The case of Graceland: McMansion or not?

The term McMansion can sometimes be applied retroactively to eras where the moniker did not exist. For example, a description of Graceland in Memphis uses the term:

Graceland and the nearby newly opened tourist centre – clumsily titled Elvis Presley’s Memphis at Graceland – gets fans close to the King, but don’t dare touch anything. In bricks and mortar, the Georgian-inspired mansion is not really that big. These days, it’s more McMansion in scale than, well, a proper mansion.

According to Wikipedia, Graceland is over 17,000 square feet. The original part of the home was built in 1939 and only later did development encompass the large property (still over 13 acres).

This is still a very big house, even by today’s terms. I tend to apply the term McMansion when the size of the home is roughly between 3,000 and 10,000 square feet. Even then, homes of this size may not meet other traits of McMansions such as being too big for their lot (not a problem with Graceland), architecturally garish or poor quality (not a problem with Graceland), and associated with sprawl and luxury (maybe a bit applicable here). Perhaps Graceland might be McMansion in an interior related to pop culture and kitsch – but that is more likely a function of the home once belonging to a music superstar than it being a typical suburban McMansion.

Today, Graceland is still a mansion. Is it really that different than the large homes of entertainment stars and celebrities today?

The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel takes a shot at defining a McMansion

Spurred by complaints regarding McMansions in a white and wealthy Milwaukee suburb, the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel explains the concept:

Neighbors say the newer homes, which boast about 5,000 square feet, dwarf the other homes on the street, which have an average size of 2,000 square feet.

Merriam-Webster definies McMansion as “a very large house built in usually a suburban neighborhood or development; especially one regarded critically as oversized and ostentatious.”

The issue that the residents in the aforementioned Whitefish Bay neighborhood have is that overly large homes are being built on properties that once had a more modest home.

That dictionary definition has a lot packed into it and could conceivably cover a lot of homes. However, it seems the residents of Whitefish Bay are most concerned about the relatively size of the new homes which are more than double the size of surrounding homes.

The article then asks whether three pictured homes from the Milwaukee area would qualify as McMansions. Based on the pictures provided, I would say no to all three though the first could be. Unfortunately, the pictures are too tight on the home – they do not give much indication of the relative size of the home, the full facade and roofline, how the home and lot fit together, and the neighborhood in which the home is situated.

Linking environmental degradation and McMansions

A recent op-ed discussing how to respond to the extinction of species suggested building McMansions is not the way to go:

The solution is simple: moderation. While we should feel no remorse about altering our environment, there is no need to clear-cut forests for McMansions on 15-acre plots of crabgrass-blanketed land. We should save whatever species and habitats can be easily rescued (once-endangered creatures such as bald eagles and peregrine falcons now flourish), refrain from polluting waterways, limit consumption of fossil fuels and rely more on low-impact renewable-energy sources.

This is an interesting perspective of McMansions: they all include clearing broad swaths of land for giant houses and large lawns. If they all had 15 acres, these would be some pretty expensive McMansions. Indeed, I’m guessing these would be far out of the reach of the typical McMansion buyer (or builder) and this is territory for the true mansions.

At the same time, it hints at one of the key critiques of McMansions: they are an unnecessary use of resources. Because of their large size, they often require sizable plots of land to add the yard that is often required for American single-family home life. This does not even include how the resources to build the McMansion were procured. McMansion critics would often rather to build denser housing on smaller lots with more sustainable materials rather than carve out a large domain for one home in a large house.

Presumably, there is some middle ground between 15 acre McMansions and more acceptable McMansions. What if they did have much smaller lots? (This then often leads to complaints that they are too big for their lot.) What if they could be made with sustainable materials? What if they could be net-zero energy homes? What if they were built in denser areas where driving was not as necessary? (This can lead to concerns that they do not fit the character of denser neighborhoods.) There are some possibilities here that might render the McMansion more environmentally friendly.

Do “real-life millionaires” buy McMansions?

The spending habits of millionaires tends to be a popular topic but few people discuss exactly what kind of house they live in:

A millionaire is a person with a net worth of $1 million or more. Net worth is the value of everything a person owns, minus all debts…

Such an individual could have a negative net worth, yet they drive a Range Rover and live in a McMansion. Meanwhile, the millionaire next door lives in a three-bedroom house and drives a Hyundai…

Although it’s a common misconception that millionaires spend their money on luxury vacations, clothing, houses, and cars, what I’ve learned in growing my own net worth — and speaking with other millionaires — is that after a certain point, money stops mattering as much as it once did.

This seems to line up with the accepted wisdom that many American millionaires are relatively frugal and made their way to that wealth through saving and hard work.

But, if millionaires are not buying all those McMansions, who is? The flip argument expressed above that there are plenty of people living a millionaire lifestyle or above their means does not apply in all cases either.

Part of the trick here might be disconnecting income from wealth. Having $1 million plus in wealth does not necessarily mean you have the kind of assets to put down a sizable down payment or make sizable payments on a large house. (Think of the people who have paid off their mortgages and have a lot in retirement and savings accounts – this is not always easy to access.) Some people might be willing to buy homes based on whether they can afford the monthly payments – does it roughly fall within 30-35% of my monthly take-home pay – while others would be unwilling to splurge on a McMansion.

To be honest, I have not seen a convincing article or set of data regarding McMansion owners. I would guess a good number are in the top 20% of earners in the United States but probably a good portion are also living paycheck to paycheck.

“[P]eople with tiny house budgets often have McMansion dreams”

The title of this post is part of a larger quote – “On Tiny House Hunters it is painfully transparent that people with tiny house budgets often have McMansion dreams” – as a writer reflects on HGTV’s portrayal of tiny houses:

They too yearn for an open floorplan. They want storage. They want privacy. They want sleek kitchen amenities. They want room to entertain. That desire, to entertain, is the most delusional. In a home built for one, that may, with some dieting and sucking in of the gut, accommodate two, there is no entertaining. When you buy a tiny home, you are also making a commitment to socialize with your friends elsewhere if you hope to keep those friends.

As the reality of tiny living sets in, the hunters often lament how tiny a tiny home actually is. Or they are in complete denial and exclaim that there is just so much space. In one episode of Tiny House Hunters a man sat in the “bathtub” in the tiny bathroom. He looked ridiculous, his knees practically in his mouth as he contorted himself into the improbable space. He, the realtor, and his friend, who were all viewing the property, were nonplussed, as if the goings on were perfectly normal. And there I was, shouting at the television, “What is wrong with you people?”…

Shows like House Hunters and Tiny House Hunters flourish, in part, because even now, after the mortgage crisis and financial collapse, home ownership and the American dream are synonymous. Home ownership represents success and the putting down of roots. Home ensures the stability of the American family. When you own a home, there is always a place where you belong, and where you are the master or mistress of your own domain…

A cheerful television show about homebuying isn’t going to sully itself with a frank examination of economic realities or the fallout from predatory lending practices that made so many people believe they could afford to live beyond their means. Instead, Tiny House Hunters allows people the trappings of a middle-class lifestyle, regardless of their actual economic circumstances. The homes the hunters look at are often stylish, modern reinterpretations of the cookie-cutter prefabricated homes that inspire so much cultural derision. They may not have much space but what space they have is well appointed and chic or quirky. Tiny house hunters can soothe their class anxiety and stay just within reach of what they so very much want but cannot afford to have.

This leads me to two thoughts:

  1. As the piece notes, there is an important connection here to social class. People on this show want to have a middle-class (or higher) lifestyle in a small package. They are often unwilling to give up on certain items just because they are pursuing a smaller house. Additionally, I would argue that this quest to downsize is a largely middle- to upper-class phenomenon. The people on the show are not ones driven to tiny houses solely because of economic necessity. The cost savings may be nice but they also talk about reinforcing familial bonds, being able to move a home around more easily, consuming less, and helping save the environment. As the writer notes, they are not seeking after mobile homes and the class implications associated with them. Instead, they often want customized tiny houses that continue to display their higher than lower-class lifestyle.
  2. Some might applaud these people for realizing they don’t need such a large house. Instead of purchasing a McMansion or even the average size new home (around 2,500 square feet), these people are consuming fewer resources and resisting the strong pull of consumerism. At the same time, they still find something valuable in owning their own home. Why does this interest in home ownership continue? if people truly wanted a more environmentally friendly option, shouldn’t they go move into a small apartment in a dense urban area where they don’t need to drive much? (Many of the tiny houses on HGTV are frequently in more rural settings and still require a lot of driving.) In other words, even having a tiny house still allows these homeowners to participate in the middle-class American Dream which largely revolves around owning your own detached home.

And just as a reminder, there is little evidence that many Americans desire a tiny house. As of now, they largely appeal to a small subset of the population that does not necessarily need them.

Defining gentrification and gentrifier with moral dimensions

A new academic book on gentrification suggests the term – and the people involved in bringing about the process – may not be so easy to define:

According to Jason Patch, co-author of the book “Gentrifier” and associate professor at Roger Williams University, it is the reinvestment into a devalued neighborhood to create a new residential and commercial infrastructure for middle- and high-income residents…

“The assignment of the term ‘gentrifier’ becomes sticky only when we assign moral weight to the term. And many do so,” writes John Joe Schlichtman, an associate professor in the sociology department at DePaul University, in “Gentrifier.” Schlichtman is a co-author of the book, alongside Patch and Marc Lamont Hill. “Our interpretation of others’ gentrification is inevitably and inextricably tied in some way to our understanding of our own housing choices.”

According to Schlichtman, gentrification need not depend on the misplaced motives of housing consumers. To be a gentrifier is to be a middle-class housing consumer investing in a disinvested area in a period during which a critical mass of others are doing the same. This investment exerts pressure on the neighborhood — in the form of rising rents, or perhaps a shift in the nature of local policing, a change in the rhythms of the neighborhood, and so on.

“Yes, there could be gentrifiers with bad motives out there, but you don’t have to have bad motives to be a gentrifier,” Schlichtman said in an interview. “We need to take the depth of ethical and moral disgust out of the name gentrifier so that we can get people together and say this is something that we are a part of, but it’s also something that is bigger than us. … So how do we move forward?”

 

Some of the context that is important to know for why using the term “gentrifier” matters is explained in my recent post on residential segregation and race. Gentrification is not just about new, wealthier residents moving into a neighborhood; it involves race, class, and the history of housing in the United States.

Additionally, it strikes me that gentrification/gentrifier are words that function similarly to McMansion: in regular conversation, there is little positive implied by any of these words.

Regulate McMansions in order to provide more housing

Expecting population growth, Portland, Oregon is looking to limit house sizes:

The zoning changes are in the planning stages, and it won’t be until early next year that City Council will vote on whether to approve the changes.

New zoning laws could limit the size of homes, allowing single-family homes to be half the size of the lot. A standard lot in Portland’s inner eastside, which is primarily zoned for single-family homes, is 5,000 square feet. The proposed zoning code would limit that home to 2,500 square feet…

The city says it’s heard complaints over so-called “McMansions,” or homes that are much larger than the rest of the houses in a neighborhood…

The new zoning proposal also calls for increased flexibility in building duplexes, and on corner lots triplexes could be built. The city says increasing density will give families more options where to live.

This is an interesting approach to regulating McMansions. Rather than emphasize their poor architecture, excessive use of resources, or threat to neighborhood character, instead stress that the land could be used for more housing units. And because Portland has both stricter development boundaries regarding its metropolitan region as well as expectations for population growth, zoning for higher density could make sense. It would be interesting to see if this approach cuts down on criticism that property owners should be able to do what they want.

There are probably already a number of McMansions in the Portland area but it is interesting to contemplate a major city or region without any McMansions.