An additional reason to dislike Chicago McMansions: contributing to lower population density

One Chicago observer suggests teardown McMansions impoverish the city in three ways: they suburbanize neighborhoods, they are poorly built and do not fit in with the architectural context of the city, and help lower the population density of neighborhoods. More on this third point:

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But Chicago’s density is declining, and some of the city’s most prominent neighborhoods have actually started to lose residents. Lincoln Par, once home to 102,000 people, barely housed 70,000 in 2020. Lakeview, once holding 124,000, was at 103,050 around the same time. North Center had decreased from 48,000 to 35,114, and nearby community such as West Town and Bucktown had similar fallen in scale.

These neighborhoods are becoming more expensive, and much of this de-densification may be due to a “spreading out” of sorts; wealthier people are moving in and are able to afford more space.

But there’s more to it than that. Previously, when a neighborhood in Chicago was in demand, builders capitalized, and the housing stock swelled. Chicago’s zoning laws, however, have changed, and while they allow for high-rise development in various downtown areas, they prohibit this same approach in neighborhoods. One thing is for sure, though: No matter how strict the zoning ode is in residential areas, single-family homes are pretty much always allowed.

One theory, termed “The homevoter hypothesis,” speculates that this is due to the control that homeowners have on urban development. Their interests have the most influence on local aldermen and, therefore, residential development. The good of the community and the city is not a factor in their agenda, which instead focuses on home value growth, and how to wield zoning changes in order to achieve it.

The argument seems to make sense: those who want to live in more well-off Chicago neighborhoods bring resources and an interest in larger homes. This could mean converting structures to single-family homes or tearing down older structures and starting over from scratch. If there is indeed an increase in larger single-family homes in Chicago, there should be data to support this. Anecdotally, my occasional travels in some of these neighborhoods suggests a good number of new homes nestled between two-flats and three-flats.

Additionally, there may be other forces at work that could also be leading to de-densification in Chicago neighborhoods:

  1. Chicago residents are leaving neighborhoods faster than people want to come in, regardless of what housing stock is available. The population is down in a number of neighborhoods across the city.
  2. The demand for new housing is higher in locations in and around the Loop because of the concentration of jobs and cultural opportunities plus the activity of developers. While Chicago has been known as a city of neighborhoods for a long time, the neighborhoods might not be as hot as the center.
  3. Developers and builders also want these new single-family homes because they can make a lot of money on each property.

Put all of this together and the new Chicago McMansions represent a change to numerous streets and neighborhoods.

Chicago as “the nation’s capital of deconversions” from condos to apartments

Henry Grabar suggests Chicago is ground zero for efforts to convert condos to apartments:

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Stories like this make Chicago the perfect place to understand how condos usually meet their end—not in a pile of rubble, but in a buyout that leaves some owners feeling lucky and others feeling betrayed. Lauren Kerchill, the owner of a Gold Coast unit overlooking Lake Michigan, was a holdout when investors came to buy out her building. After fighting to toss her condo board, she told Crain’s Chicago Business she was called “petty,” “greedy,” and “uneducated.” She just didn’t think she could find another home like hers nearby. In the end, she didn’t have a choice. Her neighbors voted to sell her building, at 1400 Lake Shore Drive, for $107 million in 2019—another record, this time the most expensive deconversion in the country…

But there’s another side to the story, in which deconversion is the only way out for condo owners stuck in deteriorating properties. In June, the collapse of Champlain Towers South in Surfside, Florida, drew attention to the challenges that confront condo boards as they assess structural damage and raise money for repairs. Maintenance bills for the Great American Condo Boom of the ’70s and ’80s are starting to come due in areas like South Florida…

While states like Florida, California, and Hawaii saw tons of new condo construction in the decades after the concept was established in the 1960s, Chicago saw a different kind of boom: older buildings becoming condos. Fearing rent control, facing declining profits, or saddled with obsolete prewar commercial space, landlords in Chicago raced to sell off their units in the 1970s. Yuppies and middle-class workers gobbled up these starter apartments, which provided an easy and cheap entry point to homeownership.

Fifty years later, those buildings are among the oldest condominiums in the country. Owners who have not kept on top of maintenance, and even some who have, sometimes find themselves facing massive repair bills.

It would be interesting to read more about the specific aspects of Chicago’s history, real estate market, and local regulations that play into the the number of condo deconversions in Chicago.

More broadly, this gets at two larger housing issues:

  1. How do deconversions fit with a larger American promotion of homeownership? Condos offer opportunities to offer homeownership opportunities in settings where the single-family home is less possible. But, given market conditions right now, is there now increased interest in having more rental units?
  2. While aging and the associated expenses is an issue for condo buildings, it is also an issue for many more housing units in the United States. What happens to older homes and residences when there is limited interest in repairing them or redeveloping the property? In wealthier communities and desirable locations, there are often developers and individuals interested in rehabbing or rebuilding structures. Hence, teardowns or new residences in suburban downtowns. Elsewhere, replacing or changing housing is a more arduous task.

Would city residents rather live next to a 6,000 sq foot teardown McMansion or a fourplex?

With one proposal in San Francisco to tear down a 1,200 square foot older home and replace it with a 6,000 square foot home, the neighbors say they would rather have a fourplex in its place:

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The even crazier part? One super-rich family can live in 6,000 square feet, but the same-size box in Noe Valley and the majority of San Francisco could not include homes of 1,500 square feet apiece for four families. (This proposal would include an in-law unit, but the city doesn’t check whether they’re occupied, and it’s believed there are thousands of vacant units around the city.)…

“We would 100% support this if it was four families,” said Schwarz, who bought his own home in 2004.

So would his neighbor Steve Boeddeker, who said he’s irked developers are scooping up homes all over the neighborhood to turn them into McMansions and resell them for many millions…

The current rules for McMansions aren’t working. They’re allowed, though neighbors can file a discretionary review application, arguing there are “exceptional and extraordinary circumstances” that require more analysis. Five families have done that for the Noe Valley home, including Shannon Hughes and her husband, Schwarz.

This is an interesting case as San Francisco is often considered ground-zero for issues of overpriced housing, the need for affordable housing, and NIMBY responses to new development.

At least in public comment, few people would say they want to live next to a teardown McMansion. The extra-large size of the new home in comparison to the existing older homes plus the new and poorly regarded architectural design mean that plenty of neighbors do not like the new land use. The teardown is a threat to the existing character of the neighborhood.

At the same time, relatively few residents want to have a single-family neighborhood convert land into higher density residential units. Even as one fourplex is not that many more units, Americans often have negative ideas about renters in apartments or feel that increased density will threaten their property values and neighborhood feel.

My guess is that plenty of urban homeowners would prefer that neither option arrive next door: keep the teardowns and the conversions into multiple units somewhere else. But, if the choice is between the two, the McMansion may be the worst option.

Tearing down a nine year old house to construct an even bigger one

Teardowns often involve demolishing an older home and replacing it with a larger, updated new home. Such development can draw the ire of neighbors. However, teardowns can sometimes involve newer homes. Here is one example from the Chicago suburbs:

The proposed project in Elmhurst, however, involves demolishing an even newer home. Jim Bowen, CEO of Wheaton-based exchange-traded fund sponsor First Trust Portfolios, and his wife, Marisa, plan to knock down a house built in 2012 to create a larger lot for a new house they will build.

In early 2013, Marisa Bowen paid $1 million to buy the newly built, 4,044-square-foot house from its builder. Then, in 2017, the couple paid $440,000 for a vintage, 1,683-square-foot house next door that they subsequently demolished.

In August, the couple received Elmhurst City Council approval for yard setback requirements for a new house they plan to construct on the combined, 0.45-acre property. Elmhurst officials recently told Elite Street the couple has sought a demolition permit for the nine-year-old house. City documents show their plan is to construct a new home with a 5,012-square-foot footprint.

Teardowns require some resources as the purchaser needs to buy the existing home, pay to tear down the home, and then construct a new home. In particular locations, a new, larger home can pay off in significant profits.

This case is a different in several key ways. First, it involves one relatively new home. Teardowns are intended to provide more space and newer features compared to the residence previously on the property. The nine-year old home would appear to have some desirable features: according to several real estate websites, it has roughly 4,000 square feet, it has a three car garage, and is worth more than a million dollars. The proposed new home is even bigger and may have different features.

Second, the teardown involves combining two lots and demolishing an older house in addition to the newer home. This process can sometimes go the other direction: someone takes a larger property, subdivides it, and makes even more money by selling multiple homes. Here, the older home is relatively small by today’s standards: over 1,600 square feet with 3 bedrooms and 2 baths. By tearing down two homes, the new larger house will have more space to fit on a larger corner lot.

Because this involves a newer home and two lots, this is going to take some money. Teardowns require some resources as the purchaser needs to buy the existing home(s), pay to tear down the home(s), and then construct a new home. The payoff can be high, either in resale value compared to what was there before or in a more desirable home for the current owner.

Questions a sociologist asks when seeing changes in the housing stock in their community

I try to pay attention to housing changes in the suburban community in which I live. Here are some questions I ask as I observe both existing and new homes:

  1. What existed here before this current residence?
  2. What motivated the property owners to tear down the existing home and build these homes (and in these particular styles)?
  3. How do existing and new homes interact with their surroundings?
  4. What does the inside of the home look and feel like? The outside provides some clues but interiors can be quite different from house to house.
  5. What happened at the community level (decisions, regulations, proposals, discussions, etc.) for these homes to exist in this form?
  6. In the long run, will these changes be viewed positively in the community or negatively?
  7. Who are the people who live in these homes (who is this housing for)? Are they the same or different kinds of people who are in the community?

We can measure features of old and new homes and look at the aggregate data. For example, we could try to look at the “average” home largely based on standardized traits. These figures are helpful but they also leave out other important traits of homes: what is their character? How are they experienced by the owners and the neighborhood and how do they shape social actors? How do they contribute to community life? What do they say about the priorities of the occupants and the community?

In sum, homes are not just part of the housing stock. Each house has the potential to shape and be shaped by people who interact with its material and symbolic presence. And when the housing changes, it can alter existing understandings.

Fox Business defines a McMansion, misses teardowns and broader social patterns

McMansions are still alive and well – or at least in public conversation – if news sources are still trying to define them. Here is a recent definition on the Fox Business web site:

McMansion is a term that refers to a large house — typically in a suburban neighborhood — that looks like every other house in the neighborhood. The style was popularized during the 1980s and 1990s.

Their structures typically follows a similar pattern, as noted by Curbed, including a central core with a multistory entryway, a side wing and a garage wing.

According to real estate website Trulia, they tend to range between 3,000 and 5,000 square feet, or 1.5 to 2.5 times larger than the median-sized new home in 2000…

The word is a play on McDonalds items, indicating the homes are generic and mass-produced.

The definition above cites a Curbed article but it should really point to the author of that piece, Kate Wagner, creator of McMansion Hell. From the beginning of that piece, here is Wagner’s one sentence definition:

The typical McMansion follows a formula: It’s large, cheaply constructed, and architecturally sloppy.

These definitions do indeed get at two traits of McMansions: their size, larger than normal, and their architecture and construction, generally poor quality and mass produced. But, I argue the definitions are missing two important traits:

  1. Some McMansions are teardowns, large homes on relatively small lots within neighborhoods with smaller homes. Here, the absolute size is less important than comparative size. And these kinds of homes could appear in urban, suburban, and more rural settings.
  2. McMansions are connected to broader issues or concerns about American society, including sprawl and excessive consumption. This means that a lot of homes that might not technically fit the definition of a McMansion or might not appear on McMansion Hell could be part of broader patterns of McMansion like homes.

McMansion is a broadly used term but does not necessarily mean or refer to the same thing when different actors use the term. Big house? Yes. But, not the biggest houses and big might be relative. Problematic architecture and construction? Yes. But, not the only homes that might suffer from this (depending on who is examining the homes) and connected to larger American issues.

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?

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.

Recurring issues with teardown McMansions

What if a suburban community continues to face the same issue of teardown McMansions angering neighbors? The case of Arlington Heights, Illinois:

Elgas called the home dimension differences “a form of gentrification” and asked the board to consider changing the building codes to prevent the number of larger homes being erected in Arlington Heights…

“This is not the first time it has come up as a phenomenon in Arlington Heights,” said Mayor Tom Hayes. “It’s probably 10 to 15 years ago this phenomenon first showed itself, not just in the village of Arlington Heights, many neighboring municipalities experienced the same issue with tear downs. We were sensitive to the issue at the time; we did a number of different things from legal, building, zoning and design, we addressed it at that point.”…

Charles Perkins, director of planning and community development, said the village had a task force that studied this issue with members from the Zoning Board of Appeals, the Plan Commission and village trustees. The leaders took bus tours around neighborhoods to view the tear downs and changes. As a result, he said, there were a number of changes made to village codes.

“We reduced the number of square footage you could put on a home, minimized impervious surface, and in the R3 district, which is this particular neighborhood, there was a 10 percent reduction on the ability of square footage of a home built on the lot,” Perkins said. “Those in single-story neighborhoods, typically go to the design commission for the architectural component of the home as well.”

This is not an issue facing just Arlington Heights: wealthier suburbs with older housing stocks can often be attractive to residents who have the means and desire to tear down older homes and construct new and often larger homes. And the teardowns can move in cycles, depending on changes in the housing market, what neighborhoods or communities are desirable, and how communities – including local leaders and neighbors – respond to such moves.

Three additional thoughts:

  1. The term McMansion is not used the article but this is the sort of home that is at issue here. A teardown home with a large footprint constructed in a neighborhood of smaller homes fits clearly within an understanding of McMansions.
  2. The community has some guidelines for new teardowns but not all neighbors think these go far enough. This is a common point of tension: should the property owners have say over their plot of land or should the community and neighbors be able to put in significant restrictions? Who gets more say can become a long local political process with the possibility for long-term bitterness.
  3. While neighbors might generally not like this development, this could be taken as a sign by leaders of a community that their community is desirable. Particularly in communities with limited opportunities for greenfield development, teardowns and infill development can represent a significant portion of change.

Quick Review: “Square-Footed Monster” episode of King of the Hill

Few television episodes tackle the topic of McMansions. Thus, here is a review of Season 13 Episode 3 of King of the Hill titled “Square-Footed Monster.”

First, a quick synopsis of the plot and relevant dialogue from the main characters. The issues begin when an older neighbor lady dies and her nephew comes to fix up the ranch home to sell it. The men, led by Hank, help fix up the house. It sells in one day. The next day, the house is torn down by a large excavator and the local developer says he is breaking ground on a “dream home.”

SquareFootedMonster1Amid scenes of constructing a large balloon frame, the builder brings the guys peach chardonnay (clearly indicating his different status) and shows them a rendering of the new home. Hank’s response: “Looks like a bank. No, a church. Wait, A casino? I don’t know what the hell I’m looking at.” The developer says it is a speculation house.

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Hank and the guys decide to fight back. They go to City Hall and show images of the modest homes in their neighborhood compared to the new home with “4,600 square feet of obnoxiousness” (Hank’s description). The leaders say the home is by the books so construction continues. The guys consult the local legal loophole expert as Hank says, “someone is building a jackass McMansion that’s going to destroy our neighborhood.” There are no loopholes to help them.

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The next scenes show a massive McMansion blocking out the sun and going right up to its property lines. Hank notes, “Ted’s using cheap building materials too. It’s all spackle and chicken-wire.” In the subsequent big wind, the house starts falling apart. Wanting to protect their own homes, the neighbors take chainsaws, axes, and other implements to help the home collapse.

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The next day, the developer looks at the damage done by the neighbors and accuses them taking down the home. Hank responds: “We don’t have anything to hide. The only one who did something wrong here was you. Your shoddy McMansion was going to destroy our homes. We only took it down in self-defense.”

The case goes in front of a local judge who with some prompting by the local legal loophole expert rules in favor of the neighbors. The developer tries to get the last laugh by selling the property to the city to use as a power substation.

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After lamenting the new land use, the men construct a fake house around the substation. Hank says, “I’ll take a fake house over a big ugly one any day.”

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This episode contains several themes common to narratives about McMansions:

  1. The developer simply wants to make money without regard for the existing character of the community.
  2. A teardown McMansion can be very invasive: it looks out of place compared to nearby homes, it encroaches on lot lines and the street, it blocks the sun, and its construction is disruptive to neighbors.
  3. The new large home is poorly constructed – it starts falling apart in heavy winds – and has dubious architectural features including turrets, pillars, and balconies.
  4. Neighbors resent the intrusion of the new home but there is little they can do to stop it (hence the need to find obscure legal loopholes and attack the homes themselves). There is one neighbor who appreciates the new home for what it could bring to the neighborhood but he is in the minority.

In the end, the neighbors do win out: instead of a dilapidated ranch home next door, they have a substation that looks like a well-maintained ranch home.

In twenty-two minutes, this is a decent summary of how teardown McMansions could go. The episode does not provide much perspective from the view of the developer of the home or local officials outside of quick references to making money and an interest in large new homes. Some lingering questions remain including why construct such a large new home on a street of ranch homes of working-class residents. The neighborhood may have been saved but the episode also hints at how fragile a set of homes and the associated community might be if just one property falls into the hands of a developer.

(All screenshots of the episode are from Hulu.)