Maybe modernist houses will appeal to millennials – in certain circumstances

Architects and cultural critics often like modernist homes even as Americans largely do not prefer them. But, perhaps millennials will select modernist homes:

“For a while people were just tearing them down, but people are seeking them out now — they’re the anti-McMansion,” says Ellen Hilburg, co-founder of the real estate resource Mid Century Modern Hudson Valley. “For some people, it’s a nostalgia factor. But Millennials are discovering them, too. It’s an aesthetic that appeals to people who are aware and environmentally conscious.”

There are a number of pieces of this story that suggest preferences for modernist homes are tied to particular traits of the homeowner or observer:

1. A higher social class.

2. Higher levels of education.

3. Rejection of consumerism and the implied materialism and conformity that goes with it.

4. An interest in the “cool” factor of a home.

5. Living in a community – such as a wealthy, middle to upper-class suburb – where modernist homes are present and accepted.

Putting these categories together, there may indeed be a slice of Americans who prefer modernist homes. But, this also sounds like a taste connected to cultural capital, to invoke Bourdieu. In other words, expressing a preference for modernist design is connected to social class and education that not all Americans have access to.

At least 12 reasons Americans have the biggest houses in the world

Why do Americans have the largest houses in the world? A lengthy list of reasons:

  1. Americans like private homes. This often means they desire detached single-family homes in the suburbs. So why not have a lot of private space? Similarly, Americans place a lower priority on pleasant public spaces or spending time in public.
  2. The trend toward larger homes really took off in the postwar suburban era. At the time, this could be linked to growing family size with the Baby Boomer generation. (Interestingly, as household sizes decreased in recent years, homes continued to get bigger.)
  3. Americans like to consume. With relatively large amounts of disposable income, Americans need space to store their stuff, ranging from clothes to media to new technological devices to cars. The answer is not to get rid of stuff but rather to have a big house to store bulk goods. Garages are important parts of homes since driving is so important.
  4. Americans have increasingly viewed housing as an investment rather than just a place to live and enjoy. If the goal is to get a big financial windfall later in selling the home, it could pay off now to buy as much as possible.
  5. Compared to some countries, Americans have a lot of land to build and sprawl. Americans have also made different land use decisions to prioritize lower densities and sprawl.
  6. There are regional differences regarding large homes. McMansions are everywhere in the United States but more culturally acceptable in Dallas than in New York City. Many metropolitan regions have housing prices that make having a big house possible (compared to New York, San Francisco, LA, and Seattle).
  7. Developers and builders are less interested in constructing starter houses as there are more profits in bigger homes.
  8. A number of communities will only allow homes of a certain size in order to maintain their character and status.
  9. The government has provided funding and support for mortgages, suburbanization, and driving over the last century.
  10. Americans have a bigger is better mentality as well as believe that growth is good. This applies to population growth and also applies to houses.
  11. McMansions are popular with some but America has plenty of large homes that would not qualify as McMansions. From large urban condos and homes to large rural properties, Americans can find plenty of big homes to purchase.
  12. The space in homes does not have to be used to be desirable. For some owners, the space itself is just worth having.

(This post was inspired by this recent article. Also, see this earlier post “Explaining why Americans desire larger homes.”)

Zoning for single-family homes contributes to California’s housing issues

If a lot of individual communities zone largely for single-family homes, it can add up to larger housing problems:

At its heart, California’s housing problem is one of scarcity: According to one analysis, the state has 3.5 million fewer homes than it needs to house all the people who live there. That gap was created over decades — largely as a result of the zoning policies of individual communities, under pressure from local residents. Randy Shaw, a longtime Bay Area housing advocate and author of the book Generation Priced Out, says the best way to describe the dynamics at play is to look at the city of Atherton. Thirty minutes from San Jose, Atherton is the most expensive city in the country: The median price of a home there is $8.1 million.

“You can’t build an apartment building in Atherton,” Shaw says. City code prohibits anything other than a single-unit building with a footprint that cannot exceed 18 percent of the land. In other words, everything but a single, detached home with a yard is verboten. “You have all of these cities in California where you can’t build anything but a luxury home,” Shaw says. “When you have zoning restrictions that prevent you from building the housing you need, you’re pretty much guaranteed to get in the situation we have.”

It’s a problem lawmakers across the state are grappling with, including in San Jose, where 94 percent of the city is zoned for single-family homes. “You got lots of family housing, and you’re not going to bulldoze it to go build apartments,” Liccardo said at a meeting of the state’s mayors in July. “At least, not if you don’t want [homeowners] to burn down City Hall.”…

At the start of the legislative session this past January, the housing committee introduced a slate of bills focused on streamlining approvals for new construction, protecting renters, funding affordable housing, and, most controversially, reforming zoning laws. Wiener’s top priority was SB50, an ambitious proposal that would prohibit cities from having zoning laws like Atherton’s. Residential neighborhoods historically reserved for single-family homes would be opened up to multi-unit housing like triplexes and fourplexes. And even higher-density construction would be allowed around transit corridors and “job-rich” enclaves.

With suburban preferences for single-family homes, exclusion, and local control, providing cheaper housing at a state level is going to be a tough sell. As I have asked before, what incentive do wealthier homeowners have to change the rules that let them live with people like them? But, if California can find some path through this all that actually makes an impact – and it will likely take quite a while before significant change could be noted – then it could provide a helpful template for other American locations that suffer from similar problems.

Finding the Simpsons home in the sprawl of Las Vegas

A subdivision in the Las Vegas suburb of Henderson features a home made to look like the Springfield home of The Simpsons:

SimpsonsHomeHendersonNV

Once upon a time, the house on Red Bark Lane wasn’t just another address in a sprawling suburban development: It was originally built as a nearly exact three-dimensional replica of 742 Evergreen Terrace, the Springfield residence of Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa, and Maggie Simpson. Working on a short schedule, architects and builders de-fictionalized the home featured in The Simpsons for a 1997 giveaway that was intended to leave one lucky fan with the ultimate in cartoon memorabilia. No detail was spared, from a food dish for their cat, Snowball II, to Duff beer cans in the fridge.

But controversy soon erupted in this faux-Springfield mock-up. The homeowner’s association wasn’t keen on having a cartoon house that broke conformity requirements by being painted solar yellow. The sweepstakes winner rejected it outright. And the current owner had to learn to live with the property being a source of perpetual curiosity for fans of the show who brazenly turn her doorknobs and peer through her windows at all hours of the day and night. As it turns out, the reality of living in a fantasy can get a little complicated…

Once the project was approved, Woodley and Gonzalez pored over 100 episodes of the show and storyboards on loan from the production to try and discern a layout. “We took a floor plan we already had and did things that still had to meet building code but was reminiscent of The Simpsons,” Gonzalez says. “We never would have put in a rounded door or windows in the spots they were in.”

The team’s goal was to be 90 percent normal, with occasional lapses into cartoon continuity. Door frames were widened and lengthened to accommodate Marge’s hair and Homer’s girth. The stairs leading to the second floor were slightly steeper than normal. The downstairs floor was poured and painted concrete rather than hardwood or carpet, the better to mimic the show’s flat colors. Bart’s treehouse was erected in the backyard.

Like other homes on TV, the floor plan doesn’t exactly work. What makes this case interesting is that this is an animated show that does not have the same constraints as one with actors. With live actors, homes may not have walls or have rearranged features to allow cameras to have wide views. The proportions with live actors will also be different.

The interest from fans is understandable; TV shows offer few physical spaces where fans can connect to a show. Fans can go to studio backlot to see locations (I have toured a few and it is an interesting experience to see places that are on TV screens for seasons) or track down interior and exterior shots (for example, see a comprehensive list of locations on The Sopranos). But, many family shows revolve around the single-family home. The famous opening credits end with the family in front of the TV in the family room. The family regularly gathers in the kitchen for meals. The kids and parents talk in bedrooms upstairs. The garage, basement, and backyard are home to many scenes. The article asks why the contest winner did not accept the home and make money off tours; perhaps the better question is why someone has not recreated the house elsewhere and catered to Simpsons fans.

Finally, that the replica is located in Henderson, a fast-growing suburb in the desert outside Las Vegas is a fun contrast to the small town charm of Springfield. The show creators have famously kept Springfield’s location secret but it would difficult to imagine the home located in a neighborhood like that shown in the Google satellite image above.

Three thoughts on the finding that 7.5% of housing in Naperville is affordable

Naperville is a large – over 140,000 residents – and wealth – a median household income of just over $114,000 – suburb. It also does not have much affordable housing:

A state agency recently faulted Naperville as the only Illinois community of 50,000 or more lacking affordable housing, which, according to the federal government, means housing costs make up no more than 30% of a household’s income. In a report last year, the Illinois Housing Development Authority found just 7.5% of Naperville homes are considered affordable based on the regional median income, among the lowest percentages in the state.

Some elected officials fear Naperville’s high housing costs could drive out seniors and push away recent college graduates and middle-class professionals. As those city leaders consider a slew of new developments, they and housing advocates are debating how and whether to include affordable units that could bring in new residents and help people such as Melekhova stay…

Efforts to include affordable housing in Naperville developments have been met with some resistance. Residents have questioned the effects affordable units would have on their neighborhood and whether the look of buildings with affordable units would fit the character of the area.

One question submitted on a note card during a panel on affordable housing in May was more pointed: “What steps can landlords utilize to minimize the potential negative impacts of the associated tenants utilizing affordable housing?”

Based on my research on suburbs and Naperville, three quick thoughts:

  1. Naperville enjoys being a wealthy suburb. It has a really low poverty rate for a city its size. It has lots of white-collar jobs. While this tends to be put in terms of having a high quality of life, nice amenities, and good schools, there is clearly wealth.
  2. There is not a lot of affordable housing because that is not the kind of housing Naperville prioritized for the last fifty years. As the suburb really started to grow in land area and population in the 1960s, there were public discussions about building apartments. This is not what won out in the long run and the community approved subdivision after subdivision of nicer single-family homes. (See my 2013 article that details some of this.)
  3. More recent discussions and the comments highlighted in the article are common ones in suburban debates over affordable housing. When suburbs discuss affordable housing, they often are thinking of people that would desire in the community such as younger adults and retirees. They are not explicitly seeking out poorer residents. Such concerns can be put in different terms – privileging “quality” development or protecting the “character” of neighborhoods – but they often do not address housing for the many Americans working in lower-paying jobs. And there may be some support for affordable housing units but it is harder to find the suburban homeowners who want to live near those units.

All that said, truly addressing the issue of affordable housing requires more effort than adding a few units spread throughout the large suburb. A larger discussion about what kind of housing the community desires and what kind of residents it wants would have to take place before the number of affordable housing units would truly jump.

Imagining suburbs completely covered by security cameras from single-family homes

After a story from Kane County, Illinois about the extra work for prosecutors in going through video evidence from video doorbells, this got me thinking about surveillance in the suburbs. Imagine in the next few years the typical suburban neighborhood is covered by homeowner surveillance cameras of one kind or another: video doorbells plus consistently-running or motion-detection cameras mounted on the inside and outside of homes.

Traditionally, suburban areas have been more fond of privacy with the emphasis on single-family homes, interactions with neighbors by choice, and a willingness to fight local initiatives if they threaten said property and home. Big cities have long been home to more surveillance ranging from Jane Jacobs’ famous line about “eyes on the street” to the rise of CCTV in London.

What exactly is the cause of all of this? A few factors may be at work:

  1. The ease and low cost of the technology. Why have a regular doorbell when a video doorbell does not cost that much? (And the Internet suggests some people have fears of answering the door.)
  2. Fear of crime, even in relatively low crime suburban areas and after violent crime has dropped in the United States.
  3. A belief that video evidence is much more conclusive evidence compared to other types.
  4. A want to monitor/protect one’s single-family home at all times.

But, if every square inch of suburban street and sidewalk (plus a lot of yards) are covered by cameras, is something lost? Is there more trust that can disappear between neighbors? Is it truly all suburbanites for themselves even as at least some of them are fairly financially, socially, and educationally secure?

If suburban neighborhoods are increasingly under video surveillance, I wonder if this might change some decisions about where people live. Could this push people to more rural areas or perhaps to communities that more tightly control entries and exits (think gated communities with a real presence all around the perimeter? Or, would the extra surveillance encourage people to live in certain suburbs? Perhaps the decades-old neighborhood watches will be replaced by an unblinking eye on every house.

Counterarguments to the claim that people should not waste money on a big house

Economist Robert Shiller argues Americans do not need large houses:

“Big houses are a waste. People are still in a mode of thinking about houses that is kind of 19th century. As we modernize, we don’t need all this space,” Shiller told the Journal…

Shiller said advanced technology has replaced the need for extra space in our homes.

“For example, we don’t need elaborate kitchens, because we have all kinds of delivery services for food. And maybe you don’t need a workshop in your basement, either. You used to have a filing cabinet for your tax information, but now it’s all electronic, so you don’t need that, either. And bookshelves, for people who read a lot. We have electronic books now, so we don’t need bookshelves anymore,” Shiller said.

“Having a big house is a symbol of success, and people want to look successful. People have to know about your achievements. How do you know, really? Who knows what people are doing in their day job? But you do see their house.”

The counterargument for a typical owner of a large house might look like this:

1. What else could be such a worthwhile investment over time? Many people assume their home will appreciate in value and a big home purchased today means not only more space but more money down the road when the home sells.

2. Private space is still important. The kitchen may not be just about cooking. Of the spaces Americans do use in their homes, the kitchen is one. Or the idea of a workshop: there can be public spaces where people could come together to share tools and use common space but how many Americans are ready for that?

3. Shiller may overestimate the rate at which people are willing to get rid of stuff in favor of electronic copies or technology-aided alternatives. Shiller cites paper and books above. But, Americans simply consume a lot, ranging from video games to decor to furniture to electronic gadgets. Don’t they need bigger houses to fit all their stuff?

4. Status symbols matter in American society. A home is a very tangible expression of status, particularly compared to smaller items like watches, smartphones, jewelry, clothing, and other items.

All of these reasons may not be the most efficient or rational but they are a product of decades of social and cultural action and values. For more reading, see an earlier post: “Explaining Why Americans Desire Larger Homes.”