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.

SquareFootedMonster2

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.

SquareFootedMonster3

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.

SquareFootedMonster4edit

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.

SquareFootedMonster5

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.)

Buying and demolishing expensive suburban homes to expand I-294

Acquiring property for right-of-ways for highways and other uses can get expensive. Here are a few examples of the Illinois Tollway purchasing homes in Elmhurst and Hinsdale:

A two-story, 3,145-square-foot house in Elmhurst that was built in 2005 and that the Illinois Tollway bought for $710,000 has a date with a wrecking ball later this year. It’s one of the more unusual aspects of the upcoming $4 billion widening of Interstate Highway 294…

The house due to be razed, at 505 E. Crescent Ave. in Elmhurst, abuts a noise wall that parallels a ramp linking Interstate Highway 290 to I-294. The Illinois Toll Highway Authority needs the house’s 0.3-acre parcel to provide room for an interchange ramp, said tollway spokesman Dan Rozek. It’s the only house in Elmhurst that the toll authority intends to acquire…

While the tollway’s plans call for just that one house acquisition in Elmhurst, the tollway intends to acquire and demolish some 11 homes farther south in Hinsdale for the project, many of which are on Harding Road and Mills Street. In a reflection of the relatively high cost of homes in Hinsdale, the tollway paid even more for two Hinsdale homes than it did for the Elmhurst acquisition, shelling out $870,000 for a house at 621 Harding Road and $825,000 for a home at 645 Harding Road.

However, most of those pending Hinsdale demolitions are of homes that are much older than the one in Elmhurst. Of the Hinsdale acquisitions, the house that was most recently built is a four-bedroom, 2,346-square-foot, neo-eclectic-style house at 417 Mills Street, which was built in 1996. The tollway acquired that house in December for $700,000.

Suburban areas have lots of homes adjacent to highways and relatively few meet this fate. And such homes can be worth quite a bit even with all that noise if located in the right community and with the right features (such as plenty of square footage and a recent build).

This is a reminder that perhaps the best lesson to take from all of this is for leaders and planners to do these sorts of things earlier rather than later to save money. If the plan is always to add lanes – which probably just encourages traffic rather than relieving congestion – then do it earlier. These more recent homes might never have been built and communities could plan earlier for such major changes to residential areas.

Seattle enacts “McMansion ban”

Earlier this week Seattle moved to approve accessory dwelling units and also limit the size of McMansions:

While loosening restrictions on accessory units, the new rules will tighten restrictions on the construction of single-family houses by outlawing certain large homes, based on their floor area and lot size.

The aboveground living space for a single family in a new house will be limited to half the square footage of the home’s lot. For example, a new house on a 6,000-square-foot lot will be limited to 3,000 square feet of aboveground living space, not counting space devoted to an accessory unit.

O’Brien has said the “McMansion” ban will discourage people from replacing modest older houses with more expensive new houses and will encourage them to add accessory units….

The city’s most recent environmental analysis estimated the new rules would result in 4,430 accessory units built and 1,580 houses torn down over 10 years, versus 1,970 accessory units built and 2,030 houses razed under the status quo.

Three quick thoughts:

  1. The restriction on floor size based on lot size is a common one. This not only keeps the overall size down but also can help keep the new home from crowding up against the edge of the lot. Fitting a large home on a small lot is a common issue with those opposed to teardown McMansions.
  2. The story above says there is a restriction on aboveground square footage based on the lot. Does this mean some new homes will go underground instead (a la London)?
  3. The numbers cited at the end of the article are interesting in a city of over 700,000 people. The “McMansion ban” would not appear to have much effect: over the course of ten years, roughly 25% fewer teardowns would occur according to projections. Even with the restrictions, it will still be an option for those with wealth who want a single-family home (as opposed to the new option of an accessory dwelling unit on the lot of someone else). If the city really wanted to go after McMansions, could they have done more?

The rise of beach McMansions in New Jersey, Florida

Large homes are not just for suburban locations. Two recent pieces highlighted their role in changing beach communities. First, from New Jersey:

Decades ago, when I was a teenager, I rented a surf shack in the then-humble town of Beach Haven on the New Jersey shore. Four of us crammed into a squat cinder-block hut tucked behind a bungalow. We worked as lifeguards for $2.50 an hour. Still, our rent was only $187.50 each for the summer. We had a place to sleep, shower, and create memories. We didn’t need more…

But there is another less visible cost that rarely gets mentioned when Americans talk about coastal development and risks. Since the modern coast emerged after the Second World War, a series of land bubbles have wildly inflated land values, to the point that many ordinary families can no longer afford to live at the coast, or even afford a weekly summer rental. On Long Beach Island, a popular resort in Ocean County, where I worked as a lifeguard, $15 billion worth of property now crowds a narrow, 18-mile-long shoreline. The average price of a new home is about $1.1 million, with many costing millions more. Rentals run as high as $5,000 a week. Yet, paradoxically, the island was conceived by Morris Shapiro and other developers as an enclave for middle-class and blue-collar families – teachers, plumbers, electricians, and so forth…

I suppose it is unsurprising there are few, if any, surf shacks left. Most beach towns have been supersized. But unanticipated costs have come with that growth. High school and college students have few places to live and the labor pool for lifeguards, waitresses, hotel workers, amusement-ride operators, and so on has shrunk dramatically. Many shore towns now rely on a special federal visa program to supply summer help. Workers come from Eastern Europe, Ireland, even Australia. Even so, some businesses have been forced to cut hours or even close.

The change over multiple decades is drastic.

And from the Gulf Coast of Florida:

Anna Maria Island may be largely built-out, but that hasn’t stopped developers from buying older existing homes, tearing them down and replacing them with new high-end homes…

Officials in the cities of Anna Maria, Holmes Beach and Bradenton Beach say it is a worrisome long-term trend and that they are doing their best to maintain the island’s unique character and sense of place…

Stephen Gilbert, building official for the city of Bradenton Beach, said the land is often much more valuable than the existing older home that sits on the lot.

Of the new homes built in the last decade in Bradenton Beach, only a couple were intended as homes for the owners. The others were intended as investments to be quickly turned over for more cash, he said.

While the change here has come more recently, it sounds like a similar process: people with money and/or an interest in investments come in, tear down older homes, and construct beach McMansions. This has happens over a sustained period of time and the feel of neighborhoods and communities changes.

These changes certainly have local effects on hundreds of beach communities across the United States but there are larger processes at work. Are the big homes the cause or the symptom of bigger issues? The nature of real estate capital today plus the rapid rise in real estate values puts even small communities at the mercy of global markets. Communities can respond but turning down big amounts of new money is not easy and often requires significant opposition from local residents and leaders.

McMansion literary tales: a proposed teardown leads to local dysfunction

The McMansion continues to feature in literary works. A new book from a Washington D.C. area author uses a proposed teardown McMansion to highlight suburban issues:

Coincidence or not, Langsdorf’s success comes after leaving her longtime suburban existence. Following her 2012 divorce, Langsdorf moved to Adams Morgan in the District and devoted herself to writing while teaching yoga on the side. And yet, the book takes her back to that former life: “White Elephant” seems to channel all of the frustrations she felt juggling her identities as a mother and creator in a stifling suburb. The novel follows the residents of the fictional enclave of Willard Park — inspired, in part, by Langsdorf’s hometown of Kensington, Md. — where an interloper’s plans to build a McMansion amid the cozy bungalows leads to angry town halls, scandalous romantic dalliances and shady high jinks.

Like Langsdorf, two of the main characters in her ensemble are mothers grappling with their identities beyond being wives and mothers. Allison Miller, who has lived (mostly) happily in Willard Park for more than a decade, wonders what to do with her photography — more than a hobby, less than a career. Her new next-door neighbor, Kaye Cox, can’t figure out who to be, caught between her role as a fixture in her husband’s behemoth of a house and her own interest in interior decoration. These women and their author are well-acquainted with the eternal dilemma for parents, the pull between caregiving duties and other interests, professional and personal…

Almost every neighborhood in the D.C. region has experienced a version of the changes in “White Elephant.” Even Adams Morgan: The Line hotel, for example, occupies a building that was once a church. Langsdorf laughs about some of the struggles she’s seen in her own building, hastening to add that her fellow co-op residents are all great neighbors.

The residents of Willard Park come to realize that houses matter less than their inhabitants — and that the suburbs aren’t for everyone. Langsdorf understands this, too; in her current existence she feels more herself. “My life is much more vibrant,” she says. “I love being able to walk everywhere, and I do have more time to write.”

That a proposed McMansion could lead to “dalliances” and “high jinks” is intriguing to consider…the angry public meetings are much easier to verify.

While it would not have been possible to discuss McMansions before the 1980s since the term did not exist, it sounds like this new work draws on several common suburban critiques featured in novels, films, television shows, and other cultural products. Suburban residents, particularly women and mothers, feel trapped by suburban expectations and a landscape that does not easily lead to human connection or diverse experiences. They then look for ways to break free of the suburban mold and explore different outlets.

These works tend to emphasize those that feel “the suburbs aren’t for everyone.” At the same time, many Americans live in the suburbs by choice and I assume a good number of suburbanites feel their existence is at least okay. Is it because cultural works need crises to overcome (the hero on their journey must overcome something) or are the suburbs are a unique target because they are so common in the United States (over 50% of residents live there) and so reviled?