The rise of beach McMansions in New Jersey, Florida

Large homes are not just for suburban locations. Two recent pieces highlighted their role in changing beach communities. First, from New Jersey:

Decades ago, when I was a teenager, I rented a surf shack in the then-humble town of Beach Haven on the New Jersey shore. Four of us crammed into a squat cinder-block hut tucked behind a bungalow. We worked as lifeguards for $2.50 an hour. Still, our rent was only $187.50 each for the summer. We had a place to sleep, shower, and create memories. We didn’t need more…

But there is another less visible cost that rarely gets mentioned when Americans talk about coastal development and risks. Since the modern coast emerged after the Second World War, a series of land bubbles have wildly inflated land values, to the point that many ordinary families can no longer afford to live at the coast, or even afford a weekly summer rental. On Long Beach Island, a popular resort in Ocean County, where I worked as a lifeguard, $15 billion worth of property now crowds a narrow, 18-mile-long shoreline. The average price of a new home is about $1.1 million, with many costing millions more. Rentals run as high as $5,000 a week. Yet, paradoxically, the island was conceived by Morris Shapiro and other developers as an enclave for middle-class and blue-collar families – teachers, plumbers, electricians, and so forth…

I suppose it is unsurprising there are few, if any, surf shacks left. Most beach towns have been supersized. But unanticipated costs have come with that growth. High school and college students have few places to live and the labor pool for lifeguards, waitresses, hotel workers, amusement-ride operators, and so on has shrunk dramatically. Many shore towns now rely on a special federal visa program to supply summer help. Workers come from Eastern Europe, Ireland, even Australia. Even so, some businesses have been forced to cut hours or even close.

The change over multiple decades is drastic.

And from the Gulf Coast of Florida:

Anna Maria Island may be largely built-out, but that hasn’t stopped developers from buying older existing homes, tearing them down and replacing them with new high-end homes…

Officials in the cities of Anna Maria, Holmes Beach and Bradenton Beach say it is a worrisome long-term trend and that they are doing their best to maintain the island’s unique character and sense of place…

Stephen Gilbert, building official for the city of Bradenton Beach, said the land is often much more valuable than the existing older home that sits on the lot.

Of the new homes built in the last decade in Bradenton Beach, only a couple were intended as homes for the owners. The others were intended as investments to be quickly turned over for more cash, he said.

While the change here has come more recently, it sounds like a similar process: people with money and/or an interest in investments come in, tear down older homes, and construct beach McMansions. This has happens over a sustained period of time and the feel of neighborhoods and communities changes.

These changes certainly have local effects on hundreds of beach communities across the United States but there are larger processes at work. Are the big homes the cause or the symptom of bigger issues? The nature of real estate capital today plus the rapid rise in real estate values puts even small communities at the mercy of global markets. Communities can respond but turning down big amounts of new money is not easy and often requires significant opposition from local residents and leaders.

The scary McMansions of Lake Parsippany and giving up property rights

One New Jersey resident is not happy about the arrival of a McMansion next door:

Suddenly, the sun is gone, you’re in its shadow, it’s coming closer and closer. You can feel it’s poorly portioned eyes glaring down at you. You try to make the creature out, but its stucco front and vinyl siding sides confuse you, and there’s the artificial stone surrounding its mouth.

No, this is not an early Halloween tale, it’s the McMansion next store…

This is America, and no one should dictate to you what you can do with your property, but when you choose to have every tree cut down, use every inch of a lot and build a home 3 times the size of the original dwelling, that disrupts other people’s lives and infringes on their rights.

I would have never bought my home knowing the house next to me would be knocked down. Why would I think, a perfectly fine 3 bedroom home would be destroyed? What attracted me to the street was that each house was a little different, and each home had a yard and mature trees.

I’ve been told it’s a way to showcase your wealth, but I only see ignorance and bad taste. McMansions do not make good neighbors, they’re downright scary.

This letter summarizes the crux of the issue with teardown McMansions: how should a community or individuals balance the right of homeowners to use their property as they wish versus what their neighbors would like? Who should win when “no one should dictate to you what you can do with your property” yet certain buildings can “disrupt other people’s lives and infringe on their rights”?

Many communities have adopted some sort of community guidelines that both limit the size of teardowns and try to nudge the new structures toward existing architectural styles. Yet, I wonder if that does not solve the real issue: the negative interactions likely to occur between neighbors. Even if a new McMansion meets community guidelines, what are the odds an upset neighbor next to the new McMansion is likely to be happy with the new residents?

In other words, property rights do not necessarily lead to good neighbors, particularly if some neighbors are perceived to not follow the local norms. The result can be isolation, lawsuits, public arguments, and violence. Property rights might take ultimate precedent in a court of law but having a pleasant social life may require ceding some control.

Ongoing zoning controversies with mosques in New Jersey

Two recent zoning cases involving proposed mosques in New Jersey have garnered attention. A quick overview of each.

First, a newly filed federal lawsuit in Bayonne, New Jersey:

The mosque is proposed for an old warehouse at the end of a dead-end street on the city’s east side. The structure, built as a factory, previously housed a chapter of the Hired Guns Motorcycle Club, “made up of sworn law enforcement officers,” according to its website

To build the mosque into the existing space, Bayonne Muslims — the nonprofit organization that owns the space — went to the city in August 2015 to request zoning exemptions. It asked for requirements that a buffer between the existing building and adjacent properties be waived, and that it be able to provide less parking than required.
Ultimately, after three tumultuous public hearings, the proposal failed to gain approval at a March 6 meeting. The vote was 4-3 in favor of the project, but a supermajority — greater than the four votes in favor — was required under state law…
During the public hearings, some opponents expressed concern over the traffic and noise a mosque might bring to their dead-end street. Others cited verses from the Koran they asserted supported violence against non-Muslims.

A New Jersey town will pay an Islamic group $3.25 million to settle a lawsuit over its denial of a permit to build a mosque, the Department of Justice announced Tuesday…

The Islamic Society of Basking Ridge sued Bernards Township, an upscale town in central New Jersey, last year, claiming it changed its zoning ordinances in order to deny the group’s plans. The Justice Department also sued the town last year, alleging it treated the group differently than other religious groups…

Central among those was parking: Township planners had concluded that because Friday afternoon was considered peak worship time, congregants would most likely be arriving straight from work and would each need a parking space.

But a federal judge disagreed, and wrote in a ruling Dec. 31 that the town hadn’t conducted similar assessments of worship habits when churches or synagogues had made applications.

The Justice Department lawsuit also alleged the town changed its zoning laws to require houses of worship in residential districts to be at least 6 acres — larger than the lot the Islamic Society had purchased in 2011.

There are multiple issues at play in these cases:
1. Do municipalities apply the same standards to all religious groups? If not, why do particular groups receive more attention? (The two cases above involve Muslim groups. Do orthodox Jewish groups also receive a lot of attention?)
2. Is it legitimate to deny religious land uses for issues like traffic and parking (common complaints in suburban settings regarding many proposed land use changes)? In other words, are these typical NIMBY complaints or is there something unique about religious buildings?
3. Why are a number of these cases popping up in New Jersey? The state has a long history with exclusionary zoning issues – see the Mt. Laurel doctrine which developed out of a lawsuit. Additionally, it is home to a number of white suburbanites living in suburbs that they would like to preserve or protect.
4. Is the only path to resolution a federal lawsuit? Once such cases reach the level of a federal lawsuit, I would argue the communities have already lost. This is not just because RLUIPA cases tend to be settled in favor of the religious groups. I also imagine such lawsuits can bring negative attention to a community; do they really want to be known as the suburb that refused a certain group to worship there?
(These are not issues isolated to New Jersey. Perhaps there are similar conditions in the Chicago area suburbs. See earlier posts about mosque controversies in the Chicago region including here, here, and here.)

Quick Review: Driving After Class: Anxious Times in an American Suburb

I recently read anthropologist Rachel Heiman’s Driving After Class: Anxious Times in an American Suburb. Here are some thoughts about the study:

  1. I was drawn to this because even though a majority of Americans live in suburbs, there is a lack of in-depth studies of their experiences and social lives. I realize it is not a sexy topic – everyone thinks they know everything about suburbs – but there are plenty of interesting topics to pursue.
  2. The book is a little unusual in that it seems to be published a good amount of time after the research was done. Heiman undertook the research for her dissertation but the book was not published until 2015. This is not necessarily bad as time can give a researcher an opportunity to truly think about what they have found. At the same time, Heiman interprets some of her findings in light of the housing bubble and economic crisis of the late 2000s even though her research was from an earlier period.
  3. The best part of the analysis in my opinion was the chapter on a battle in the local school district. The New Jersey residents were part of a district that included a number of communities and when the district had to decide how to spread resources and which schools students should attend, the communities fought each other. In particular, the wealthier parts of the district generally did not want their children to have to attend the other schools which either had populations of lower-class or minority residents. Another chapter looked at how a community negotiated a request from a homeowner to place a gate across his driveway, a move interpreted by his neighbors and local leaders as an exclusionary effort. At other points, Heiman noted how residents reacted when she mentioned that she was living in a more affordable but less well regarded nearby suburb. More broadly, the analysis was better when it pointed out inter-suburban differences and how suburbanites negotiated their various statuses.
  4. The overall argument was that these suburbanites are trapped in a destabilizing neoliberal system. While this argument makes sense, I’m not sure it is too much different than critiques of suburbia dating back to the mid-1950s. Some of the same themes are present: conformity, squabbles over local class differences rather than looking at the larger social and economic system, anxiety, an emphasis on children, etc. While there are not enough studies of suburbs, we also need new approaches and arguments. And, there is still a basic question for studies of suburbs to consider: if life is so problematic in suburbs, why do many Americans still seek them out? If they are not dupes and have agency, what are viable alternatives to sprawling suburbs that offer what many Americans say they want?
  5. One topic I would have enjoyed reading more about: experiences inside housing. There is a chapter that takes an unconventional approach to this topic through examining the portions of homes with new carpet that is intended to impress visitors (and that children must not walk on with shoes).

In the end, I’m not sure this text would make my short list of excellent ethnographies of suburban life. At the same time, it has some strong moments and I could imagine using the chapter on school districts in courses.

Can McMansions count as affordable housing in some markets?

A New Jersey fair housing group highlights a recent report that argued thousands of homes $300,000 and up counted as affordable housing.

On the face of it, this seems absurd: expensive large suburban homes might count as being within the reach of many Americans? Yet, there is the matter of the particular housing market that may affect such calculations. The priciest markets tend to be on the coast and whether one is examining the median sales price or the average list price (and this does matter – the median suggests half the homes sell for above and below that price and all 15 on this list are around $300k or higher), a $300,000 home might be difficult to find.

Now, whether such a home is within the reach of many in the region is another matter and it is likely not. Even with higher incomes in these metropolitan regions, there are still plenty of workers and residents who don’t see as much of a relative bump in their salaries. McMansions might be some of the cheaper homes available in pricier markets but that does not mean they are attainable.

Do any of these more expensive regions have interest in suggested plans to alter McMansions (see here and here) to make more cheaper housing? This would likely face opposition from nearby owners who would fight tooth and nail against any efforts to introduce multi-family housing.

Some NJ suburbanites not happy with Orthodox influx

The New Jersey suburb of Toms River is up in arms regarding numerous Orthodox families moving in:

These days, though, most homeowners draw the blinds, retreating from brushes with a fast-growing Orthodox Jewish community that’s trying to turn a swath of suburban luxury 10 miles (16 kilometers) from Atlantic beaches into an insular enclave. The rub, a township inquiry found, is “highly annoying, suspicious and creepy” tactics used by some real-estate agents…

“It’s like an invasion,” said Thomas Kelaher, Toms River’s three-term mayor, who’s fielded complaints from the North Dover section since mid-2015. “It’s the old throwback to the 1960s, when blockbusting happened in Philadelphia and Chicago with the African-American community — ‘I want to buy your house. You’ll be sorry if you don’t.’ It scares the hell out of people.”

The upset has its roots in adjacent Lakewood, home to yeshivas including Beth Medrash Govoha, among the world’s biggest centers for Talmudic study. Scholars typically marry young and start large families that maintain strict gender roles and limit interaction with secular society…

The opposition, he said, has nothing to do with dislike of Jews, but with a fear that Toms River will become like Lakewood’s more tattered sections, with cars parked on lawns, overgrown landscaping, trash piled at curbs and residents crowding single-family homes.

As the article notes, this sounds similar to the tactics employed against different racial and ethnic groups in the first half of the 20th century: fear, worries about changing the character of the community and providing new social services, enforcing zoning laws, pushy slash creepy real estate agents, the potential for declining property values. Yet, this story hints that residential segregation is alive and well. Even though Americans regularly talk about the geographic mobility everyone can access, it doesn’t quite work this way as existing residents can be resistant to change and different racial and ethnic groups tend to cluster not just in cities but also in suburbs.

Hurricane Sandy made room for new McMansions in New Jersey communities?

Hurricane Sandy left a lot of destruction – and opportunities to construct new McMansions to replace older homes.

Long and many of her neighbors claim ostentatious monstrosities are changing the landscape of their modest and historic community, McLogan reported.

They accuse some of taking advantage of what Sandy wrought by raising and rebuilding their homes without any regard for the families next door — casting their smaller homes in shadow and gloom.

About 3,000 of Freeport’s 7,800 homes were damaged or destroyed in Sandy. New York Rising and the Federal Emergency Management Agency say rebuilding requires elevating homes at least a half-story from the street.

Freeport Mayor Robert Kennedy is fielding calls from residents frustrated by the number of McMansions being built, but he said neighborhoods must be protected from the next big storm.

Hurricane Sandy didn’t just destroy homes; it may just lead to long-term transformations of dozens of neighborhoods and communities. This is an unusual situation compared to the typical teardown where a new owner buys a single home in a neighborhood, tears it down, and constructs a new large home with some different architectural features. When so many homes are destroyed so quickly, neighborhoods could change quite quickly, regardless of whether the new homes are McMansions, a negative term applied to these new big homes, or not.

In a typical case, a critical mass of teardown McMansions tends to lead to a group of residents appealing to local government to adopt some sort of regulations that limit the size and/or designs of new large teardowns. Yet, these processes take time and I assume there is a quick timeline for some of these homes to be rebuilt. How this plays out remains to be seen…