Suburbanites, backyard fences, and signaling status

I recently saw a request for users of a nearby park to stay on park property and not go into the yards of neighbors when there to attend sporting events. The particular area in question is surrounded on two sides by homes, one subdivision built roughly five decades ago and one roughly three decades ago. The earlier subdivision has more modest suburban dwellings – roughly 2,000 square feet, two car garages, split-levels, colonials, ranches, most homes with siding – and almost all of the yards backing up to the park have fences. See the image below:

Fences

The more recently constructed homes are larger: 3,500 square feet, a mix of two and three car garages, more brick, stone, and gables. Few of these homes have fences facing the park.

Residents, businesses, and communities use parts of the physical environment to demarcate boundaries. This park sits between several different kinds of communities. Even though it is located in a well-off suburb, there are clear gradations of social status in these dwellings.

With the fences, I wonder if this is a kind of conspicuous consumption on the part of the homeowners with more expensive properties: “We don’t need a fence to be separate from the park.” Indeed, multiple homes have nice patios, tables, and outdoor equipment near the park and very visible. In contrast, the older homes have deeper backyards and more cover – even without a fence. Could this simply be a legacy of a past era where fencing was more common or does it signal something about how suburbanites want to interface with a nearby park?

More broadly, suburbanites have multiple ways to signal their status without actively telling anyone anything. This can range from the facade of their home (with McMansions aiming to impress) to the vehicles parked in the driveway to the landscaping to the size of the lot. And near highly trafficked or public areas, the urge to look good may be hard to resist.

 

Wealthier Americans have a larger carbon footprint in part due to larger homes

Large homes and McMansions do not just take up land and resources at construction; according to a new study, they have larger carbon footprints. Here is the abstract:

aerial photography of gray houses

Photo by David McBee on Pexels.com

Residential energy use accounts for roughly 20% of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the United States. Using data on 93 million individual households, we estimate these GHGs across the contiguous United States and clarify the respective influence of climate, affluence, energy infrastructure, urban form, and building attributes (age, housing type, heating fuel) in driving these emissions. A ranking by state reveals that GHGs (per unit floor space) are lowest in Western US states and highest in Central states. Wealthier Americans have per capita footprints ∼25% higher than those of lower-income residents, primarily due to larger homes. In especially affluent suburbs, these emissions can be 15 times higher than nearby neighborhoods. If the electrical grid is decarbonized, then the residential housing sector can meet the 28% emission reduction target for 2025 under the Paris Agreement. However, grid decarbonization will be insufficient to meet the 80% emissions reduction target for 2050 due to a growing housing stock and continued use of fossil fuels (natural gas, propane, and fuel oil) in homes. Meeting this target will also require deep energy retrofits and transitioning to distributed low-carbon energy sources, as well as reducing per capita floor space and zoning denser settlement patterns.

More from the study linking energy use, wealth, and housing size:

We find that both household energy use and emissions per square meter vary widely across the country, driven primarily by thermal energy demand and the fuel used in electricity production (“grid mix”). ZIP-code level analysis shows income is positively correlated with both per capita energy use and emissions, along with the tendency for wealth and living area to increase together. City and neighborhood analyses underscore the environmental benefits of denser settlement patterns and the degree to which carbon-intensive electrical grids counteract these benefits.

Bigger homes require more energy to heat, cool, and light. Wealthier people can afford these expenses. Indeed, being able to shoulder all of these costs with a larger home may be a form of conspicuous consumption: “I have enough resources to live in a larger home and maintain it.” Critics of McMansions argue that such homes are meant to impress those who see them, not necessarily great spaces for residents to inhabit.

The study also connects the findings to possibilities for making single-family homes more green. The models work with two options: (1) retrofitting homes to make them more energy efficient and (2) reducing power generated with fossil fuels (“grid decarbonization”). Yet, there are other options to pursue that could help with the situation:

1. Promoting the construction of or the inhabiting of smaller homes. This could range from tiny houses to the “not-so-big home” to smart-sizing or down-sizing. This may require more significant lifestyle changes – cutting on consumption would be difficult – that are too hard for many people.

2. Promoting fewer single-family homes. While they are the basis of suburban life and popular in many other American communities, multi-family housing is more energy efficient. Given the rhetoric surrounding suburbs (such as President Trump claiming Democrats want to abolish suburb), this may not be easy.

3. Promoting less energy use within homes. What if residents used less heat, air conditioning, and lighting? What if they watched less TV and used their phones and computers less? Again, this might require large lifestyle changes that many would find difficult.

4. Constructing newer homes with much stricter energy guidelines, perhaps even net-zero-energy homes or passive houses. Even if these are restricted to wealthier homeowners who can afford the changes, this could help limit the energy use of larger homes. Also, if such homes are viewed by the public as cool or desirable, perhaps these features trickle down.

5. Could wealthier homeowners purchase carbon offsets for their homes? This would allow them to keep their bigger structures while providing funds that could be put to good use elsewhere.

The scenarios in the paper as well as the ones I proposed all require working multiple sectors of society to get to a place where homes, particularly large ones, use less energy.

Leisure differences by race and class in time of COVID-19

What people do and can do for recreation differs across racial/ethnic groups as well as social class:

people standing on beach during sunset

Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

The fireworks encapsulate the cramped, complex reality of urban leisure amid both a pandemic and a reckoning over policing. The pandemic has canceled summer travel plans en masse; many beaches and parks have capped capacity and closed facilities; air-conditioned spots outside the home—malls, movie theaters, restaurants—remain largely off-limits. For many, especially the immunocompromised, outdoor fun may seem like an unthinkably risky indulgence. But the fear of infection and the lack of options for things to do aren’t keeping everyone inside. To a greater extent than ever, city summer entertainment involves local public and semipublic spaces: sidewalks, stoops, parks, and, in the case of fireworks, the shared sky. The summer of social distancing will also be one of social closeness between neighbors, illuminating divides of class, ethnicity, and place—as leisure has always done…

The history of urban policing, leisure, and class is instructive. Cities implemented open-container laws only in the late 20th century, after courts struck down vagrancy laws, whose expansive definitions had been used to effectively criminalize homelessness and harass people of color. In a 2013 history of open-container bans, the journalist Joe Satran reported that “patterns of police enforcement of public drinking laws do suggest their origin as a replacement for unacceptably vague and discriminatory status offenses. Though national data on public drinking infractions are hard to come by (or nonexistent), the few studies of police enforcement indicate that poor, black people are arrested at rates many times higher than affluent white people.” A similar story—of hazily defined ordinances being used to discriminatorily regulate who can hang out where—applies to the loitering laws tested today whenever friends in masks congregate on sidewalks or street corners.

“Everything we think of in terms of race in the United States, recreation and leisure had a hand in influencing it,” Rasul Mowatt, an Indiana University professor who studies leisure and race, told me earlier this week. I’d called him to talk through the sociology of stoop hangs and pavement barbecues: classic inner-city rituals that would seem to be more important than ever this summer. He emphasized that such gatherings have always been shaped by structural oppression. Low wages and unemployment keep many city dwellers from traveling or otherwise engaging in pricier forms of recreation. Urban planning has often sought to contain poor populations where they are (Robert Moses allegedly designed the overpasses to Long Island’s Jones Beach to be too low for public buses to pass under them). Green spaces have been sites of racist harassment, a fact illustrated by the recent stories of Ahmaud Arbery (the black man killed while out on a run in Georgia) and Christian Cooper (the black bird-watcher accosted by a white woman in Central Park).

Four quick thoughts:

  1. That race and class matter for recreation is not a surprise. At the same time, how it continues to influence different aspects of American life – including what people do with their free time or to relax or for fun – and evolve over time is still worth considering.
  2. The article briefly mentions public spaces and I think it is worth paying attention to. Most of the activities discussed here are viewable by others. As sociologist Elijah Anderson argued, it can be difficult to find public spaces where Americans of different backgrounds regularly mix. Or, as sociologist Eric Klinenberg suggests, the United States could strengthen local public spaces and institutions with positive outcomes for all.
  3. The majority of the examples in the article come from cities. Does this play out similarly or differently in suburbs where private homes are emphasized and moral minimalism governs interactions?
  4. What is the flip side of this: what the wealthy doing for leisure during COVID-19? How possible is conspicuous consumption is an era of anxiety and pain for many?

Could giga-mansions relieve the negative attention directed toward McMansions?

The term McMansion is likely to stick around (even if is used poorly at times) but more interest may be shifting to the giga-mansion.  A Motley Fools podcast provides some information:

First we had mansions. Then we had mega-mansions. And McMansions. Now we have giga-mansions. Yes, it’s a growing trend of massive houses usually built in the LA area on spec. They are massive, expensive, and outrageously ostentatious. Let’s see if you two can answer some trivia around some of the most expensive pieces of residential real estate on the market…

The One will be America’s largest house on the market at 100,000 square feet. It will be the most expensive private residence when it comes to market. It boasts four swimming pools, a nightclub, a room where the walls and ceiling are filled with jellyfish. It will have a 30-car gallery. Because of this price you don’t call it a garage. Of the 20 bedrooms, how many are in a separate building just for your staff?…

Let’s move on and talk about the house called Billionaire. It’s 38,000 square feet. It was America’s most-expensive house on the market when it was listed for $250 million in 2017. The property is in the exclusive Los Angeles suburb of Bel Air. It has 12 bedrooms, 21 bathrooms, three kitchens, a 40-feet James Bond-themed cinema, six bars, two fully stocked champagne cellars, and the helicopter from what 1980s television series? Rick knows this. He can’t wait to say it…

Southwick: A $1 billion lot. Now we’re going to go to The Manor. The largest home in LA was actually built in 1988 by the TV show producer Aaron Spelling and his wife Candy. The 56,000 square foot, 14-bedroom, 27-bath home originally was built for $12 million. They sold it all in a cash deal for $85 million in 2011 to the 23-year-old daughter of someone wealthy. Don’t worry about it. She renovated much of the house, since it had some very quirky spaces, including a flower-cutting room, a humidity-controlled silver storage room, a barber shop, and three rooms for doing what common birthday and Christmas activity?

One of the major critiques of McMansions involves their symbolic nature: they are associated with sprawl, wealth, and conspicuous consumption. All of these appear to be in play with the examples from the Los Angeles area cited above: a region known for cars and highways, entertainment celebrities and executives along with other wealthy people, and a constant need to stand out from the rest of the area.

But, McMansions have key differences from this supersized homes. They are generally smaller – roughly 3,000-10,000 square feet – and more often found in “typical” neighborhoods. They are often mass-produced. They are often criticized for their architecture while megahomes take more flak for their size. Perhaps most importantly, McMansions are within the reach of more Americans. Depending on the housing market, an upper-middle class household can acquire a McMansion but these giga-mansions are only for the wealthiest.

If the ultimate concern behind critiques of McMansions is their unnecessary size and flaunting of wealth, then the spread of giga-mansion might relieve some of the pressure. Granted, there will always be more McMansions but it is easy to focus on these outsized homes and their owners. Why criticize the top 10-20% of American homeowners for their McMansion choices when the giga-mansions of tomorrow constructed and owned by the top 0.1% of homeowners are so ridiculous and unnecessary?

Back to the SUV and McMansion comparisons

With a stronger economy, it may be time now again to link McMansions and SUVs. Here is one review of “gargantuan SUVs” or “extra-large luxury SUVs”:

But when you drive one like the new 2018 Lincoln Navigator (starting at $73,250), you start to understand why these whales of the highway are a rare yet growing subgenome of the SUV originally created in the heady days of the late ’90s. (Sales were up 5 percent in 2017.) They have become less McMansion, less family trucksters gussied up in questionable leather and wood veneers, and more bespoke luxury condo—the mobile living room for sophisticates with a growing brood that they always tried to be.

Space is a luxury, sure. But the stretch-your-legs-out room and cushy rear-seat experience that would normally require a first-class Emirates ticket? That’s a rare kind of decadence on the road that the Navigator handles with surprising grace. The interior is a treat for grown-ups (copious soundproofing, massage seats) and their kids (it can take up to ten WiFi connections).

Three quick thoughts:

  1. There is still an emphasis on space in these comparisons. SUVs and McMansions both provide significant amounts of room compared to the typical vehicle or home.
  2. Both are luxury goods that are a step up from the normal experience. Yet, the line that these newer SUVs are less McMansion and more luxury condo suggests their opulence is more acceptable. Indeed, it is okay to spend a lot of money for a flashy urban condo while the suburban McMansion is still looked down upon.
  3. Are we sure that the SUV and McMansion are the mass consumer goods that mark this era (roughly late 1990s to now) of American life? To critics, they represent wasted resources as well as American conspicuous consumption. The cell phone becomes popular over this time period but not until the smartphone of the late 2000s does it reach its peak.

I will keep looking for the comparisons of SUVs and McMansions. At the least, they suggest the economy is back to the point where more Americans are making or considering these purchases.

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.

Satire: Hamptons residents tear down McMansions to build mini-mansions

This is unlikely to happen anytime soon:

The latest thing in the Hamptons are Mini-Mansions. People everywhere are tearing down their 15,000-square-foot McMansions and replacing them with little three-bedroom houses of 2,000 square feet. This trend is unprecedented in America. But here in the Hamptons, it’s the latest craze.

Alice Henderstreep did this. She’s married to the steel magnate Charles Henderstreep and they tore down their McMansion in Quogue for a Mini.

“It’s wonderful,” she said. “Some friends of ours in East Hampton did this. I call my husband, he’s in the next room and comes. We’re never far away from one another. And I love it. The dog runs around underfoot. The kids are in the kitchen. It’s family. And the room we now have on our five acres is just phenomenal. We have huge lawns, we now have tennis courts. The kids have parties in our new pool house. We even built a baseball diamond.”…

“This is the way the original settlers lived,” Fred said when we called. “We followed the plans for a saltbox pictured in the historical museum. And so did the Henderstreeps in Quogue. It’s not like that old split level that was here we tore down for the McMansion. This is a recreation of the early settlers. Hand-hewn beams. Wavy old glass in the windows. It wasn’t cheap. In fact, it cost more than the McMansion we tore down.”

The only way I could imagine this happening is if downsizing becomes the new marker of luxury. It would be the opposite of conspicuous consumption: you can afford to downsize your vacation home and live small for a few days. Or, the tiny house movement could go upscale, perhaps with gratuitous use of innovative yet expensive technology. Of course, such claims might be followed up by a pricey trip to another mini-mansion in another wealthy vacation spot…

A college education as another object of conspicuous consumption?

A law professor argues the price of a college degree is related to seeing it as part of conspicuous consumption:

More than a century ago, the sociologist Thorstein Veblen coined the term “conspicuous consumption” to describe the practice of buying luxury goods in order to display social status. In its purest form, conspicuous consumption involves purchasing expensive goods precisely because they are expensive, which means that the true conspicuous consumer will have what economists call an inverted demand curve.

Normally, when the price of a good rises, demand for it will fall. Demand for a Veblen good, by contrast, goes up as it becomes more expensive. The purpose of buying it is to display wealth, so the fewer people that can afford to buy a good, the more valuable it becomes to conspicuous consumers…

In economic terms, higher education is a positional good: It is valuable to have a college degree because other people don’t have one. It is also to a significant extent a Veblen good: Sending one’s children to college, and most especially a prestigious (meaning expensive) college, is a way of signaling social status via the conspicuous consumption of a luxury good.

All of this helps explain why college tuition has increased three times faster than the cost of living over the past three decades. University administrators have discovered that, to a remarkable degree, the more they charge for what they’re offering, the more people will want to buy it.

This reminds me of the argument Mitchell Stevens makes in Creating a Class. After a prolonged study of college admissions, Stevens suggests prospective college students tend to select the school they will attend primarily based on status (my note: which is often tied to price). The emphasis is not on learning but rather on the economic benefits this can lead to (better jobs, better social networks) as well as the status the college confers to its graduates.

I encountered a bit of this with my graduate education at the University of Notre Dame. While Notre Dame does not have one of the highest ranked sociology programs, people who heard I was at Notre Dame expressed they were impressed since it is viewed as a good school. The implication was that I must be a good student if Notre Dame thought highly of me – a transfer of status from the university to the individual. However, I suspect their claims were based on the undergraduate ranking (usually between #15-20 in US News) and not on the specific of the sociology graduate program.

Harvard historian addresses McMansions and inequality

A historian in Harvard’s Business School discusses McMansions and its connections to inequality in an extended conversation here. Some good stuff in this conversation including how top-end consumers are driving the recent comeback of McMansions, a shout-out to sociologist Thorstein Veblen and his idea of “conspicuous consumption,” the idea of a national consumption tax, and how capitalism finds a way to move forward, including creating some inequality.

This is a reminder of the kind of smart and lively conversation that is possible on public radio…

People who waste money purchase McMansions

McMansions aren’t just critiqued on an architectural level. Another argument is that owners of such homes are not frugal with their money:

As a gift to the institution that gave her so much joy, the former school teacher left $2.5 million to the Council Bluffs Public Library…

Cook supported the library financially throughout her life, thanks in part to money inherited from her parents, who also passed on their love of books and learning to their daughter. As an adult, Cook would stop by after school let out. She taught from 1964 to 1997 at Norris and the now-closed Bancroft Junior Highs in the Omaha Public Schools system. After retirement she spent even more time at the library, volunteering with the Friends of the Library organization…

He said Cook maintained the wealth she inherited through an unassuming lifestyle, spending her money wisely while living in a modest home on the west end of the city.

“She lived frugally. She didn’t have a McMansion,” her attorney said. “She took care of her money.”

In other words, people who buy McMansions spend lavishly. Such homes are testaments to their money, perhaps through their size or bad design. In contrast, people who are good with their money (and can donate big sums to the local library) live in unassuming houses. They don’t feel a need to show off their money with a big, flashy home.

Of course, these are broad generalizations. Cases like these reinforce the idea that not spending on a big house helps lead to more long-term wealth. Someone who had $2.5 million to donate to the local library could have easily afforded a decent-sized McMansion near Omaha and still have had $1.5+ million to donate. I think the idea is that buying a McMansion is a sign of broader spending patterns but this is not necessarily the case. This is a good example of citing McMansions as shorthand for other undesirable behaviors.