Install a video doorbell to “join the neighborhood” in fear

A recent ad from Ring shows the kind acts neighbors can perform for each other and visitors. The moments range from dropping off misdelivered mail to warning about a fire to capturing footage of someone shoveling a front sidewalk to a resident leaving out snacks for delivery drivers. All of this looks good…And yet: do people install video doorbells because they want to capture good deeds? Or, are they more likely motivated by fear and safety concerns?

I have written about the new possibilities for suburban neighborhoods: homeowners with video doorbells can work as an ever watching surveillance force. And the footage can be shared with police! And no one has to answer the door! But, all of these share motivations: this is about fear, not about neighborliness. Even looking out for others in the neighborhood via the camera is about fighting against crime, disorder, and threats.

On the whole, I would guess video cameras will not increase the number of good needs and neighborliness. American communities need more face-to-face interaction, not monitoring via cameras or online discussions through platforms like NextDoor or messages through yard signs. The commercial is a worthy attempt by Ring to bring a positive message regarding the doorbell camera but hides more of what is really going on.

 

What community wants to actually fine residents for not shoveling their sidewalks?

Shoveling sidewalks in front of residences and businesses is important for pedestrians. Many communities have penalties on the books for those who do not clear their sidewalks, including Chicago:

Property owners in the city are legally required to shovel their sidewalks after it snows. And on the South Side, one alderman has been out cracking down on the problem.

Ald. Ray Lopez has been out in his 15th Ward neighborhoods since Tuesday, directing Streets and Sanitation workers to problem spots to hold people accountable.

Department workers were writing tickets to home and business owners who did not comply. Fines range up to $500…

Thirty two businesses got ticketed in the 15th Ward Tuesday, and Lopez said he expects there to be just as many Wednesday.

Even if neighbors get mad at a lack of shoveling, who wants to be the politician or local official who gives tickets to homeowners for this offense? From the information provided in the article above, it looks like the tickets were issued to businesses. It could be argued that businesses have a strong obligation to snow as it would be good for potential customers and they are often located in areas where there are more pedestrians (street corners, commercial areas along busy streets, etc.). But, imagine the optics of giving a ticket to an elderly homeowner or a single mother with multiple small children. Americans may like local government but not when that government appears to be heavy-handed.

A similar comparison might be fines many communities issue regarding long grass. If people do not keep their lawn below a certain height, some communities will come mow that lawn and then send a sizable bill. Neighbors do not like the message tall grass sends (regular lawn maintenance suggests a certain standing). I do not know the recidivism rates after this is done; it would be interesting to know if this helps promote more lawn mowing in the future.

Or, consider traffic tickets. Many drivers speed but few want to be ticketed if they are swept up in efforts to generate revenue for the community, outsiders are targeted, or routine acts are criminalized. Arguments can be made about safety and the good of the community might I would guess few people support getting a ticket.

All of this can put local officials in a tough position. These problems, unshoveled snow, long grass, and bad driving, can create dangers and resentment in a community if not addressed. But, fines may not be the best way to prompt action. Tomorrow, I will consider other options for clearing sidewalks beyond fines.

Lawn, yard issues affect even senators living in exclusive gated communities

The attack on Senator Rand Paul by his neighbor may have involved disagreements about yard maintenance:

That day may have come last month, when Boucher’s attorney said in an interview his client attacked Paul over long-simmering disagreements between the two about the care of grass, trees and other landscaping on their adjacent properties in an exclusive gated community…

“There is absolutely no political motivation behind this,” said Boucher’s attorney Matthew J. Baker. “It all stems from maintenance, or lack of it, at these two neighboring properties.”…

Skaggs said Boucher was exacting about the standards for his yard — landscaping bags filled with waste were a common site on his property. Neighbors said Paul had a reputation for a more relaxed style that some felt didn’t always jibe with a community that features gas lamps, Greek statuary and a 13-page packet of rules.

The senator had a pumpkin patch, compost and unraked leaves beneath some of his trees. Goodwin said it annoyed Boucher that Paul did not consistently cut his grass to the same height, and leaves from Paul’s trees blew on his property.

Early on in the article, this dispute is described as “the type of small-time neighborly conflict that has vexed many a suburban relationship.”

To some degree, this is why people move to gated communities or places with homeowner’s associations: they expect that the level of wealth or quasi-governmental oversight will relieve of problems with their problems. Instead of having to talk with their neighbors about potential problems, the issues are covered by community rules that can be enforced by a party that does not live on the property. And people often think that their property values are on the line: if my neighbor has a scraggly pumpkin patch or doesn’t rake their leaves, then I am going to be hurt by their lack of action that can clearly be seen from my house.

Still, even if such disputes are common, it is rare that they would reach the level of physical assault. More common is what the article describes as a lack of communication between the neighbors for years, what Boucher’s lawyer called “a cold war of sorts.”

San Jose residents don’t want tiny houses for the homeless nearby

Several cities have looked into tiny houses for the homeless (examples here and here) but residents in San Jose don’t like the idea:

But finding sites for the tiny home villages — which could house up to 25 people — proved to be a major challenge. The city looked for publicly owned sites that were a half-acre in size, near transit and with access to utilities. But after an outpouring of complaints, San Jose officials added even more restrictions — 100 feet away from homes and creeks and 150 feet from schools and parks, leaving just a handful of potential sites.

“It’s a shame that we didn’t have more viable opportunities from this list,” said Ray Bramson, the city’s acting deputy director of housing. “But we were constrained because land is so hard to find in this community. Some of the major concerns that we heard were about the potential impacts, from traffic to noise to new people coming into the neighborhood. We’re trying to be respectful of neighbors and the community.”…

“They’re almost segregating homeless families from existing neighborhoods and that’s not what San Jose is about,” Campos said. “If we can do this right and not give in to NIMBY-ism, then we set the path for other cities in California to address the homeless crisis in their own communities. This sends the wrong message.”…

But there’s push-back on those remaining sites as well. Councilman Johnny Khamis said at least 30 people came to his “open house” office hours last Saturday to voice concerns about the tiny homes site at Branham Lane near Monterey Road in his district. Residents were concerned about security and the “vetting process for the homeless,” he said, fearing crime, especially related to drugs and assaults, will rise.

How can a city address homelessness if few local residents want to live anywhere near the formerly homeless? Cities are sometimes criticized for sending the homeless out of town but it sounds like this could be an outcome here through restrictive options without officially sending them away.

There are several options available here but they aren’t that good. Homelessness, like many urban issues, is not just present in the big city but rather is a regional issue. Could multiple communities chip in? (Unlikely.) Perhaps the city could loosen their restrictions – such as needing a half acre of land – since these are unique housing units. (The neighbors might even be less happy if tiny houses are squeezed in smaller lots.) Try to shame the public into addressing homelessness? (Not a good long term strategy with voters and whatever shame might not be as compelling as the idea that their property values could fall.)

Can neighbors act respectfully toward a nearby teardown McMansion owner?

McMansions constructed in established neighborhoods can draw the ire of neighbors but one resident of Frederick, Maryland suggests civility should win the day:

As for the Magnolia Avenue controversy, the proposed house to be built is certainly not a mass-built, PUD-style “McMansion.” I believe it is just like the one being built near West Second Street and College. I walked down Magnolia the other day and there are numerous, very nice modifications to existing homes that I believe are inconsistent with the original architecture and a couple of houses that have been remodeled that don’t look like others there. I don’t think those modifications would have been allowed if this neighborhood were in the historical preservation area. I think the Artises’ home will be a great asset to the neighborhood. But now is not the time to restrict the Artises’ property rights after they made a significant financial decision based on existing laws and regulations.

I have met the Artis family. They are really nice people, and I believe any neighborhood would love to have them as their neighbor. Regardless of how this all turns out, I hope that we all remember that this is about a family more than it is about a house, and that our comments and discussions should remain kind and respectful — because we may be getting some nice new neighbors soon. We can’t just roll up the sidewalks once we move in and not allow anyone else in.

Granted, this resident is in favor of property rights and does not seem to mind the particular proposed home. But, the larger question is intriguing: is a McMansion next door or down the street worth incivility for years or a lifetime? The examples cited in the media – such as neighbors suing each other or consistently bringing the issue to the local government – suggest this is hard to do. Many would feel strongly if their immediate surroundings were impacted in a way that they felt was (1) negative and harmful as well as (2) unnecessary. Some would say that the teardown McMansion infringes on their quality of life and finances. They would suggest their anger and actions are justified.

At the same time, there are thousands of teardowns across the United States each year. How do the neighbors treat each other? Do they welcome the new homeowner to the neighborhood? If they dislike the new home, is there a frostiness that lasts a long time or does it eventually thaw? (For example, would someone deny their kid the chance to play with the kid in the new McMansion?) Perhaps the real answer is that many communities do not have thriving local social interactions to start with so the teardown issues do not matter much in the long run.

For more background on this particular case in Frederick, read here.

Jake Paul, celebrities, and a behavior code for McMansion dwellers

Jake Paul is angering his neighbors while living in a Los Angeles McMansion and this raises a number of questions about with whom the term McMansion is used:

The 20-year-old, who first became internet-famous on the now defunct app Vine, has been living with friends and “coworkers” in a Beverly Grove rental near Melrose and Kilkea. Mic reports they use the house as ground zero for loud parties and for some of his “stunts,” including lighting a pile of furniture on fire in the house’s drained pool and popping wheelies on a dirt bike on the street…

Paul has been living in the McMansion-style contemporary—where rent is $17,459 per month, MLS records show—since June 2016. (Paul is reportedly pulling in “millions” of dollars and is an actor on the Disney Channel show Bizaardvark, so he can afford it.)

The house is described on the MLS as having five bedrooms and five bathrooms. It was recently a Spanish-style duplex, but building permits show a new house was built on the site in 2016.

Beverly Grove has long fought against McMansionization of the neighborhood. Now many neighbors may be wondering, if they didn’t build it, would Jake Paul have come?

Three related questions:

  1. Can people who live in McMansions criticize others for ruining the neighborhood? Or, are the people complaining about Paul also the same ones opposed to McMansions? As the last sentence quoted above suggests, once you start letting in McMansions, it is hard to stop them.
  2. Is there a behavior code for McMansion owners? If your neighbors already don’t like your house, which may often be the case with teardowns, perhaps it would be best to lay low and try not to ruffle many feathers. On one hand, there is a stereotype that McMansion owners are the types who drive in and out of their cars without seeing anyone else yet there are often presumed to be people who have to prove something (and this comes out through their house and maybe through other behavior).
  3. Are McMansions more acceptable for celebrities and wealthy people? When people generally use the term, they are referring to more middle or upper-middle class who are trying to show off their wealth. But, celebrities typically have more resources than the average person. At the same time, the truly wealthy celebrities live in mansions that are far beyond typical McMansions.

To sum up, I would argue that celebrities who don’t antagonize their neighbors are rarely accused of living in McMansions.

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.

Defining a McMansion, Trait #2: Relative size

When I tell people that I have published about McMansions, the same question almost always arises: “What exactly is a McMansion?” My paper defining the McMansion answers this but in a series of posts here, I want to update the definition based on what I have seen in the last five years.

While McMansions are certainly larger than normal, in certain circumstances they can appear even larger than their square footage: when constructed next to smaller homes (often teardowns, sometimes infill properties) or when squeezed onto small lots (so that the homes seem to be bursting off the property). While I know the second case does happen quite a bit, most of the McMansion coverage of this trait in recent years focuses on teardown properties. Some patterns I’ve observed:

  1. The typical case involves someone from outside the neighborhood purchasing an older home (often a postwar house), demolishing it, and constructing a significantly larger home and/or a home that has a different architectural style than nearby homes. This one picture is a great illustration. Note that the new home does not necessarily have to be over 3,000 square feet or even include the worst McMansion architecture; it just has to be different from the existing homes.
  2. Media coverage of teardown McMansions is overwhelmingly negative. This is likely the issue only comes up neighbors upset over the construction of a teardown McMansion start looking for ways to stop the construction or limit future construction. On the flip side, it is hard to know how many teardown McMansions are constructed without much furor.
  3. It is hard to know exactly what motivates neighbors to complain so vociferously about teardown McMansions. Americans seem to want the ability to buy new homes in good neighborhoods (balancing modern features with valuable locations) but don’t like what it happens to them. The complaints often fall into two camps. First, those who live directly adjacent to a teardown may have a range of new issues to confront: people able to see in their windows, a hulking property next door, losing sunlight, the older home now looking dated or different. Second, the larger issue is often couched in terms of the character of the neighborhood. People feel that when they move to a particular place, that street or neighborhood should stay similar – after all, they liked its features enough that they moved there. A teardown McMansion threatens that.
  4. The fights between neighbors can be quite contentious, a rarity in many suburban communities where middle-class decorum suggests conflict avoidance is best. Lawuits occur (example and example), and some neighbors may even pool their resources to buy a nearby home and save it from being torn down. But, if the foundation of American life is owning a home, perhaps it is not surprising that such conflict arises when owners perceive their home to be under threat. See my six steps for responding to a nearby teardown McMansion.
  5. These conflicts often involve local officials. Numerous communities across the United States have guidelines for teardowns (see the example of Austin several years ago and Los Angeles more recently). Outside of historic preservation districts, these guidelines typically limit the size of the new home (through guidelines like a Floor Area Ratio) and/or provide guidance on particular architectural features.
  6. The teardown debates tend to put local officials in a strange position. Whose rights should they defend? Property owners? If so, do they want to allow long-time residents to have a voice in shaping their own neighborhoods or do they want individual owners to be able to sell their property at a good profit? Can they openly support builders and developers? I suspect most communities want to – growth, particularly high-end houses, is an important marker of vitality – but you don’t want to always run roughshod over your constituents. Teardowns are most common in neighborhoods and communities that are already well off – see recent evidence from the Chicago region – and this tends to pit already well-off community members versus well-off outsiders.

Teardown McMansions are a subset of McMansions as a whole, often constructed in desirable neighborhoods and sometimes raising the ire of neighbors and concerned citizens. Balancing the rights of neighbors and property owners will likely continue to be a sticky issue for many local governments.

What to do if “a McMansion is going up next door”

If a McMansion is built next to existing houses, what can neighbors do?

“It’s built so much higher than my house, virtually every window looks out into my backyard,” she says. Desperate to protect her privacy, she planted Italian cypress trees as a natural barrier. She tried to reason with the builder, whose unsympathetic response was: “Shouldn’t everyone be able to build their dream home?”

What’s going on in Mountain View is an extreme version of a problem cropping up all over the country: Huge houses are being built on plots of land originally meant to accommodate smaller dwellings, sparking a heated debate over what’s best for the community. Some argue that owners of larger homes pay more taxes, which can benefit all. But if your home happens to have its air and light blocked by a behemoth next door, you would likely be very, very upset — and can most likely kiss the idea of cashing out on your home sale goodbye…

A similar drama is playing out in Arcadia, CA, where more than 30 homes larger than 5,000 square feet (some as large as 8,000 — 9,000) have been proposed in the 850-home community over the past six years. In response, a group of longtime residents formed Saving Arcadia, which is currently battling the municipal government and City Council. Its argument: Overly lenient rules for developers have led to the proliferation of McMansions on lots that were zoned back in the 1950s for smaller homes. Plus, these oversize dwellings overburden the city’s water, gas, electricity, and other utility services…

Another option is finding a creative solution. One example is building downward (if a property is set on a hill) in order to increase square footage while preserving neighboring views, which is increasingly happening in various areas near Newport Beach. So maybe there’s hope that we can all play nice after all?

A homeowner who doesn’t like the nearby McMansion has a number of options available to them – these are sorted roughly in order of severity:

  1. Talk to the neighbor and builder. Might they be willing to make changes? They don’t have to but perhaps they are also unaware of what neighbors think of their actions.
  2. Modify your own lot or house to avoid having to see the new dwelling (if this is possible given its new size). For example, buy some artificial plants.
  3. Fight for local regulations. Many communities (see examples like Austin and Los Angeles) have considered rules about teardowns in recent decades and try to balance the interests of property owners versus those of neighborhoods. A variety of tools can be used including design guidelines, lot to house size ratios, approval processes, and historic districts.
  4. Buy up the properties that may become McMansions. This requires money but then you can control the fate of the nearby properties. See examples here and here.
  5. Sue your neighbor. You have to have resources to fight this out and it is likely to sour relations for a long time. But, some neighbors choose this option. See an example here.
  6. Move away. This is what the resident in this particular article does. This may be a last resort option or one favorable to those who don’t like open conflict (which is often minimized in suburbia).

In many places, the teardown McMansion cannot be stopped, particularly if there are not existing guidelines which are likely based off earlier cases or if the neighbor is not independently wealthy. Still, the neighbor who does not like it can pursue a number of options and each is likely to affect their relationship with the teardown neighbor.

Can powerful storms improve neighborhood relations?

Amid the tremendous snowfall on the East Coast, one might wonder: does a storm of that size bring people together?

A 1998 study looks at the short- and long-term effects of a major ice storm in the northeastern New York community of Potsdam. The storm completely totaled the area’s electrical grid and left many homes without power for two weeks in the dead of winter. The sociologist Stephen Sweet compared a survey on community perceptions administered three years prior to the storm to one administered just one month after it. After the storm, Potsdam residents saw their town as a more caring, friendlier, and more interesting place. But perceptions of Potsdam quickly returned to normal.

“When structure changes out of its normal form, behaviors shift and new types of social relations quickly emerge,” Sweet writes. (Think: snowmen in Hell’s Kitchen; plows kindly swerving to avoid them.) “However, once structure returns to its customary form, perception of social relations shift back in accordance with the familiar,” the sociologist concludes. (Read: as the snow melts, New Yorkers will return to being buttheads.)

Other research suggests that the degree of post-storm kindness is entirely dependent on the preexisting cohesion of the urban community. In 2013, the sociologist Eric Klinenberg took a close look at a deadly 1995 Chicago heatwave, which killed 739 people. Sadly and unsurprisingly, the neighborhoods that lost the most people were black and poor. But they were also markedly less socially cohered. The Englewood area, where the most people died, was one that had lost 50 percent of its population between 1960 and 1990…

In other words: Disaster preparedness helps, but whether a city can ride out a crisis also depends on interpersonal relationships. “Social cohesion is a critical component of building resilience,” Judith Rodin, the head of the Rockefeller Foundation and former president of the University of Pennsylvania, told The Atlantic last year. “You can look at communities that are literally adjacent and see a difference. Resilience is about building these capacities before the storm, before the shocks, before the stresses.”

Klinenberg’s book Heat Wave is an interesting look at this topic. As suggested above, factors including prior social relationships, race and class, and the connection of particular neighborhoods to the larger community as a whole matter.One interpretation of the research presented above: nature might do its own thing but social interactions and community life are pretty durable.

But, I wonder if the kind of and scale of disaster also matters at all. One thing that is unique about storms is that everyone is affected and has little control over nature. The outcomes might be very different – think different neighborhoods of New Orleans with Hurricane Katrina – but everyone had to respond in some way. If I had to guess, I would think neighbors of similar backgrounds – class, race, etc. – might be more neighborly in the wake of a storm. Does a larger storm lead to more community togetherness (even if the blip is temporary) as opposed to one that doesn’t do as much damage or where the effects are more localized?

And if there is any increase in community togetherness for a little while, what does this get translated into? It is very unlikely to overcome deep seated social divides. Does it lead to different policies? A few impassioned local news stories or editorials praising the efforts of neighbors to help each other? In Heat Wave, Klinenberg discusses the responses of the city of Chicago which includes city-coordinated cooling centers for the public to use. But, it is another matter to ask whether such centers improve community overall.