Racialized McMansions

When I examined the complexity of the term McMansion in New York City and Dallas newspapers, I did not run into this dimension from the San Gabriel Valley as detailed by Wendy Cheng in The Changs Next Door to the Díazes:

In early twenty-first-century multiethnic suburbs with a significant immigrant Chinese presence such as the West SGV, struggles over the landscape are still racially coded in terms of values and territory. For instance (as mentioned in Chapter 2), public discourse around McMansions or “monster homes” – a practice associated with wealthy ethnic Chinese immigrants of tearing down a newly purchased house in order to build a larger house, usually resulting in significant reduction of yard space – is one way in which Asian immigrants are depicted as being unable to conform to American values and ideals. Such practices render them unfit as neighbors and, by extension, as members of American civil society. In short, places coded as Chinese or Asian, like the nineteenth- and twentieth-century Chinatowns before them, continue to be seen either as threats encroaching on implicitly white, American suburban space or as autonomous foreign spaces that serve particular functions but are not to exceed their prescribed bounds. The prescription and negotiation of these bounds is a conflictual process, with both symbolic and material consequences. (133-134)

Here, the term McMansion is fulfilling two dimensions of the term McMansion I discussed: it is meant as a pejorative term and it applies to a situation where a property owner tears down a home and constructs a larger home. Both are common uses for the term.

Typically, McMansion concerns involve wealthier and white residents. The term can have classist connotations: the nouveau riche may purchase a McMansion to show off their wealth while those with more taste would purchase a modernist home or go a custom architect-designed home. In this particular context, McMansion is applied to a particular group of owners as well as their position in the community and the country. This is not just about a newcomer coming in with resources and disrupting a particular neighborhood character. This usage links McMansions to a broader history of race and ethnicity plus ongoing conflicts in many American communities, suburbs included, about who is welcome. Single-family homes are not the only feature of the suburban American Dream; this ideal also includes exclusion by race and ethnicity. And to welcome a new resident with the term McMansion is not intended to be a kind beginning.

I will look for further connections of McMansions to race and ethnicity. Are there other communities in the Los Angeles area where McMansion is used in similar ways? Is the term applied to other racial or ethnic groups in other places?

Researching the downsizing claim: “every single person I interviewed who has made the transition says they are so happy they did”

A recent book looks at downsizing and the author says everyone who does it is pleased with the outcome:

“It scares people to think of moving into a smaller space, but every single person I interviewed who has made the transition says they are so happy they did,” Koones says. “Time and again, people used the word ‘liberated’ to describe their move to a smaller space, with homes requiring far less time and money to maintain.”

Who are the people downsizing?

“It’s not just empty nesters anymore,” she adds. “Younger people too are in couples where they’re both working, they’re having children later, they want to be active and they don’t want to be doing maintenance on the weekends. They don’t want to be tied down to mowing lawns and doing all the other chores that come with living in a big house.”

Living more sustainably and saving on energy costs is also part of the attraction of downsizing, Koones says.

So is aging in place. There are people of all ages looking for features like a master bedroom on the main floor, or barrier-free showers.

I would be interested to see academic studies of this shift as it could help answer some questions regarding downsizing and the choices people make regarding homes. Here are some of the questions:

1. How widespread is downsizing? My guess is that it is a pretty small movement. In a related question, how do individual decisions to downsize work at a broader level? These choices could influence families, neighborhoods, communities, builders, and others.

2. How much do the people who are downsizing share in common? There are multiple possible reasons for downsizing – economic reasons (including saving on energy costs), wanting less space to maintain, environmental imperatives, prizing location over a home – and it would be interesting to look at more prevalent factors. A similar question: what drives people to downsize (when Americans as a whole are pushed toward larger homes)? Or, is there a particular cultural ethos about downsizing that can be persuasive for some and not others?

3. What are satisfaction rates after downsizing? Are downsizers 100% satisfied or somewhat satisfied and what downsides do they report? Do they stay in smaller homes for the long-term?

4. How exactly should we define downsizing? It looks like this book primarily focuses on single-family homes. Others might see a move away from a single-family home and its property to an apartment, condo, or townhome as downsizing or accomplishing some of the same goals even if the difference in square feet is not that much. Is choosing to live in a multigenerational home a form of downsizing if households are combined and there is reduction of square feet per person? An involuntary move to a care facility might be technically downsizing but it does not carry the same agency.

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…