year did so in the suburbs, according to Zillow data.

In recent years, the media has vacillated between McMansions are dead (see a summary of my posts on this here) and McMansions are still alive. This new analysis in the latter category uses a similar framing as the earlier stories: McMansions arose to prominence at the end of the late 20th century and interest in them waned after the housing bubble burst. This might be technically true since housing starts did decrease significantly in the housing bubble. At the same time, the construction of McMansions never stopped – indeed, the proportion of new homes over 3,000 square feet actually increased (see earlier post here). And this is with the withering criticism that often accompanies McMansions. The story above follows in this line with the primary analysis coming from the creator of McMansion Hell. Still, the analysis hints that McMansions have a longer shelf life than many would want and a good portion of Americans – not really discussed in this article – are willing to consider them as a viable housing option.

 

Mutant stat: 4.2% of American kids witnessed a shooting last year

Here is how a mutant statistic about the exposure of children to shootings came to be:

It all started in 2015, when University of New Hampshire sociology professor David Finkelhor and two colleagues published a study called “Prevalence of Childhood Exposure to Violence, Crime, and Abuse.” They gathered data by conducting phone interviews with parents and kids around the country.

The Finkelhor study included a table showing the percentage of kids “witnessing or having indirect exposure” to different kinds of violence in the past year. The figure under “exposure to shooting” was 4 percent.

The findings were then reinterpreted:

Earlier this month, researchers from the CDC and the University of Texas published a nationwide study of gun violence in the journal Pediatrics. They reported that, on average, 7,100 children under 18 were shot each year from 2012 to 2014, and that about 1,300 a year died. No one has questioned those stats.

The CDC-UT researchers also quoted the “exposure to shooting” statistic from the Finkelhor study, changing the wording — and, for some reason, the stat — just slightly:

“Recent evidence from the National Survey of Children’s Exposure to Violence indicates that 4.2 percent of children aged 0 to 17 in the United States have witnessed a shooting in the past year.”

The reinterpreted findings were picked up by the media:

The Dallas Morning News picked up a version of the Washington Post story.

When the Dallas Morning News figured out something was up (due to a question raised by a reader) and asked about the origins of the statistic, they uncovered some confusion:

According to Finkelhor, the actual question the researchers asked was, “At any time in (your child’s/your) life, (was your child/were you) in any place in real life where (he/she/you) could see or hear people being shot, bombs going off, or street riots?”

So the question was about much more than just shootings. But you never would have known from looking at the table.

This appears to be a classic example of a mutant statistic as described by sociologist Joel Best in Damned Lies and Statistics. As Best explains, it doesn’t take much for a number to be unintentionally twisted such that it becomes nonsensical yet interesting to the public because it seems shocking. And while the Dallas Morning News might deserve some credit for catching the issue and trying to set the record straight, the incorrect statistic is now in the public and can easily be found.

Next steps to knowing a suburb

The six steps I discussed yesterday for knowing a suburb would provide a good starting point for any resident, outsider, or student. Here are the next steps to take in the same domains that would provide explanations of how things came to be rather than just a description of what is:

  1. A community’s website often includes a lot of interesting information. It may not be easy to find – after all, the website’s front page is intended to put the community’s best image forward – but there are minutes of local governmental bodies, announcements about projects, information on local officials, and more. I would go to the City Council (or equivalent) minutes or videos to start. They are often dull documents with records of the bills the community paid and other basic work that the average resident doesn’t care about. Yet, you can see the important matters that the Council discussed. What made it to their discussions (usually moving their way up through other local government bodies) and how did they decide? Attending such meetings can also help though reviewing documents and videos can probably be done more quickly.
  2. A zoning map provides a single view of how the land in a community is apportioned. But, how did the map develop? This is where finding the minutes of the Zoning Board or Plan Commission is useful. The City Council minutes show what projects were eventually approved but the Zoning or Plan Boards will reveal all the proposals that came forward (the ones that are voted down rarely make it to the full City Council). Again, many of the requests may be fairly dull – requesting a variance for a larger sign or building a residential garage a half foot over the allowed line – but discussions about the larger projects can be very consequential.
  3. Suburbs often have an “official” local history or two published by a local historian or group. Dig deeper than this through several avenues. Search through newspaper archives (a local or regional paper); some of these are now available online while others might be present in local libraries or museums. Go to local history museums, see what is on display and how they describe the formation of the community, and ask to look at the archives. (At these facilities, there may be a difference between the deeper archives and what the public is able to regularly look at in vertical files or published sources. Finally, the local library may be the most accessible option: they often have local history material including local government publications. In either a local museum or library, look for a comprehensive plan document: this is a formal moment when the community crystallized how they wanted to use land.
  4. Talking to any long-time residents may be helpful but talking to particular residents can provide more detailed information. In particular, talk with local officials and business leaders. These are the people intimately involved with the inside operation of the community, the movers and shakers. They can often articulate the vision that leaders have of who the community is and where it should go. Some of them may be harder to talk to while others are more approachable; look for venues such as community meetings of various kinds where they are available. Don’t be afraid to talk to these leaders: they either would like your vote or business and many like to talk about the community. (Talking to leaders of other community institutions can be spotty. For example, leaders of major non-profits or churches may have a sense of what their organization is up to but not necessarily have insights into the community as a whole or have much influence over the broader community.)
  5. Walking around helps provide insights into street-level social life but spending extended time in certain spaces can be very fruitful. Such spaces could include business districts, parks, central coffee shops or restaurants, community centers, main streets, and local festivals. Not all suburbs will have such spaces; indeed, many car-dependent suburbs lack public gathering spaces. However, the advantage of extended time in these spaces allows for observations over time (throughout a day and across months and seasons) as well as an opportunity to observe and enter into social interactions with those in such spaces.
  6. Census data can provide a quick snapshot of the community now but can also provide more detailed information. Here are three options: (1) look at the data over time to see how a community has changed; (2) focus on particular geographies such as a census tract, block group, or zip code; (3) dig into certain aspects of the data further (such as race and ethnicity, income and education, characteristics of the homes); and (4) compare across different parts of the suburb or nearby suburbs to get a sense how this community differs internally and with other nearby areas. There are also a number of non-Census websites that use the data in interactive ways. For example, use a detailed racial dot map to see where different racial and ethnic residents live.

All of these options are fairly accessible to the average person as long as they know where the resources are located and have some extra time beyond what the first steps (the earlier post) require.

The difficulty of building suburban housing for the homeless

A groundbreaking for a new facility providing housing for the homeless recently took place in LaGrange but it wasn’t an easy path:

The three-story brick building will house 20 individuals in single apartments on the second and third floors and have administrative offices and the day program that will provide counseling, job training and referrals for services on the first floor…

In 2015, La Grange residents sought to block the sale of property, then owned by Private Bank in Chicago, to BEDS Plus. The suit contended that a corporation, McGee Family Holdings, with a La Grange resident listed as manager, owned portions of the parcel on which the facility will be built…

At the same time as the lawsuit was being handled, Patrick Johnson, an assistant in the U.S. Attorney’s Office, conducted an investigation into whether the efforts to block the project were a violation of the Fair Housing Act that protects the rights of individuals with disabilities….

La Grange Village President Tom Livingston said he believes the facility is a great thing for the community. At the same time, he said the village will keep an eye out to be sure it doesn’t present any of the problems, such as safety concerns, that opponents had voiced.

Even when plans are presented by local community groups – such as religious congregations or non-profit organizations – suburban residents are often wary of group homes or facilities near residences. But, of course, if such facilities can’t be built near any residence, where in suburban communities can they be located? Industrial parks?

I hope few suburbanites would say that they don’t care at all about what happens to homeless people but it is another thing altogether to ask people to live near homeless people. This reminds me of the Bogardus social distance scale; it is one thing to express concern or interest about a group of people in the abstract or at a great distance but something very difficult if they live nearby. Take race relations in the United States as an example. Attitude questions on the General Social Survey since the 1970s suggest white Americans are more positive regarding African Americans. Yet, these improved attitudes don’t necessarily translate into less residential segregation.

A push for Naperville to declare itself a “welcoming city”

The Naperville City Council has recently discussed declaring the suburb a “welcoming city”:

Some Naperville residents and city council members want the city to adopt a resolution that would declare Naperville a welcoming city to people of all backgrounds. The push comes amid an election that includes the first openly gay candidate for Naperville City council…

O’Meara is part of a couple women’s groups that are asking the city not to become a sanctuary city, but to name itself a welcoming city, she said. “We believe that becoming a welcoming city is something that you’ve already done over the years that people have been coming here,” O’Meara said. “It’s important that people moving into this town know that this town is going to support them in what they have to do going forward.”

Councilwoman Becky Anderson floated the idea of adopting such a resolution at an earlier City Council meeting after Naperville resident Anthony Castagnoli spoke during public comment period, asking the City to act in resistance to President Donald Trump’s actions…

“One of the things I would task us to think about as council members as we approach our next social service grant cycle is what could we be doing with the social service grant to make people feel more comfortable, or to aid those who are struggling in our community because of discrimination whether it’s through immigration or otherwise,” Boyd-Obarski said. “As we confront the country around us, if we really want to be welcoming, let’s think about ways that we can do that with our dollars as well as our voices.”

This could be viewed as interesting as a community that traditionally has been fairly conservative. As noted here, perhaps that is why being a sanctuary city is not on the table. At the same time, Naperville is home to a number of wealthier, well-educated residents and wants to continue to attract both high-end businesses and residents. One thing Naperville has done well over the last six decades as it has expanded from a small town to a giant suburb is created a high-quality of life, which today likely includes the values of tolerance and diversity (see Richard Florida’s work for an argument on why this is so important for today’s cities).

The people quoted from this article primarily cite Naperville’s welcoming attitude to gay residents. Have all minority residents had similar positive experiences? It wasn’t that long ago that Naperville was a sundown town or a place where black residents could not be shown housing. Or, in the last twenty years or so, the Islamic Center of Naperville has faced opposition over their locations.

When a suburb dismantles a plane in a homeowner’s driveway

You don’t see too many airplanes parked on the typical suburban street but this incident in New York may serve as a warning to those interested in just that:

A 70-year-old Long Island man who allegedly ignored 17 summonses calling for him to remove a plane parked in his driveway threatened to use a crossbow on town officials who dismantled it.

Crews spent most of the day Thursday disassembling the single-engine Cessna parked outside Harold Guretzky’s home in Oceanside, ending a 1½-year saga that pitted Guretzky against his neighbors and the town…

Town officials said housing the aircraft in Guretzky’s driveway violates building safety codes…

Last year, Guretzky likened it to parking a boat in a driveway and has said he didn’t have money to house the plane in a hangar. Some neighbors, however, said there’s no comparison.

What a production that included local officials giving a press conference in front of the plane in the driveway of street of raised ranch homes. The main reason given for removing the plane was safety but no one said exactly why it was a safety hazard. The owner compares it to a boat and the safety issues there could be similar: large gas tanks just sitting there. Presumably, he is not going to try to take off on the suburban street (though wide streets of many recent suburbs would help avoid clipping mailboxes).

My guess is that this is more of an eyesore/property values issue. For similar reasons, communities may not allow RVs or work trucks to be in driveways. Is a plane that is rarely used really more of a safety hazard than a large truck? However, it does look unusual (particularly with the wings spread out) and probably draws the ire of some neighbors who are worried about potential homebuyers or outsiders getting the wrong idea about the block.

One solution is for Guretzky to find a suburban airplane subdivision. They do exist: see the example of Aero Estates in NapervilleAero Estates in Naperville.