Emily Post, pretense, and McMansions

A look at Emily Post’s etiquette connects her advice then and McMansions today:

Many of her admonitions are still relevant today. Thank-you notes were a sign of good character, Post argued. She also recommended ignoring “elephants at large in the garden,” otherwise known as wealthy know-it-alls: “Why a man, because he has millions, should assume they confer omniscience in all branches of knowledge, it something which may be left to the psychologist to answer.”

Above all, however, one must avoid pretense! Hence her indictment of the tastelessness of what today might be called a “McMansion”: “But the ‘mansion’ with coarse lace… and the bell answered at eleven in the morning by a butler in an ill-fitting dress suit and wearing a mustache, might as well be placarded: ‘Here lives a vulgarian who has never had an opportunity to acquire cultivation.’”

These two passages cited above suggest that those with wealth and resources should not flaunt their advantages by either acting like they know everything or having possessions that indicate status but not refinement. Hence, a McMansion might be an issue because the owner is purchasing a relatively expensive and large house and making a statement with its architecture and design. Instead of a more understated or traditional looking or older wealthy home, the McMansion is often said to be a plea for attention by those with new money to burn.

At the same time, this hints at some broader issues Americans have with wealth and dwellings. Is it more acceptable to have a more subtle but truly grand big home as opposed to garish McMansion? Both dwellings might contribute to inequality. Both could discourage social interaction. Both are larger than the average home and arguably waste a lot of space. Both show that the homeowners have money.

In American society, there have long been certain ways wealthy people should try to downplay their wealth. Because has more democratic and meritocratic ideals than some places, having certain possessions – the ultimate or unusual luxury goods – are truly markers of having a lot more than others. McMansions are not these luxury goods; they are too common and are within the reach of relatively more Americans. The big mansions of Hollywood, in the wealthiest suburbs and urban neighborhoods, and home to the 1% are the ultimate mansions and indicators of wealth.

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?

“Trophy ranches” may disappear with Baby Boomers

One segment of the luxury property market does not appeal to younger buyers or those who do not understand the appeal of a “trophy ranch”:

Decades ago, a generation of America’s wealthiest, raised on television shows like “Howdy Doody” and “The Lone Ranger,” headed west with dreams of owning some of the country’s most prestigious ranches. Now, as those John Wayne- loving baby boomers age out of the lifestyle or die, they or their children are looking to sell those trophy properties…

Jeff Buerger, a local ranch broker with Hall & Hall in Colorado, said there are more large trophy ranches on the market right now than he can recall in his nearly three decades in the business. There are about 20 ranches priced at over $20 million on the market in the state, according to a Wall Street Journal analysis of listings…

Unlike other sectors of the U.S. high-end real-estate market, ranches can’t fall back on international purchasers. Broker Tim Murphy said there is virtually no demand for ranches from international buyers, many of whom “don’t get it.”…

“The last wave of buyers was the baby boomers who fell in love with John Wayne and wanted that experience for themselves,” Mr. Buerger said. “Today, it’s more about conservation. You’re starting to hear more landowners talking about wildlife habitat enhancement and ecological work.” Other targeted groups include wealthy families from the East Coast or Silicon Valley.

I would guess this is not just about baby boomers: it is about broader conceptions of what is the ideal property if someone came into significant money. The implication in the story above is that media, particularly John Wayne films, created a desire for these locations. Presumably, other media depictions would fuel desires for other properties. Depending on the tastes and background of buyers, this could range from:

1. Pricey downtown condos or penthouses in the middle of urban action (whether in well-established wealthy neighborhoods or in up-and-coming places).

2. Suburban McMansions that offer a lot of space and unique architecture.

3. Traditional mansions with sprawling homes whose size and design imply old money (in contrast to the flashy yet flawed McMansions).

4. Impressive vacation homes right on desirable beaches.

Perhaps the trick of any of these is to try to ensure that there are future buyers for your property. If demand drops, your hot high-status property may not hold up as a desirable location for the long-term.

Three thoughts on the finding that 7.5% of housing in Naperville is affordable

Naperville is a large – over 140,000 residents – and wealth – a median household income of just over $114,000 – suburb. It also does not have much affordable housing:

A state agency recently faulted Naperville as the only Illinois community of 50,000 or more lacking affordable housing, which, according to the federal government, means housing costs make up no more than 30% of a household’s income. In a report last year, the Illinois Housing Development Authority found just 7.5% of Naperville homes are considered affordable based on the regional median income, among the lowest percentages in the state.

Some elected officials fear Naperville’s high housing costs could drive out seniors and push away recent college graduates and middle-class professionals. As those city leaders consider a slew of new developments, they and housing advocates are debating how and whether to include affordable units that could bring in new residents and help people such as Melekhova stay…

Efforts to include affordable housing in Naperville developments have been met with some resistance. Residents have questioned the effects affordable units would have on their neighborhood and whether the look of buildings with affordable units would fit the character of the area.

One question submitted on a note card during a panel on affordable housing in May was more pointed: “What steps can landlords utilize to minimize the potential negative impacts of the associated tenants utilizing affordable housing?”

Based on my research on suburbs and Naperville, three quick thoughts:

  1. Naperville enjoys being a wealthy suburb. It has a really low poverty rate for a city its size. It has lots of white-collar jobs. While this tends to be put in terms of having a high quality of life, nice amenities, and good schools, there is clearly wealth.
  2. There is not a lot of affordable housing because that is not the kind of housing Naperville prioritized for the last fifty years. As the suburb really started to grow in land area and population in the 1960s, there were public discussions about building apartments. This is not what won out in the long run and the community approved subdivision after subdivision of nicer single-family homes. (See my 2013 article that details some of this.)
  3. More recent discussions and the comments highlighted in the article are common ones in suburban debates over affordable housing. When suburbs discuss affordable housing, they often are thinking of people that would desire in the community such as younger adults and retirees. They are not explicitly seeking out poorer residents. Such concerns can be put in different terms – privileging “quality” development or protecting the “character” of neighborhoods – but they often do not address housing for the many Americans working in lower-paying jobs. And there may be some support for affordable housing units but it is harder to find the suburban homeowners who want to live near those units.

All that said, truly addressing the issue of affordable housing requires more effort than adding a few units spread throughout the large suburb. A larger discussion about what kind of housing the community desires and what kind of residents it wants would have to take place before the number of affordable housing units would truly jump.

Considering the Wall Street Journal’s “mansion porn”

The Wall Street Journal sends a special supplement each week to readers looking at the houses of the wealthy:

Mansion, The Wall Street Journal’s real-estate supplement, arrives each Friday slipped into the middle of my newsprint edition, the way pornography (so I’m told!) used to come in unmarked envelopes back before the internet placed it at everyone’s fingertips. I’m satisfied with my weekly print version, but you may prefer reading Mansion on the web, where the photographs are more numerous, detailed, lurid, and explicit…

The comparison to porn is apt. It’s also unoriginal and incomplete. A little more than a decade ago, when the century was young and right before their real-estate holdings drove millions of people into bankruptcy, New York magazine ran a regular feature about how fabulous it was to own real estate. And not just to own it, but to fantasize about it, drool over it, caress the photos and the sales price as though they were objects of sensual desire. The feature was called “Real Estate Porn,” in keeping with the salacious content.

Mansion invokes the same feelings of naughtiness: You’re watching people do something that, in a fairer and more just world, you’d be doing yourself. I think of Vivian Dixon and John Chapple, a married couple that Mansion introduced us to not long ago, as the exemplars of the Mansion character. They are voluptuaries of real estate. They grab houses the way the rest of us scoop mints from the little bowl as we leave a restaurant. At the time of the article’s publication, in May, they owned six residences, though by the time the piece ends you suspect their trigger finger is getting itchy again…

This willingness to take the wealthy on their own terms is a rarity in American business journalism. Reporters are usually more leery in their treatment of such subjects, when not nakedly hostile. Few people in the world despise the winners of the capitalist lotto more than the sorry drudges who are called to write about them. You’ll find a higher percentage of committed socialists in the newsroom of the Financial Times than at a lakefront party at Bernie Sanders’s dacha.

I have not seen this section but I wonder if tackles several darker essentials of American culture from the beginning:

  1. The presence of really wealthy people in the midst of an egalitarian/middle-class public discourse.
  2. The importance of real estate in American life. Sure, citizens can vote and a few people can move from the bottom to the top in unique ways but the real answer to getting ahead is real estate (from moving the frontier for 150+ years to gobbling up expensive properties in  global cities).
  3. The work that goes into homeownership in both maintaining and improving properties.
  4. The interest in seeing what the rich are up to and uncertainty about whether to critique their excess or celebrate their success.

It would be interesting to know how many Americans exist at this elite level of real estate. This is not the typical homeowner hoping to make money on their single-family home or the small market house flipper or the “dream hoarders” in the top quintile of earners; these are people buying and selling with large amounts of capital (perhaps some even thinking like the current president).

Could giga-mansions relieve the negative attention directed toward McMansions?

The term McMansion is likely to stick around (even if is used poorly at times) but more interest may be shifting to the giga-mansion.  A Motley Fools podcast provides some information:

First we had mansions. Then we had mega-mansions. And McMansions. Now we have giga-mansions. Yes, it’s a growing trend of massive houses usually built in the LA area on spec. They are massive, expensive, and outrageously ostentatious. Let’s see if you two can answer some trivia around some of the most expensive pieces of residential real estate on the market…

The One will be America’s largest house on the market at 100,000 square feet. It will be the most expensive private residence when it comes to market. It boasts four swimming pools, a nightclub, a room where the walls and ceiling are filled with jellyfish. It will have a 30-car gallery. Because of this price you don’t call it a garage. Of the 20 bedrooms, how many are in a separate building just for your staff?…

Let’s move on and talk about the house called Billionaire. It’s 38,000 square feet. It was America’s most-expensive house on the market when it was listed for $250 million in 2017. The property is in the exclusive Los Angeles suburb of Bel Air. It has 12 bedrooms, 21 bathrooms, three kitchens, a 40-feet James Bond-themed cinema, six bars, two fully stocked champagne cellars, and the helicopter from what 1980s television series? Rick knows this. He can’t wait to say it…

Southwick: A $1 billion lot. Now we’re going to go to The Manor. The largest home in LA was actually built in 1988 by the TV show producer Aaron Spelling and his wife Candy. The 56,000 square foot, 14-bedroom, 27-bath home originally was built for $12 million. They sold it all in a cash deal for $85 million in 2011 to the 23-year-old daughter of someone wealthy. Don’t worry about it. She renovated much of the house, since it had some very quirky spaces, including a flower-cutting room, a humidity-controlled silver storage room, a barber shop, and three rooms for doing what common birthday and Christmas activity?

One of the major critiques of McMansions involves their symbolic nature: they are associated with sprawl, wealth, and conspicuous consumption. All of these appear to be in play with the examples from the Los Angeles area cited above: a region known for cars and highways, entertainment celebrities and executives along with other wealthy people, and a constant need to stand out from the rest of the area.

But, McMansions have key differences from this supersized homes. They are generally smaller – roughly 3,000-10,000 square feet – and more often found in “typical” neighborhoods. They are often mass-produced. They are often criticized for their architecture while megahomes take more flak for their size. Perhaps most importantly, McMansions are within the reach of more Americans. Depending on the housing market, an upper-middle class household can acquire a McMansion but these giga-mansions are only for the wealthiest.

If the ultimate concern behind critiques of McMansions is their unnecessary size and flaunting of wealth, then the spread of giga-mansion might relieve some of the pressure. Granted, there will always be more McMansions but it is easy to focus on these outsized homes and their owners. Why criticize the top 10-20% of American homeowners for their McMansion choices when the giga-mansions of tomorrow constructed and owned by the top 0.1% of homeowners are so ridiculous and unnecessary?

Promote smaller, cheaper housing by calling it “missing middle housing”

Even if the median size of new American homes is smaller in recent years, this does not mean it is easy to construct smaller new homes in communities:

To propel the movement, he recommends using the term “missing middle housing,” rather than terms such as “upzoning,” “density” and “multifamily,” which he says have a negative connotation.

“I can’t imagine a single neighborhood in the country where people will get excited about the term ‘density,’ ” Parolek said. “Even things like ‘multifamily’ can be a scary term that’s past its life span.”

His larger recommendation is for cities to change their zoning ordinances. Parolek advocates for form-based zoning, which allows more flexibility for what can be built on a property…

“Zoning in and of itself is a system that encourages single-family home construction in cities,” Parolek said. “Most cities don’t have effective zoning for missing middle housing, so the easy thing to do is to build a single-family house. There’s no neighborhood pushback and less risk. There’s a reason it’s being done, but it’s not responding to what the market wants.”

Very few neighbors or communities would be excited to live next to or approve cheaper housing. The assumption is that more expensive housing is good: it will bring in more tax dollars, typically has fewer residents (so lower local costs), and connotes a higher status. In contrast, it is thought cheaper housing brings down surrounding property values and the kind of people who live in cheaper housing are not as desirable as higher income residents.

Would communities react better to “missing middle housing”? Perhaps. Many places talk about the need to have housing where hard working professionals with a stake in the community, like teachers and firefighters, can reside in the place where they work. Or, it is desirable to provide denser housing for young professionals and retirees to keep them in the community. Yet, as Parolek notes, the goal is still to move people toward a single-family home (with some flexibility for townhouses and condos) in the long run. Changing zoning is not easy because many people purchase a home and then work hard for years to protect the value of that home. Cheaper housing may be more acceptable if located away from existing larger and more expensive housing, if it is allowed in the community at all.

Missing from even this suggestion about “missing middle housing” is an acknowledgement of the necessity of housing for lower-class and poorer residents. True affordable housing needs to go beyond the middle-class and provide housing for those working in the retail and service industries. But, I don’t think most communities and America as a whole wants to talk about this kind of housing.