Are McMansions Really Headed Towards Slumville?

mcmansions

Note: I wrote this essay in April 2008 as a response to Christopher Leinberger’s ‘The Next Slum‘ article (Atlantic Monthly, March 2008). I chastised the author a bit for not exactly answering the implied question about the future of McMansions. Given the sad state of the housing market and rampant foreclosures that have occurred during the past three years maybe Leinberger was simply hedging his bets. I will revisit this essay eventually because foreclosures and abandoned homes have had a significant impact on American communities. In the interim . . .

On your way to achieving adulthood, there are those prerequisite steps that come with solidifying your adult status. These steps include having a good-paying job or career, getting married, and having children. One of the most profound investments that any person can make as an adult is to purchase a home. The ideal home for many is one that has at least four bedrooms, multiple bathrooms, a chef-friendly kitchen, expansive dining area, comfortable family room and a backyard big enough to play tackle football. Most importantly, the home should be located in a nice, suburban community.

According to Christopher Leinberger in his Atlantic Monthly (March 2008) article ‘The Next Slum?’ (p. 12-15) the American desire for large homes in suburbia (cum future tenements) possibly began upon viewing the “suburban dream” exhibit at the 1939 New York World’s Fair (Leinberger, p. 13). Visitors were able to see a football field-size exhibit of what “American cities and towns might look like in 1960” (p.13).

Beginning of McMansions

The first suburban reality came into being with the return of American GIs after WWII and was subsequently speeded-along by the increasing relocation of employment to the outside the city, the riots of the 1960s, and retail malls. Also, the change from urban to suburban living had a lot to do with the overall perception that the suburbs had better schools, better homes, and were simply safer. Along with the move to suburbia came the advent of larger homes to complement the larger land space.

The development of these large homes, known as ‘McMansions’ occurred during the 1980s – in the midst of the Reagan Administration, the stock market boom, low energy prices, and the rise of the middle class. McMansions were created to fill the real estate gap between small suburban homes and the usual upscale custom homes that are found in “gated, waterfront, or golf-course communities” (Koloff, p. 23). They are mass-produced homes that range in size between 2200 and 3500 square feet and are located in “homogeneous communities that are often produced by a developer” (Koloff, p. 23). The ‘McMansion’ description comes from the viewpoint that these types of homes lack distinction, durability, and are built similarly and quickly, like the production of food at McDonald’s fast food restaurants.

State of McMansion Land

Unfortunately, as of 2008 many middle-class homeowners can no longer afford to live in their McMansions due to high mortgage loan payments. Homeowners are selling or renting-out their large homes and downsizing to smaller ones. Others have been forced into foreclosure, meaning that their bank or some other financial entity repossessed their homes. The U.S real estate market is in a major decline, in that homes are simply not being purchased as quickly for various reasons (e.g. too costly, tighter loan approval requirements, etc.). Accordingly, homes are remaining unsold, whether it is an old, new or foreclosed home. ‘The Next Slum’ seems to be about whether today’s foreclosed McMansions will “turn into tomorrow’s tenements” (Leinberger, p. 13).

Leinberger first discusses the current state of McMansion suburbia for several homeowners who live in Charlotte, North Carolina, Elk Grove, California and Lee County, Florida. Both areas are experiencing high crime rate and home owner decay as a result of the increase of foreclosed homes in their respective residential area. The foreclosed homes in the two suburbs have been vandalized and have attracted homeless persons, drug users, renters of “dubious character,” and gang activity (Leinberger, p. 13).

Leinberger mentions “one in four houses stand empty” in Lee County, Florida and that “residential burglaries rose by 35 percent and robberies [increased] by 58 percent” (p. 15).  Many of the foreclosure problems and subsequent societal ills, such as crime are connected to the sub-prime mortgage (high risk mortgage granted to a borrower with a less-than-perfect credit report) disaster that has affected the housing market. Yet, Leinberger believes that the foreclosure crisis is just another sign in the changing house market – that a “major shift [is] [on] the way [in how] many Americans want to live and work” (p. 14). In that Americans are no longer interested in running towards suburban homes, that the new desire is to return to an urban landscape which includes being close to public transportation, shopping areas, food establishments, cultural entities, etc.

Leinberger then discusses what might happen to these foreclosed McMansion homes – if/when they become slum-like (e.g. poor tenants, limited maintenance, overcrowding, etc.) in nature. He describes how turning these homes into apartments would not be ideal because they lack the solidness of the older homes, that the “structural integrity [that] the [McMansions] have from drywall” is “too flimsy” to withstand over the long term (Leinberger, p. 14).

Many homeowners who live near these foreclosed homes will try to prevent the parceling out of these homes into apartments, but their fight will be to no avail. The community decline will begin, if it hasn’t already, attracting less-than-satisfactory type of residents with “longtime residents” moving elsewhere.

Even with this pessimistic viewpoint, not all homes or suburban neighborhoods will suffer the aforementioned fate if they happen to actually be near a vital area and near a good source of public transportation (i.e., rail lines, subway, etc.). He concludes by stating that the “glum forecast” for suburbia should not outweigh the fact that Americans are desirous of living in a more urban setting because it can lead to other beneficial factors such weight loss and a better environment due to less use of gas and other sources of energy (Leinberger, p. 13). However, Leinberger also oncludes that there will always be those who prefer suburbia to urban living, yet they must be aware that there is a chance that they may be deeply affected by the increasing run towards urban living in the city, or at least a city-like setting.

Suburbanites Returning to the Big City?

Leinberger makes some valid points about the changes in moving from suburban to urban living, especially when he gives cultural and constructional narratives about residential areas in Washington, DC, North Carolina, Florida, and Colorado.  Yet, Leinberger’s data doesn’t exactly firmly support his belief that suburbanites are running back to urban settings, leaving their McMansions behind due to high mortgages and/or preference for urbanity – resulting in their homes becoming the next slums.

For example, Leinberger mentions that the “urban feel” of the “faux-urban centers,” “walkable urban places” and “lifestyle centers” are preferred by many new homeowners and those wishing to relocate from the suburbs back to the city (Leinberger, p. 15). However, he also mentions that only “5-10% of the [metropolitan] housing stock” is actually located in these ideal urban settings (p. 15). Furthermore, he states that as of 2000 more than 10 million new single-family homes have been built in suburban areas (p. 15). So – even if the University of British Columbia’s study (as cited by Leinberger) infers that “roughly” one in three homeowners would like to live in an urban setting – this point is weakened by his inclusion of the fact that most metropolitan areas simply don’t have the space for these urban city wannabes (p. 15).

As for the survey’s substance, did it factor in suburban residents continued sensitivity to the negative connotations about suburbia, which involves privilege, status and race? It is more than possible that when suburbanites are questioned about living preferences, they might tend to answer ‘yes’ to preferring to live in an urban rather than suburban area because it is considered the right, hip, and politically correct thing to say. Add to that the continuing increase in the building of suburban homes means that there is still a high interest in living in homes with McMansion-like qualities.

Also, the preference for urban leaving begs the question ‘What does Leinberger or those surveyed mean by “urban”?’ Urban centers leaves one wondering how ‘urban’ are the suburbanites residential desires. These settings are normally situated in “walkable developments that create an urban feel” in places that were undeveloped (Leinberger, p. 15). They also feature “narrow streets and small storefronts” that are “mixed in with housing and office space” (p. 15). To most people, urban areas (aka cities) don’t necessarily fit the description of the urban settings that are preferred by suburbanites looking for an urban feel.

Normally urban areas are viewed as cities or urbanized areas such as New York/New Jersey/Connecticut and the Greater Washington DC area, which includes parts of Maryland and Virginia both with population in the millions. Leinberger mentions the Reston Town Center “located between Virginia’s Dulles International Airport and Washington, DC” as a popular lifestyle urban center (Reston, p. 1). Reston doesn’t exactly fit the definition of an urban city given that its population is less than thirty thousand and is located twenty miles outside DC.

Leinberger’s piece inadvertently (or maybe advertently) implies that these urban centers are synonymous with urban cities, which is far from the case since many urban cities do not mention ‘small storefronts’ as an appeal factor. Maybe there is a reason that the terms ‘center,’ and faux’ are attached to the word ‘urban’ when it comes to suburbanites’ city desires, in that they do not truly want to live in an urban city, but a semblance of one.

Undesirable Elements

Another overstated issue in Leinberger’s piece is the so-called increase of undesirable elements moving into these large, foreclosed McMansion homes and communities. This thought seems to be based on the premise that when suburbanites return to the city, property values go up which forces low-income persons to the outskirts of the city.

Many large, foreclosed suburban homes are located in communities with limited public service access. Most low-income people tend to congregate in areas that have regular public transportation and relatively-easy access to public, community, and social services that help them function from day-to-day; not in areas such as Franklin Reserve in Elk Grove, California, which was mentioned by Leinberger as experiencing a crime problem due to McMansion foreclosures. Interestingly, Leinberger does not include other info about Elk Grove, such as that it is fifteen miles outside Sacramento and that its 18-route public transportation system has only been operational since 2005 – not exactly an ideal residential area for many low-income persons (City of Elk Grove, p. 1).

Some of these foreclosed homes will attract a bad element, but the location and accessibility of public transportation also plays a key in whether these homes will remain unoccupied or will become tenements.

McMansionville the Next Slums?

‘The Next Slum?’ literally begs for an answer to the question ‘Are McMansions or McMansion communities really going to become the next slums?’ Leinberger realizes that he must answer this question quickly, given its provocative title; hence the homeowner narratives about the changing safety factor in their community and the devaluing of their home.

However, instead of immediately having tons of data from various think tanks, newspapers, and real estate prognosticators reiterating his point, Leinberger segues into the history of suburbia, the construction housing market, consumer housing needs/desires, homeowner demographic changes, and home location preferences before working his way back to his titular question. The true nature of the article is not about whether foreclosed McMansions will become the next slums. It is about the changing housing market and its contradictions – housing preferences versus housing realities.

Leinberger plays on homeownership fears about living in a potential slum area in order to discuss how suburban homeowners are downsizing to save money, moving to urban settings, developers’ attempt to address this issue while financially capitalizing on these suburban desires and how some McMansion communities have attempted to combat the foreclosure problem.  The foreclosure/slum home aspects of ‘The Next Slum?’ seems to be a somewhat minor player since the article spends most of its time on the development of new urban lifestyle living. Maybe the article should be re-titled ‘Is the Housing Market Changing for Suburbia?’ but that wouldn’t be as sexy or provocative. As for the answer to the question about whether McMansions will become the next slum – Leinberger seems to have answered ‘yes,’ ‘no,’ ‘maybe,’ or ‘not yet’  – not exactly the answer the reader was looking for.

________________________________________

REFERENCES

—City of Elk Grove, California website. Retrieved March 7, 2008 from

<http://www.elkgrovecity.org/&gt;. 1

—Koloff, Abbott (2004). Not every higher-end buyer wants a mcmansion. Daily Record. 23

—Leinberger, C. (2007). The next slum. The Atlantic Monthly. 12-15

—Reston Virginia Data Profile. Retrieved March 10, 2008 from <http://www.city-

data.com/city/Reston-Virginia.html>. 1


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