Dilemma: replace older housing with “cheesy apartment complexes” or McMansions?

If older housing is going to be torn down, would you prefer it be replaced with apartment buildings or McMansions?

McMansions are going up one after another in my neighborhood on the Burbank hillside. Unattractive boxy additions are being built, leaving little yard space, and houses are being torn down to make way for bigger two-story barns. The reason for this may be because of the need for more room to accommodate today’s lifestyle — computers, media rooms, etc. It does spoil the whole appearance of the neighborhood. However, what’s worse it that ever since the ’60s,charming old cottages have been razed to make way for cheesy apartment complexes. Older apartment buildings with space and courtyards have been replaced by bigger apartment blocks with no outdoor areas. Maybe McMansions are the lesser of two evils.

Of course, these aren’t the only options available in many places. Yet, if land is expensive, McMansions and apartments could be appealing to builders and developers: the first can maximize square footage and have a higher selling price while the second increases the number of housing units (which could also help provide more housing in places that struggle with higher housing values).

If I had to guess, more Americans would choose to live next to a McMansion than an apartment complex. McMansions receive a lot of criticism, particularly in older neighborhoods where the new homes don’t fit the character or architecture. Yet, apartment complexes may be disliked even more by many suburbanites, even in the abstract, let alone next door or down the block. Apartments are perceived to attract different kinds of residents – lower class, different racial and ethnic groups, more prone to crime, more transient, less invested in their housing unit and the community – compared to suburban single-family homeowners.

Thinking more broadly, what housing options might be disliked more than apartments? Maybe trailer parks. Or group homes. Or public housing, whether in larger concentrations or scattered-site.

Advantageously framing a teardown McMansions debate

A story on Burbank, California residents opposing teardown McMansions illustrates one way to frame the debate:

Put a six bedroom, five bath, mansion, next to a 1940’s three bed, one bath.  Sound a little mismatched?

A group of Burbank residents think so, and they’re urging Burbank officials to regulate “McMansions” from defacing the character of their neighborhoods…

Her dutch colonial home has been carefully remodeled to stay in line with the character of the neighborhood.

Right across the street from her, a historic house was demolished, oak trees were uprooted, all to make way for three huge six bedroom mansions, two sit empty for months at a time and are up for rent.

Here is what is emphasized in this framing: the lives of long-time residents of an established neighborhood are being disturbed by outsiders constructing big homes that serve their personal interests rather than those of the community. Modest homes next to gargantuan homes. A quaint neighborhood character versus a super-sized, garish character. This is a common rhetorical technique utilized by those opposed to teardown McMansions. (This argument may also include financial pitches as older residents have a hard time keeping up with increased property taxes.)

The counterarguments can include:

(1) Individual property owners should be able to do what they want with their property. This includes the rights of current property owners to cash out on their once-modest homes and for new owners to be able to use their resources to build the kind of home they desire.

(2) Neighborhoods are going to change over time. Suburban residents can be guilty of trying to “freeze” their neighborhoods in time, preserving the features they liked when they moved in. (This isn’t just limited to teardown situations. See NIMBY.) However, this limits the “natural” change that might take place in neighborhoods as new residents move in and social conditions change.

Even this article mainly provides the viewpoint of those opposed to McMansions, it also hints at the common divide in teardown discussions: the rights of owners in a neighborhood to preserve what is there versus the rights of individuals and outsiders to change features of the neighborhood. However, this framing as presented here can be quite effective as it suggests outsiders threaten good neighborhoods.

See an earlier post on Burbank and McMansions here.

Asking residents of Burbank, CA about their thoughts on mansionization

A recent survey in Burbank, California asked residents about possible mansionization in the city:

A new survey of residents in Burbank, California, is trying to quantify some of this local frustration. Using images of seemingly out-of-place new houses within the city’s older neighborhoods, the online poll tries to get at both the “gut reactions” that city residents have to these “mansionized” houses and their overall willingness to create new laws to control the growth of house size.

Burbank last limited the size of new home construction in 2005, when it reduced the ratio of house square footage to total lot size, from 0.6 to 0.4. But even these new regulations allow for homes far larger than the average size across the city, according to Carol Barrett, the city’s assistant director for planning and transportation. She says the poll is designed to gauge the community’s interest in creating further size restrictions, as well as new guidelines for architectural style and building materials.

“It’s not just an issue that the houses are bigger,” Barrett says. Another important question, she explains, would be: “Is it just a giant box with some precast concrete stuck on for a little decorative design, or does it have a specific architectural character?”

All of this could be seen as largely a matter of taste. But the awkward images in the survey, of giant, Spanish-style mini-mansions dwarfing the decades-old bungalows and ranch houses next door are awfully convincing. Below are some of the most telling images from the survey, which Barrett culled from suggestions from local citizen groups like Preserve Burbank and coworkers in city hall.

I like the idea of a survey about mansionization. Here are a few thoughts on such a survey:

1. Having a decent survey response rate might be the biggest issue. Getting a representative sample from a city of just over 100,000 people is not necessarily easy. On one hand, people have more survey fatigue but, on the other hand, suburbanites tend to take threats to their neighborhoods and property values very seriously.

2. Linking people’s “gut reactions” to particular policy changes is an important step. I suspect, based on the pictures shown, people would respond fairly negatively to mansionization. But, there are a number of ways this could be addressed. It sounds like the survey asks about several policy options to limit houses; I wonder if there are a few residents who would argue for property rights (and the ability to make lots of money when selling their property).

3. The pictures included in the survey are very helpful: people need to see exactly what such houses might look like rather than imagine what might be the case. However, the particular pictures might influence responses as mansionziation can take multiple forms.

I would be really curious to see how residents respond.