The spread of upzoning and metropolitan regions

A number of cities and states in the United States have changed zoning guidelines or are considering changes to allow multiple housing units in what used to be areas just for single-family homes:

Minneapolis and Seattle are among cities that have effectively abolished zoning that restricts neighborhoods to owner-occupied, single-family dwellings. Oregon has done so in its largest municipalities, and Californians, like residents of Salt Lake City, are now free to build small cottages, sometimes called “granny flats,” for use as rentals in neighborhoods that were previously single-family only…

Before World War II, only about 13% of Americans lived in a suburb; now more than half of us do, and as the New York Times reported, in many American cities, more than 75% of residential land is zoned for single family use only.

In some cities, the share is even higher: in Charlotte, North Carolina, for example, 84% of residential land is zoned single-family; in San Jose, California, 94% is, according to a Times analysis in collaboration with UrbanFootprint…

Other states with single-family zoning in the legislative crosshairs in 2020 include Virginia and Maryland, where House Delegate Vaughn Stewart says upzoning can correct social-justice issues, as well as housing problems. “For too long, local governments have weaponized zoning codes to block people of color and the working class from high-opportunity neighborhoods,” Stewart told Kriston Capps of CityLab.

Sonia Hirt, quoted in this article, argues that single-family homes drive zoning in the United States as the goal is to protect homes and homeowners from uses they find less desirable, threatening to a residential character, and negatively impact property values.

As someone who studies suburbs, zoning, and housing, here are a few thoughts about the future of these changes:

  1. Making changes at the city or municipal level will be easier or more palatable to more voters who tend to like local control over land use decisions. If zoning changes are made at the state level, it will be harder to enforce the guidelines or penalize communities that do not comply.
  2. Wealthier communities will fight hard to avoid these zoning changes. Part of the appeal for some to move to wealthier suburbs is to keep others out and have a particular aesthetic (and these homeowners usually are not looking for more density).
  3. Adding some accessory dwellings throughout single-family home neighborhoods may not change the character of communities much but asking for bigger changes – multi-family housing, apartments, condos, turning large single-family homes into multiple units – on a bigger scale will be a tough sell in many communities.

These difficulties suggest progress in providing more affordable housing or more housing units could be slow. If change and enforcement primarily happens at the local level, this limits the ability of regions to address affordable housing issues because the problem simply becomes one that other communities should address. Housing, like transportation or water, is an issue that benefits greatly from the cooperation of all actors in a region. While it is a difficult topic to address at this level, let alone a national level, significant progress requires broader cooperation and efforts.

Opposition to five McMansions built by billionaires in England

A proposal from two billionaire brothers for five McMansions in Blackburn prompted concerns from community members:

Mohsin and Zuber Issa, both in their 40s, who own Europe’s biggest independent forecourt firm Euro Garages, will proceed with their buildings, which have been dubbed ‘McMansions’, after overcoming a string of complaints from protesters.

Despite the fierce opposition, which saw the council face 30 letters of complaint, eight old houses on the site in Blackburn, Lancashire, have now been demolished and builders have laid foundations for the five 5,000 sq ft mansions…

The identical builds, which sit just three miles from where the Issa brothers grew up in a two-up two-down terraced house, have been described as ‘not in fitting with the local area’ as the homes stand over over 4.5 metres taller with 1,500 square metres of floor space…

He said: ‘They will look monstrously big – this is totally out of character, as all the other executive houses in this area are individually architect-designed and are laid out with plenty of valuable mature garden space between them.

This is an interesting case of McMansion conflict in England. The pictures show the land in question originally held eight homes, all single-family, with decent-sized lawns and green space around them. The land is in a more secluded area with a small forest on one side of the properties and large lots on the other side.

So these new homes are not changing the single-family nature of the stretch and they are even consolidating the number of homes from eight to five. Yet, this seems similar to many American teardown cases: the new homes are larger than what was previously there, the homes are taking up more of the lot (and reducing the greenery), and the design of the home is more cookie-cutter large home than “individually architect-designed.”

How much effect will these five McMansion homes have on a sparser neighborhood and small village? Checking back after five or ten years could reveal how the presence of these larger homes affects social relations and the feel of the neighborhood.

Gendered McMansions, Part 4: figuring out the role of gender

Thus far, I have discussed how the size and architecture of McMansions, the large kitchen and living spaces, and the emphasis on raising children in the suburbs interacts with gender. How might researchers examine the gender dynamics of McMansions? A few ideas:

  1. How many McMansion owners are women and how many are men? (This could require a master list of McMansions in a location or across a broader geography.)
  2. When choosing a home and where to live, are men or women more likely to select a McMansion? Related: when asked to compare McMansions and their features to other kinds of homes, how do men and women compare in what traits they prefer? (A series of experiments with sets of choices could reveal differences.)
  3. Which gender spends more time in different parts of the McMansion? Studies have looked at use patterns in homes; why not break it down further by gender within McMansions? Are family rooms, basements, and garages used more by men and kitchens and nearby living spaces used more by women? Does a “man cave” truly exist or is it more of a luxury item? (Use observation or some kind of recording device to track movement in the home.)
  4. When people see McMansions (either driving/walking/biking by or on screen), who do they imagine lives there (men or women, in addition to a whole other sets of questions about race/ethnicity, social class, age, education, personal tastes, etc.)? Looking at the exterior (and maybe parts of the interior), what gender do they associate with the different aspects (and how does this compare to other homes)? (More experiments.)
  5. Do McMansions simply carry on the gender stereotypes of other single-family homes and suburban locations or they challenge some aspect of this developed and experienced knowledge about gender and homes? (Need comparative work between different styles of single-family homes.)

Perhaps all of this might be of best use to builders, developers, real estate agents, and marketers who could profit off this information. On the other hand, there are many Americans who live in McMansions (and who will do so in the future or have done so in the past). Have these homes, the hours spent in them, the ways the design, size, and connotations shaped social interactions had an impact on individuals, families, and communities as well as our understandings of gender?

 

The top 5 posts of 2019: the suburbs (on TV and the development of), changing households, and potholes

As 2019 comes to a close, here are the five most visited pages on Legally Sociable for the year:

  1. The exterior vs. the interior of the Brady Bunch house and architecture in TV and movies. This post continues to be popular; here are three possible reasons: there are dedicated fans of the Brady Bunch, this home is particularly iconic, and there is relatively little scholarly work about depictions of suburban homes on television (though this post helped inspire two publications of mine: one on suburban TV shows and one on the fictional McMansions of the Soprano family).
  2. A new term: the “accordion family.” Household arrangements continue to change in the United States and this is one of the changes that emerged out of the economic troubles of the late 2000s: more twenty-somethings living at home.
  3. The highest post from 2019 on this list: Rethink Rezoning, Save Main responses share similar concerns – Part One. This overview of two local zoning concerns, one a proposal to rezone property along a major road through a town and one a proposal to build a five story apartment building in a suburban downtown, had a Part Two with more sociological analysis that was nowhere near as popular.
  4. Responding to “The Disturbing History of Suburbia.” I add some scholarly sources and discussion to this video which is a good starting point to thinking about the large role race and ethnicity played in the creation and maintenance of American suburbs. It is hard to escape the importance of race in understanding the American suburbs.
  5. Song invoking filling potholes with cement (which the gov’t is not doing). There are few songs even hinting at these topics and Twenty One Pilots are popular.

Of the top posts, three involve reactions to popular culture (the Brady Bunch, Adam Ruins Everything, and a song from Twenty One Pilots), one is about a sociological concept, and three invoked sociological reaction in two areas of my research interest (suburbs on television and suburban development).

On to a new year of sociological commentary.

Exterior Christmas decorations a symbol of class status?

I have considered how a well-kept lawn and a yard devoid of weeds and autumn leaves are symbols of social class. Are Christmas decorations similar markers?

I would say the majority of suburban single-family homes feature no exterior Christmas lights. By that measure, having lights is not the same as having a neat lawn. In many suburban neighborhoods, it is a necessity or requirement to keep one’s lawn cut to a reasonable height. Of course, people of certain means or tastes can take more care of their lawn and landscaping beyond just the basics of what is required. Similarly, many homeowners will take care of many of their leaves while those who desire to get rid of every leaf will take the extra steps.

Perhaps Christmas lights then are more like dealing with weeds. The homeowner who wants to keep up their property values and/or contribute to the appearance of the neighborhood will eliminate weeds before they even sprout (rather than addressing the issues as they arise). Christmas lights are a nice touch but not necessary in the same way as a green lawn.

Christmas lights may not function in the same way as these other exterior touches for several reasons:

  1. The Christmas season is relatively short. Some might get a head start on lights and decorations before Thanksgiving but the full seasons of lights is probably about six weeks long (Thanksgiving through New Year’s). In comparison, people have green lawns and growing plants for months.
  2. Not many homes are sold at this time of year, particularly in colder climates, compared to other months, particularly the early Spring to mid-Summer window. Thus, Christmas lights have a more limited impact on property values (and may not be remembered much at other times of the year except in egregious cases for distasteful decorations or displays that draw too much attention).
  3. Not everyone celebrates Christmas. (I suppose the flip side of this is that many homeowners celebrates lawns or nature or spring/summer or something like that. Or, maybe they are just bored.)
  4. There is not the same cultural importance on Christmas decorations for homes compared to the long-standing interest in having a green lawn from the beginning of suburbs to Levittown to today.

In sum, Christmas lights and decorations do not matter as much as lawns as markers of social class and property values. Those with more resources can put together larger displays and might veer toward more aesthetically pleasing displays than those without resources or different tastes. Given the commercialism of Christmas and the decreased emphasis on lawns, could there one day be more interest in Christmas decorations than a well-maintained lawn? This is a long shot…

Toll Brothers, smaller homes, and “affordable luxury”

Can a smaller home also be luxurious? Toll Brothers is looking to sell such an option:

In an effort to expand into new segments of the housing market that fit into its wheelhouse, Toll is putting a new focus on reaching out to the first-time homebuyer, particularly through its concept of “affordable luxury.”

Historically, luxury in the housing market has meant McMansions. However, Toll Brothers has broadened its offerings to include luxury apartment buildings, and its newest effort: affordable luxury. The affordable luxury niche (Toll won’t refer to it as a “segment”) is geared toward the millennial buyer, who is buying later in life and often has more financial resources than the typical first-time homebuyer. Currently, 37% of Toll’s offerings now have price points below $500,000, and in some areas hit $375,000. Note, however, that these are base prices, and when customization and additional amenities push the prices higher. Still, affordable luxury properties fall well below Toll’s average selling price in the fourth quarter of $857,800. The increased density (meaning smaller units/properties built close to each other) of these projects will help Toll maintain margins despite the lower price points.

During the earnings conference call on Dec. 9, Toll Brothers CEO Douglas Yearly explained the concept:

“While affordable luxury crosses all buyer segments including move-up and active-adult, this initiative is driven in large part by a growing number of millennials who are older, more affluent, and more discerning when they buy their first home. Think of it as a BMW 3 Series, a great example of affordable luxury.”

While there is a lot of concern in recent years about developers constructing few new starter homes and millennials not being able to buy into the housing market, could this plan suggest another factor at work: are younger adults expecting more out of their first home? Having a dwelling is one thing; people need a place to live and store their stuff. But, when committing to homeownership for the first time, do buyers expect the features they see all over TV and in the homes they knew growing up: open kitchens and living spaces, nice appliances, custom finishes, designer touches, plenty of bathrooms and bedrooms?

Toll Brothers says they are aiming at people who want their first home to not be just a dwelling: they want “affordable luxury.” One could argue that if people really needed first-time homes, perhaps the tiny home industry should be booming (and it is not mainstream yet). This builder believes there is a market for buyers who do not just want a home; they want a distinguished home that feels good to live in and shows well to others.

I have noted before that having smaller homes in the United States does not necessarily mean they will forgo nicer touches or be cheaper. I would guess there are a good number of buyers who are willing to trade some square footage (there is some bottom limit – many people do not want to truly live in a really small house) for luxury items in the home.

Modernization, smaller homes, and social class

I wanted to come back to a post from earlier this year where an economist argues that modern conveniences mean people can save money by living in smaller houses:

DR. SHILLER: 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. 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…

DR. SHILLER: 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…

DR. SHILLER: When it comes to housing, there are books about this in the last 20 years—including “The New Small House”—that talk about designing houses to look impressive as well as function with a smaller scale.

Just like we’re developing Uber and Lyft and Airbnb using existing resources more efficiently, we can also build houses that are better at serving people’s needs without being big.

All of this could indeed be true. Many of the items people purchased just a few years ago may not be necessary. However: some of the services mentioned above seem to be tied to social class and age. Which people in society are getting all of their food delivered? How many people are doing all their taxes and bill paying online? Who needs space to store books, clothes, toys, electronics, gym equipment, etc.? Imagine a few scenarios of who might trade stuff for a smaller home:

  1. A downsizing well-off couple who wants to move to the big city now that they are empty-nesters.
  2. A recent college graduate who cannot afford a large residence but wants to spend money on cultural options and food.
  3. A professional who works long hours and does not want to care for a large residence.
  4. People who live the majority of their life through the Internet and their smartphone.

On the flip side, imagine people who might still want a larger home:

  1. A suburban couple with a child on the way who want more space for their kids.
  2. A young worker who has saved a little money, wants to put down roots in a community, and invest in something that will probably rise in value over the decades.
  3. People who like to have friends and family visit or who want to gain some extra income through hosting people.
  4. Numerous Americans who think a larger home is a better deal given that they can use the space, they like to buy stuff, and/or think that their home will appreciate in value.

In sum, I could imagine those who choose to buy smaller homes might be doing it for class/education/taste based reasons rather than just because they want a more efficient home. Those with more education might value a big home less. I would guess it will take time for many American residents to come around to the way of thinking that a smaller home is more efficient. In the meantime, there are still many forces still pushing people to buy larger homes.