DuPage County Board votes 16-0 for new regulations for proposed religious congregations

Amidst a number of proposed mosques in DuPage County (see the latest example just south of Naperville), the DuPage County Board voted unanimously on Wednesday to institute new regulations for religious congregations:

The measure, approved 16-0, came in the wake of five recent applications for new Islamic centers or mosques in residential areas in the county over the last two years. Three of those applications were approved by the board, one near Naperville was rejected, and one near West Chicago is pending. The new regulations would not affect those applications or other existing facilities.

Under the changes, a new place of assembly will be prohibited in a single-family house without a variance granted by the County Board. Variances also will be needed for any facility, regardless of its size, that does not have primary access on an arterial street or is not hooked up to public sewer and water service.

The county originally had considered barring all new places of assembly from unincorporated residential neighborhoods, but the board scaled back on that plan during the committee process. Along with religious houses of worship, the measure applies to other gathering spots, such as lodges for veterans groups.

Several quick thoughts:

1. I’m glad they scaled back their plans. No new religious buildings in unincorporated residential neighborhoods?

2. I wish these articles say how much land this applies to in DuPage County. These regulations cover unincorporated areas in the county, not land that is part of a municipality. Individual municipalities can develop their own zoning regulations.

3. Here is the reasoning behind these new regulations:

Board member Jim Zay, R-Carol Stream, said the measure is necessary to control disruptive changes to neighborhoods.

“What we’re worried about is people’s property rights,” Zay said. “In our district, we have a lot of single-family homes being bought, and the next thing you know, there are 25 cars in the driveway, and (neighbors) are up in arms.”

Translation: “disruptive changes” are bad for property values. In other words, having religious assemblies in houses or veteran’s groups meet in houses would bring down the whole neighborhood.

4. What exactly would the Board say precipitated this move? Why don’t reporters ask the Board members?

Highlighting the isolation and independence of McMansions

A feature of McMansions that sometimes draws criticism is the possible isolation they offer their inhabitants. Neighborhoods of these homes are sometimes envisioned as wastelands where neighbors don’t know each other and really don’t want to have any interaction. Here is an illustration of this idea within an article about the “peer-to-peer economy”:

The mentality peaked during the ’90s and first half of the last decade. Heaven was a safe job, a McMansion, a Target (TGT) in your city, a Starbucks (SBUX) down the road, a credit card with no limit, and a seven-figure bank account. No need to ever interact with strangers! The perfect bliss of isolation, err, “financial independence.”

The general idea here is that the goal of life during this time period was to have so much money that people don’t have to interact with others that they don’t want to interact with. While this may be in the name of being “financially independent,” it is really about becoming self-sufficient and not having to depend on anybody.

Several thoughts about this:

1. Even with this so-called “financial independence,” it is hard to escape the need for other people. I’m reminded of Durkheim’s idea of organic solidarity where people are more interdependent on others than ever due to the division of labor but also feel more independent. This seems related to American cultural ideas of individualism: the goal is to become a self-made man/woman who can do it all on their own. Can we then interpret advice from people like Dave Ramsey as promulgating American individualism more than fighting debt?

1a. This fear of strangers is an interesting idea. It is often invoked when talking about the formation of American suburbs (white flight out of cities) or gated communities (trying to keep certain people out). I wonder if there is survey data that would suggests Americans are more afraid of strangers than citizens of other countries.

2. Is a single-family house more of a place to avoid people or to build up the individual and the family unit?

3. I understand the idea of a McMansion and a large bank account fitting the theme of isolation but what do a safe job, Target, and Starbucks have to do with it? In all three of these settings, people interact with others, particularly on the job. With money, one can purchase a customizable experience at Target and Starbucks but this would be true in a lot of commercial settings.

At least some builders says McMansion may not be dead yet

Amidst suggestions that McMansions are being “shunned,” McMansions should be subdivided, and homebuyers want denser, walkable communities, at least some builders suggests McMansions may not be dead yet:

Wilson said builders are taking the slow approach toward embracing the younger generation of buyers, who are buying homes and starting families later in life.

“Most builders are still in recovery mode and remain cautious with any revolutionary concepts,” he said. “The one consistent thread is that the buyer continues to shop hard.

“Housing is in a recovery mode, but the consumer is still looking for the best deal he can find.”

Baby boomers set the tone for housing in recent decades, but their influence is starting to wane, Wilson said.

“This is not to say that the McMansion is dead – far from it,” he said, “just that the following generation – the Gen X group – is not as large as the preceding group.”

And most of the millennial or 20-something buyers aren’t yet ready to commit to home ownership – particularly after the decline in values they have witnessed in many areas of the country.

“I’ve heard that some of the new homes in California are getting a lot smaller, but I don’t see how that works around here,” said Jimmy Brownlee, Dallas-Fort Worth regional president for K. Hovnanian Homes. “Our buyers aren’t asking for that. We are trying to open our houses up and give them more light.”

This builder and others (described as “stumped builders” in the headline) sound like they are waiting to see what will happen in the housing market in the near future. Several factors are at play: the state of the economy and the housing industry, regional differences (Dallas vs. California), and generational differences as the Baby Boomers transition to retirement and younger buyers are more skittish.

From this article alone, it sounds like regional differences could play a big role. In places like Kansas City and Texas, house prices never got out of hand in the same way as California, Las Vegas, Florida, and Arizona. Therefore, continuing to build somewhat bigger homes might not be such a stretch, even in a tough housing market.

Also of note in this article is the suggestion that the homes may still be fairly big but they not have all the amenities like granite countertops or a deluxe bathtub. I’ve suggested before that smaller homes may not necessarily be cheaper, possibly due to more upscale furnishings or due to a more desirable urban/denser location.

Clearing snow from one of Chicago’s enduring design features: the alleys

Crews around here are still working on clearing snow. Even this morning, several days after the major snowfall, some roads have impassable lanes. But Chicago faces an additional challenge: clearing snow from the alleys of residential neighborhoods:

But snowplows won’t be moving down alleys, arteries that are no less important to city dwellers. Streets and Sanitation Commissioner Thomas Byrne says plows might do more harm than good, pushing snow up against garage doors. Garbage trucks, however, will try force their way down alleys to make tracks for cars, he said…

Indeed, while alleys are the last to see city snowplows, they’re first in the hearts of many Chicagoans.

If the Champs-Elysees epitomizes Paris and Unter den Linden boulevard is symbolic of Berlin, the alleys that bisect Chicago’s blocks are emblematic of Chicago, no less than touristy Michigan Avenue…

Other cities, like New York, lack alleys, which means trash has to be put out on streets for pickup. Chicago’s alleys are lined with garbage cans, yet also are the ultimate urban playground.

Years ago, alley games contributed to local patois. “No dibs on broken windows!” was the starting signal for softball games, an announcement that only the batter would be responsible for smashing a ball through a window. The alley version of hide-and-seek was kick-the-can, accompanied by the cry “Olly olly oxen free!”

Alleys were also traditional avenues of neighborhood commerce. Today’s alley vendors, primarily scavengers, prowl the backyard byways by truck. Their predecessors drove wagons pulled by horses.

In the midst of a story about plowing, the reader receives a short education on the importance of alleys for Chicago culture. It would also be interesting to hear about alleys as a planning feature: does it enhance or detract from life on the streets? Does it allow for greater traffic flows on roads when garages and garbage cans are pushed behind buildings? How often do alleys become more of problems than assets (like in situations like this)?

This reminds me of the prominence of alleys in the designs of New Urbanists. Their neighborhoods often place garages in the backyards of homes and buildings so that cars are not such a prominent feature in front of structures. This is intended to enhance life on front porches and front sidewalks as homes can then be closer to the public areas. But this article from Chicago suggests that the alleys can also become important areas for social interaction, interaction that is not taking place on the front stoop or in more visible, public areas. If the goal of New Urbanist design is to enhance community life and interaction, does it matter if this takes place in front or behind a home?

The wood-burning fireplace is on the way out, not green enough

Wood-burning fireplaces are more decoration than heating apparatuses in modern homes. But the New York Times reports that even its decorative or symbolic value may not be enough to counter the arguments against their use:

Hard as it may be to believe, the fireplace — long considered a trophy, particularly in a city like New York — is acquiring a social stigma. Among those who aspire to be environmentally responsible, it is joining the ranks of bottled water and big houses…

Organizations like the American Lung Association are issuing warnings as well: the group recommends that consumers avoid wood fires altogether, citing research that names wood stoves and fireplaces as major contributors to particulate-matter air pollution in much of the United States.

Wood smoke contains some of the same particulates as cigarette smoke, said Dr. Norman H. Edelman, the chief medical officer for the American Lung Association, as well as known carcinogens like aldehydes; it has also been linked to respiratory problems in young children…

Perhaps not coincidentally, sales of wood-burning appliances dropped to 235,000 in 2009 from 800,000 in 1999, according to the Hearth, Patio and Barbecue Association.

Fireplaces are akin to McMansions? I would be curious to know how much effect a wood-burning fireplace has on the average person or how much pollution wood-burning fireplaces across the US release into the air. Then some comparisons could be made between the polluting effect of fireplaces and other objects (like McMansions or bottled water). In addition to the pollution, we could also consider how much wood is burned yearly in fireplaces and where this wood typically comes from.

Beyond the ideas about health and being green, the article fails to discuss several ways to keep a fireplace without burning wood. One option: have a gas fireplace. This may not be too green as well – it does burn gas. But you wouldn’t then have the release of particles into the air. The second option, which seems to be gaining in popularity: purchase an electric heater that looks like a fireplace. I see numerous advertisements for these all the time. Lots of benefits here: you still get the heat, nothing is burning (wood or gas), they are relatively cheap, you don’t have to worry about a chimney and keeping that clean, and you can move the “fireplace” around fairly easily depending on where you want it. There are some electricity costs but you can still retain the decorative or symbolic value without burning wood.

Deciding whether to buy or rent

One of the New York Times blogs discusses whether residents should buy or own. The decision could be based on a ratio for metropolitan areas that gives some indication of whether owning or renting is a better choice:

A good rule of thumb is that you should often buy when the ratio is below 15 and rent when the ratio is above 20. If it’s between 15 and 20, lean toward renting — unless you find a home you really like and expect to stay there for many years.

While the metropolitan average is 15.1, 17 metro areas have ratings over 20 (led by East Bay, CA, Honolulu, HI, San Jose, CA, San Francisco, CA, and Seattle) and 14 metro areas have ratings below 15 (with the five lowest being Pittsburgh, PA, Cleveland, OH, Detroit, MI, Phoenix, AZ, and Dallas – Fort Worth, TX).

The blog writer come to this conclusion about the data: “It’s pretty amazing when you think about it. The country has suffered through a terrible crash in home prices, yet buying a house remains an iffy proposition in many markets.”

While this may be true, what is even more remarkable is that homeownership is still such a widespread goal. If this measure is reliable and valid (meaning that it is consistent and it really tells us something about buying vs. owning), then homeownership might never really be about an economic improvement over renting. Rather, Americans have made owning a home an important cultural value and then use economic rationales to justify their decisions.

What exactly is it that appeals to people about owning their home? They get to make their own decisions, they don’t have to pay a landlord or wait for them to take care of repairs, they get some separation from their neighbors, and overall, they feel like they have made it on their own. If renting was a cheaper option but people could still afford to buy a home, how many Americans would decide to rent?

Measuring the popularity of tiny houses

I enjoy looking at pictures of tiny houses, those abodes with around 100 square feet. Perhaps it has something to do with my interest in home designs or my liking of cozy places or thinking about how Americans are finding alternatives to buying large homes.

But it is difficult to get a handle on exactly how many people like these houses or actually decide to buy them. One thing is sure: it is a small number of people. But this story suggests the number of people interested is on the rise:

Tumbleweed’s business has grown significantly since the housing crisis began, Shafer said. He now sells about 50 blueprints, which cost $400 to $1,000 each, a year, up from 10 five years ago. The eight workshops he teaches around the country each year attract 40 participants on average, he said…

Since the housing crisis and recession began, interest in tiny homes has grown dramatically among young people and retiring Baby Boomers, said Kent Griswold, who runs the Tiny House Blog, which attracts 5,000 to 7,000 visitors a day…

Gregory Johnson, who co-founded the Small House Society with Shafer, said the online community now has about 1,800 subscribers, up from about 300 five years ago. Most of them live in their small houses full-time and swap tips on living simple and small.

Johnson, 46, who works as a computer consultant at the University of Iowa, said dozens of companies specializing small houses have popped up around the country over the past few years…

He said his small houses, which sell for $20,000 to $50,000, are much cheaper than building a home addition and can be resold when the extra space is no longer needed. His company has sold 16 houses this year and aims to sell 20 next year.

These numbers are small – and anecdotal. Even with this rise in popularity, there are still few people interested in selling or buying tiny houses. Are there enough people here to declare that there is a “tiny house movement”? Why not include figures about how many people have joined Facebook groups having to do with tiny houses?

While the popularity of these homes might be indicative that more Americans are interesting in downsizing, the better figure to look at is the average size of the new American single-family home. Taking into account national data, this figure dropped this year and suggests that houses across the country are becoming slightly smaller (or at least reversing the trend of always getting bigger).

Designing kitchens for the people who work in them

An exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art in New York City explores the changing design of kitchens in the 20th century. While this room may indeed be a functional space, designs were often based on clear ideas about what kind of women were to be in such a space:

These days, there are magazines and television programs devoted to kitchen design, but in 1926 it was a new idea. In fact, curator Juliet Kinchin tells NPR’s Robert Smith, designing a kitchen was actually a political act.

“There’s always been that political dimension to kitchens,” Kinchin explains.

“For centuries, really, the kitchen had been ignored by design professionals, not least because it tended to be lower-class women or servants who occupied the kitchen space,” she says…

It was women who led the reform of the kitchen into an efficient space — one to be proud of. Kinchin says, “they were trying to adopt a scientific approach to housework and raise the status of housework.”

This is a reminder that homes and spaces inside and outside are linked to broader ideas about gender, social class, and what is considered the “good life.” Based on images from shows like those on HGTV and looking at real estate ads, the kitchen in today’s home is often the centerpiece with gleaming new appliances, rich cabinets, and plenty of storage space. This is commonly tied to ideas about the kitchen being the center of the home where someone cooks and the family gathers to work or play nearby. (This is somewhat ironic considering how much home cooking is actually done these days compared to eating out or eating prepared food.) Is placing more emphasis on modern kitchens empowering for women or a constant reminder about traditional values that would seek to keep women there?

I wonder if there are homes that feature “men’s kitchens” – though there may be plenty of big homes that have this in an outdoor kitchen/grilling area. This inside space might include a large television, large stove/grill, and comfortable seating.

Proclaiming the end of the “McMansion era”

CNBC reports that the real estate site Trulia.com says “the McMansion era is over.” This is based on evidence that more people want smaller homes:

Just 9 percent of the people surveyed by Trulia said their ideal home size was over 3,200 square feet. Meanwhile, more than one-third said their ideal size was under 2,000 feet.

“That’s something that would’ve been unbelievable just a few years back,” said Pete Flint, CEO and co-founder of Trulia. “Americans are moving away from McMansions.”

The comments echoed those made in June by Kermit Baker, the chief economist at the American Institute of Architects.

“We continue to move away from the McMansion chapter of residential design, with more demand for practicality throughout the home,” Baker said. “There has been a drop off in the popularity of upscale property enhancements such as formal landscaping, decorative water features, tennis courts, and gazebos.”

“McMansions just look and feel out of place today, given the more cautious environment everyone’s living in,” said Paul Bishop, vice president of research for the National Association of Realtors.

And homebuilders are heeding the call: In a survey of builders last year, nine out of 10 said they planned to build smaller or lower-priced homes.

This is interesting information – the McMansion was and is commonly cited as part of the excess of the late 1990s and early 2000s. But I have a few questions and thoughts:

1. We are in the middle of a housing crisis, one that is virtually unprecedented in recent history. Could these results simply be the result of this period? Look at the data over time: Americans since 1950 have progressively wanted larger homes. Might this change as soon as the economy or housing market picks up again?

1a. We would have to wait and see whether this shift might be a longer-term move to an emphasis on quality and appointments rather than sheer space. Since family size has dropped over the years, it makes sense that homes might not get so large. Or perhaps more people subscribe to some green ideas about having a small footprint.

2. There is still some demand for homes over 3,200 square feet. If you look at the Trulia infographics, most people seem to want homes around the 2,000-2,600 square foot range. These are not small homes – they would be slightly smaller than the average size of new homes built in most years of the 2000s and are larger than most American homes built after World War II.

3. This is survey data which gives us some measure of what people want to buy. However, people still have to make choices on the open market – will they turn down larger houses for smaller houses for an extended amount of time?

4. Will home prices go down or stay low in the long run – or will builders make up for having smaller homes with more features that will cost more?

5. There are some questions about whether a downturn in McMansions is part of a larger, more radical shift toward a new kind of suburbia. Perhaps. But even if this were the case, it would take a while for these new developments to be large enough in number to counter the typical views of suburbia and it would also require Americans to develop a new sense of community.

California Picture #7

A view of our hotel pool. I wish…

This is a view from a terrace above the outside pool at Hearst Castle. Quite a mansion and grounds. A fascinating (and opulent? garish? overwrought?) piece of work from what sounds like a very interesting man.

(My wife and I traveled to California for nine days in early July – this is part of a series of pictures from our trip.)