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…

A short history of the kitchen island

The open concept kitchen and living space is ubiquitous these days and it often includes a sizable island that stands between the food preparation space and the living. How did that island develop?

The earliest islands were humble worktables in the center of the kitchen (think downstairs at Downton Abbey). The open kitchen and built-in island didn’t arrive until the 20th century.

“The iconic suburban image of the command-post kitchen where the woman of the house could do her work and observe the kids really resonated in 1950s America,” says Sarah Leavitt, curator at the National Building Museum in Washington. “The idea was to build this concept of family and togetherness right into the actual architecture and design of the house.”

While the island was an aspirational symbol of modern housekeeping, it was mostly a product of postwar construction of suburban single-family homes. It gained momentum through the 1960s and ’70s but didn’t become a mainstream design element until the 1980s and ’90s, when open-plan kitchens became the rage, buoyed by the popularity of the Food Network and HGTV.

Suddenly, the island wasn’t just a prep space but also a stage to perform for your guests, though visibility has its drawbacks. “It looks nice when it’s clean,” Leavitt says, “but given the potential for mess, it’s surprising that it continues to have widespread appeal.”

An interesting shift over the span of roughly one hundred years: from a surface for getting things done in the kitchen to a gendered command center to more of a performance space and status symbol. A few thoughts:

1. Would knowing the past history of the island – workspace, more out of sight in upper-class households, and place for wives/mothers to observe their household – change how current homeowners think about the island? Is the island now past all of these connotations and simply about appearances or modern conceptions of open family space? Do homeowners and visitors feel like islands are freeing or are they confining in new ways?

2. Could the pendulum swing back to using the island for essential duties? Imagine a continuing decrease in social interaction and less justification in buying entertaining spaces when entertaining in large numbers rarely happens. Or, a backlash against all the eating out leads to more people prepping food at home.

3. The full article suggests some have already reacted against islands by going back to tables which have some nice features in comparison. Is the perfect world then having space both for a sizable island and an intriguing table?

 

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.

Considering housing shortages and gentrification together

An MIT economist looks at the relationship between gentrification and a shortage of cheaper housing:

Unsurprisingly, the geography of a place and the community residing there are linked. Along the most measurable dimensions, richer people tend to live in places with attractive geographies. Conversely, places with undesirable attributes like industrial or transportation pollution, poor access to jobs, and uninviting climates are usually left for the poorest and most marginalized.

Usually—but not always. Occasionally, physically attractive locations come to be occupied by low-income communities, immigrant communities, black communities. Neighborhoods like these are ripe for gentrification. Changes in labor markets, large investments by public or private institutions, or even just changing preferences among the wealthy move these neighborhoods into the sight lines of richer people, and then they gentrify.

The housing shortage, meanwhile, is a region-wide round of musical chairs, in which the winners sat down before the music even stopped. Whereas gentrification reshuffles which communities occupy which parts of the city, the housing shortage can operate at the scale of cities and regions as well as neighborhoods…

Policies introduced to fight gentrification—rent control and tenant protections—may ameliorate the effects of neighborhood change, but they won’t build new homes. We must allow new construction somewhere, despite the changes this will bring. Of course, we must do so in a way that avoids gentrification.

Four quick thoughts on this argument:

1. This reminds me of my post from the other day comparing the perspective that there is not enough housing and there is plenty of housing but it is not cheap enough. This piece suggests there are multiple housing issues at work and policies might tackle one particular issue and not others (or even make other housing issues worse).

2. Does the multiplicity of housing issues require that Americans prioritize which issue matters to them most? If middle-class people want cheaper housing, that will lead to different approaches (public policies, legislation, urban planning, decisions by developers, etc.) compared to a consensus that gentrification is not desirable. Historically, Americans have tended to prioritize housing for the middle-class (broadly defined) at the expense of housing for the poor or homeless.

3. To truly address all of these issues, metropolitan-wide approaches are needed. Individual neighborhoods or municipalities are often left to tackle these on their own even though decisions by nearby neighborhoods or municipalities have significant effects on their housing.

4. Additionally, a comprehensive housing policy is needed, not just one that tackles the most important or noisiest issue at the moment. On one hand, many Americans would not want the government to become involved in such issues even as the government has promoted suburban homeownership for roughly a century.

Identifying “the wrong side of the tracks” in wealthy suburban areas

In wealthier suburban areas, where are the “wrong side of the tracks”? One writer explores this question in Chicago’s North Shore suburbs:

Pity the poor people of Wilmette. Most of them have done quite well in life. They’re doctors, academics, architects, attorneys. But they have the misfortune of living down Green Bay Road from — and sending their children to New Trier with — people who’ve done even better…

They don’t just do it in Wilmette, either. I once met a woman from Kenilworth — the second wealthiest municipality in Illinois, in one of the wealthiest zip codes in the nation — who told me, “In Kenilworth, there’s a ‘kennel’ side and a ‘worth’ side.” She, of course, was from the kennel side, presumably west of Green Bay Road, where the houses are slightly smaller.

There’s nothing more North Shore than trying to convince people you’re not as rich as everybody else on the North Shore — that you’re a member of the lower-upper class who grew up on the wrong side of the Metra tracks. Saying “I’m from the North Shore” — especially to someone whose first exposure to that world was Risky Business, Mean Girls, or Rahm Emanuel’s biography — paints a picture of elitism that many residents would understandably like to disassociate themselves from…

Sociologists would say that poor-mouthing in rich suburbs is a result of the fact that we measure our wealth not in absolute terms, but in relation to those around us. Economist Robert H. Frank conducted a study in which he asked people whether they would prefer to live in World A, a 4,000-square-foot house in a neighborhood of 6,000-square-foot mansions, or World B, a 3,000-square-foot house surrounded by 2,000-square-foot bungalows. Most chose World B.

Three quick thoughts:

1. The term hinted at in the last paragraph above is “reference groups.” Who do people tend to compare themselves to? It is often not in absolute terms but comparisons to people they aspire to be to.

2. Continuing from #1, this reminds me of some recent commentary on the top 20% or so of Americans who feel anxiety about their status and are chasing people higher up in the class ladder even as they are comfortable compared to most Americans. (See the book Dream Hoarders.)

3. Of course, there are residents of the North Shore who are not as well off. Or, suburbs without as much wealth or with significant numbers of poorer residents are not that far away. Are they even visible when the middle to upper classes are only looking at their level and above?

Amenities, ROI on housing, and social class

A recent piece linking amenities to higher return on investment for housing left unnamed a key factor: social class.

It turns out that if Trader Joe’s is nearby, your house might be worth more than if it were close to other grocery chains. The average return on investment, or ROI, for Trader Joe’s-adjacent homes is 51 percent, 10 percentage points more than the runner-up, Whole Foods (41 percent), and almost 20 percentage points more than Aldi (34 percent)…

“When we overlay points of interest (like transit, shopping, and amenities) on top of prices, we see trends in the distance to these features,” Marshall says. “In urban areas, ClearAVM has found that access to public transit has a large correlation with higher property prices. We have found the same with access to restaurants, coffee shops and groceries in urban and suburban areas.”…

Some of the positive location amenities that can impact home values and equity include high-ranking schools, hospitals, shopping centers, green spaces and being near the waterfront (think oceans and lakes), as well as access to highways and main thoroughfares.

Negative location markers include things like high-traffic and high-noise areas, crowded commercial properties, high-tension power lines or other utility easements, a poorly maintained home or neighborhood, and not being near the appealing attractions mentioned earlier, Hunt says.

While I don’t doubt these factors do influence housing values, there is a common factor that helps join them all together: the social class of residents. Grocery stores, like many other businesses, figure out where to locate at least in part on looking at the residents who live nearby. Whole Food’s is generally not going to move to a community where residents do not have the resources to pay their prices. Aldi, in contrast, appeals to a different market. Going further, think of the differences in locations between Walmart and Target, McDonald’s and Chipotle, Dollar Stores versus chain drug stores, and more.

A number of the items on the list of “positive location amenities” are also closely connected to social class. High-ranking schools tend to be in wealthier communities. The same is true of shopping centers and higher property values mean only certain kinds of residents can afford homes on the waterfront.

This does not mean that there is not more affordable housing in these areas with positive amenities. There may be. But, I would guess the zip codes connected to the higher-class grocery stores tend to be wealthier and more educated zip codes overall. The habitus of social class extends even to what grocery stores people prefer, the desired appearance of nearby homes, and close amenities that help reinforce their social class, practices, and tastes.

Trying to revive buses in American cities

A new book looks at how buses could become more viable transportation options. From the author of the book:

One of the statistics that is telling in the book is that when you look at bus ridership in a place like Germany, the people who ride the bus have the same median income as the average German. In the U.S., they’re much poorer. At the same time, it’s not a service that actually serves low-income people well at all. So is it really for them? It’s really a system for people who don’t have alternatives…

One of the biggest omissions from federal policy is that federal transportation programs are almost always about building things. But the biggest problem [with public transit] in most cities is that we don’t run enough service. You could use federal transportation funding to buy a bus, or stripe a bus lane, but you can’t use it to hire a bus operator, or dispatchers, or people who are planning bus priority projects. In the book, I write about this really bizarre set of affairs in the [2008] stimulus package, where cities all over the country were using federal stimulus dollars to buy buses. At the same time, they had to lay off all of their bus operators. That’s not really doing anything to further equity for people on the ground…

There’s a cycle between culture and reality. We design bus systems that are really inconvenient, and that only people without great alternatives will use, and that colors how decision makers think about who bus riders are. And that’s really important to disrupt.

One of the promising things you see in places that are improving bus service is how quickly it can turn around. You just provide more service in a route, and upgrade the shelters, and you see ridership increasing. We have this terrible conception of the so-called captive rider in transportation planning, when all the actual data shows that basically everyone has choices, and sometimes those choices can be pretty inconvenient, like having to get a ride with your friends, or having to walk four miles to work. Transit service can always deteriorate to the point that people are going to choose something else. But as you make bus service better, more and more people start gravitating towards it. It’s a very natural thing.

There a lot of issues to overcome in addition to the ones cited above. In my mind, buses have one major advantage over other forms of mass transit: they utilize existing roads and highways to provide mass transit. It would take a lot to reverse the American preference for driving and all that comes with it. Of course, as the article notes, buses that crawl along in traffic like cars and trucks may not be very attractive to riders and may require dedicated lanes. Similarly, buses in sprawling areas may not work as well if people are not willing to start at a common location and give up some freedom of mobility. (The discussion in the article revolves around cities but there are denser suburbs – and suburban like areas of some cities – where buses might work.)

The discussion hints at a related issue: there has to be enough bus service to be attractive but getting people to ride the bus in the first place is difficult when driving a car is a culturally preferred option as well as the option that best suits the existing infrastructure. How many local governments are willing to stick with busing even when it might not be successful at first? Furthermore, would increases in service be accompanied by changes in development policy that would seek to create housing and jobs along bus transit corridors?

Reading the full discussion, it does seem it might not be too difficult to revive bus transit in big cities. On the other hand, bus transit is a hard sell in many American communities and a long-term commitment from all levels might be needed before significant change occurs.