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McMansion ghettos
February 29, 2008 8:02 AM   Subscribe

The sub-prime mortgage crisis is giving way in some places to crime ridden McMansion ghettos, perhaps the beginning of a larger long term trend in demographics: "many low-density suburbs and McMansion subdivisions, including some that are lovely and affluent today, may become what inner cities became in the 1960s and ’70s—slums characterized by poverty, crime, and decay."
posted by stbalbach (81 comments total) 12 users marked this as a favorite

 
Wait, the houses in that picture are what people mean by "McMansion"? I thought they'd be more....mansiony.
posted by DU at 8:10 AM on February 29, 2008


McSlums!
posted by R. Mutt at 8:15 AM on February 29, 2008


Mmmmm, mcmansions with bacon!
posted by blue_beetle at 8:19 AM on February 29, 2008


...modern suburban houses, even high-end McMansions, are cheaply built. Hollow doors and wallboard are less durable than solid-oak doors and lath-and-plaster walls. The plywood floors that lurk under wood veneers or carpeting tend to break up and warp as the glue that holds the wood together dries out; asphalt-shingle roofs typically need replacing after 10 years. Many recently built houses take what structural integrity they have from drywall—their thin wooden frames are too flimsy to hold the houses up...
posted by R. Mutt at 8:22 AM on February 29, 2008 [2 favorites]


McMansion has been the new derogatory for any middle-class greenfield suburb in America. Why do you care so much about how other people want to live? I agree the buildings are poor aesthetic taste but that is something of personal preference. This is sort of like the French blaming the stupid people of Algeria for the lack of non-arable land. Same sort of elitism, right?

In any case I've seen plenty of cities with suburbs from the 40s-50s closer to the downtown than greenfield developments (though they were greenfield at the time of development) turn into ghettos. People don't think of them as suburbs because usually that sort of thing is leap frogged due to advances that made transportation more economic. So now we'll see similar developments on the outskirts of town? Doesn't really surprise me. This is nothing new.

I expected more from the Atlantic. Hey I like walkable urban areas, a lot of people don't. Market preferences change, that's why there is a market and not a top-down system. An article explaining why these preferences are changing without all the rah-rah of how declasse the suburban people are would have been a lot more engaging.
posted by geoff. at 8:26 AM on February 29, 2008 [1 favorite]


R. Mutt's got it. Instead of actually investing in the long-term, this country has become a nation of shortest-possible-term thinking. We're now moving out of that "short-term" time frame...

And the Devil needs to be paid.
posted by chasing at 8:26 AM on February 29, 2008 [1 favorite]


The plywood floors that lurk under wood veneers or carpeting tend to break up and warp as the glue that holds the wood together dries out; asphalt-shingle roofs typically need replacing after 10 years. Many recently built houses take what structural integrity they have from drywall—their thin wooden frames are too flimsy to hold the houses up.

10 year asphalt roofs? If your roof fails that quickly you should be calling a lawyer. Structural integrity from drywall? This person has never lived outside of a city, or done any work on a house I can safely assume that. If it's supposed to be sarcastic or hyperbole, it doesn't really come off well in print.

The rest of the article reads like the typical anti-suburban rant I've seen from the eco warriors for the past twenty years. Heck, the writer even points to Detroit as one of the areas turning around their developments. Detroit really couldn't sink much lower, so that's a rather poor example. Any improvement there would be noticeable.

About the only thing I can say for the article, is that yes, areas that suffer economic down turns can have crime in them, whether they are a city or a suburban area. No doubts there, no real news there.
posted by inthe80s at 8:26 AM on February 29, 2008 [2 favorites]


You mean that in 2015, Marty McFly will come back to Hill Valley to discover it has become a crime-ridden slum?
Now, when do I get my hoverboard ?
posted by Skeptic at 8:35 AM on February 29, 2008


From our old pal Bob Villa....

While asphalt shingles come with warranties ranging from 20 to as long as 45 years, roofers and builders remain skeptical of those warranties. Since warranties are a marketing device, they are not a reliable predictor of lifespan. In the past decade, there have been many complaints of asphalt shingle failure long before warranties expired....
posted by R. Mutt at 8:36 AM on February 29, 2008


At last, the Hamburglar's time has come.
posted by brain_drain at 8:39 AM on February 29, 2008 [1 favorite]


The author projects a significant shift in housing preference from single-family residences to high-density urban living. This reduced demand, he supposes, will permit a lot of nice suburbs to slip into slum status as property owners have no choice but to rent out to poorer people.

The problem is that there really is no evidence of that shift in preference, or that such a shift would have the long-term effect he projects.

Sure, people say that they'd like the idea of living somewhere cultured and walkable, but cities continue to decline in their percentage of overall population; the number of people buying cool city condos is swamped by the growth of the exurbs. For this to reverse would require, more than anything else, a resurgence in city jobs. Job creation is still heavily biased to the suburbs and exurbs and most of the cool city condos are actually replacing real estate which used to host living-wage jobs. Large scale reversal would also require cities developing the political will to govern themselves more in the interests of middle-class private-sector-employees and less in the interests of government employees or government dependents. Not happening anytime soon.

Ghettoization of suburbs is an interesting question. It certainly can happen, but it's not the most likely of outcomes. Once homeowners and developers get wise to whatever the market-clearing price for a home is, they'll sell the home to a home-buyer.

Renting out detached single family residences is simply not an attractive business model -- very different from the phenomen whereby well-constructed and dense urban homes were made into rentals when the cities emptied out. (The author actually makes the point about the shoddiness of construction in terms of McMansions not being easily subdivided, but shoddy construction is just as bad if you're renting the house out whole.)

Moreover, suburbs lack the infrastructure of social services, public transportation and political accommodation which help ghettos stay hospitable to people with very low or no earned income. The author projects that the targeted suburbs will relax their zoning and other protections; I think, by contrast, they'll tighten them up -- which will force property owners to sell rather than rent and discourage buyers who rely upon government support or look for police indulgence.

I suppose that some people might be so snobby as to think their neighborhood has gone downhill because a couple of foreclosed houses get sold to paralelgals or Wal-Mart assistant managers rathern than to dentists or lawyers -- but it isn't the end of the world.
posted by MattD at 8:41 AM on February 29, 2008 [4 favorites]


I think that there is another aspect of this change that will be fundamentally different however. I think that a large part of why denser cities like Chicago, NY, etc have been successful at controlling their crime rate is due to the density of population; one police car can patrol a greater number of people than in other, less-dense areas. Now, certainly these cities have more resources to devote to the police protection, but I think that a large part of why crime is worse in places like Detroit is that Detroit, from a built-environment standpoint is really just a large suburb. 80 percent of the residential area (a guesstimate) in Detroit are single family homes. They are much closer together than they are in the suburbs, but trying to patrol an area with high crime that is not really centrally located in any way seems to be much, much harder where the high-crime area is more broadly spread over an area.

I think that is why there is reason to worry about these areas. The role of a city is to provide services, and I think the viability of many McMansion suburbs as a living area and a city that provides is predicated upon a large, affluent residential population to provide the money necessary. If this population leaves or is substantially lowered, will they have the resources to prevent the rest of it from falling apart? I hope they don't.
posted by ofthestrait at 8:42 AM on February 29, 2008


Puts me in mind of this movie.
posted by dersins at 8:43 AM on February 29, 2008


Why on earth would I want lath and plaster walls? I like to hang pictures occasionally.

I'd love to afford solid doors, though.
posted by DU at 8:43 AM on February 29, 2008


(oh, and this one.)
posted by dersins at 8:43 AM on February 29, 2008


I think bikers will love to take these glorified barns and turn them into grow ops. Welcome to the neighbourhood.
posted by Space Coyote at 8:50 AM on February 29, 2008


I'm always sort of torn on the topic of suburbs: on the one hand, I think the dense, traditionally working-class suburbs around the rail lines on Long Island, with plenty of mixed zoning, are actually pretty nice; on the other hand, I think that the sprawling, 15-miles-to-the-Walmart (which is the only grocery store) type of suburbs are unpleasant, unsustainable, and hostile to the concept of community.

The article's tone is pretty obnoxious, though, and the assumption that most people would rather live in apartments is nonsense. I like the idea of a walkable community as much as anyone, but I wouldn't want to hear my neighbors fighting or listening to booty-thumping bass every night.
posted by uncleozzy at 8:52 AM on February 29, 2008 [1 favorite]


I like to hang pictures occasionally.

My old house has drywall over plaster and lath. The walls are about an inch and a half thick. Putting in a new box for a light switch or an electrical outlet is fun, let me tell you.
posted by middleclasstool at 8:53 AM on February 29, 2008


AFAIK, nobody uses lath-and-plaster in new construction, anywhere.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 8:53 AM on February 29, 2008 [1 favorite]


Regarding structural strength from drywall: the drywall is used as a shear element, not a bending element.
posted by notsnot at 8:54 AM on February 29, 2008


The point made above about America being short-sighted is a good one. In our area, suburban developments sprung and have grown to the point that they're not sustainable by their own aquifers, to the point that they're trying to tap already dwindling Great Lakes water to continue their growth.

Depending on how things play out though, it's easy to imagine a future where the middle and upper classes live in the cities, and the poor live in the older suburbs. As a migration back into cities would drive up housing prices in the cities making it harder for the poor to afford to live there.
posted by drezdn at 8:55 AM on February 29, 2008


I blame planners. builders build whatever they're allowed. This is the fault of hundreds of lazy county planning office across the US.

Also, anyone extolling the virtules of lathe and plaster has never owned a house built that way. What a fricking nightmare to repair. Or hang a picture on.
posted by GuyZero at 8:56 AM on February 29, 2008 [1 favorite]


While plenty of downtown, walkable neighbors areas have turned into ghettos, these neighborhoods were ghettoized from the effects of the 60s riots (which had a side-effect of making it impossible for businesses in those neighborhoods to get insurance) and a the first wave of suburbanization that depleted those neighborhoods. However, those are also the same neighborhoods that quickly gentrified, because they still had the built-in benefits of good location and solid building stock. Once those neighborhoods became a little bit safer to live in, people became willing to move there again. In fact, if you were interested in making a speculative real estate investment, I would suggest looking for neighborhoods that used to be thriving commercial districts and buy property there, because much of the infrastructure that made them vibrant neighborhoods in the first place will likely still be intact.

By contrast, the exurban developments have much less infrastructure and had little reason for existing beyond the fact that people needed inexpensive places to live and were willing to drive further away to find a large house in a price range they could afford. That implies to me that when these neighborhoods decline, they'll be gone and they won't have much hope of getting better.
posted by deanc at 9:00 AM on February 29, 2008


Kirth Gerson: "AFAIK, nobody uses lath-and-plaster in new construction, anywhere."

I worked in new construction in the Pittsburgh area as recently as 12 years ago with hard plaster walls. It's not exactly common but not completely unusual.
posted by octothorpe at 9:07 AM on February 29, 2008


This is the fault of hundreds of lazy county planning office across the US.

Not just lazy, they're getting bribes, either explicitly, or implicitly through tax income.
posted by TheOnlyCoolTim at 9:10 AM on February 29, 2008


Why on earth would I want lath and plaster walls? I like to hang pictures occasionally.

DU: You can go to the hardware store and find hooks that consist of a disc of hard plastic, with a hook projecting below, pierced by three hard steel pins. You hold this against the wall and bang the pins in with a hammer. Works on plaster, terra cotta, and for all I know, concrete. I had an old apartment in Montreal where you could pound on a nail against the wall for an hour and get nowhere--these things went in like buttah.
posted by Turtles all the way down at 9:13 AM on February 29, 2008


The reaction from the MeFis so far suggest a real rootedness in the moribund American Dream. While I agree that the suburbs will not completely disappear, they are in a for a huge shakeup of the kind that cannot be fully anticipated.

In particular, there is an unavoidable energy collapse waiting for the United States (and the world) and this will have a dramatic effect on both current urban and ex-urban living patterns. My best guess is that a lot of suburbs are going to be converted into small towns but most of them will turn to wastelands, waiting to be gentrified 30 to 45 years after their collapse (which is probably 10 to 20 years from now).

In other words

2020-2030: collapse of suburban living
2015-2045: rise of urban living, reconfiguration of some suburban development
2050-2065: re-use of defunct suburban spaces

For a very interesting look at the imminent demise of the suburbs, there is a somewhat alarmist but in my view right-on-target documentary by Gregory Greene titled The End of Suburbia: Oil Depletion and the Collapse of the American Dream (2004).
posted by mistersquid at 9:19 AM on February 29, 2008 [1 favorite]


The Charlotte (NC) Observer did a series on this last year.
posted by marxchivist at 9:22 AM on February 29, 2008


Yeah I didn't really read the article as being polemical against suburbs, the defensive reaction from some MeFites is curious. Some interesting factual based stuff (from the article) on changing demographics and trends that make a lot of sense
Arthur C. Nelson, director of the Metropolitan Institute at Virginia Tech, has looked carefully at trends in American demographics, construction, house prices, and consumer preferences. In 2006, using recent consumer research, housing supply data, and population growth rates, he modeled future demand for various types of housing. The results were bracing: Nelson forecasts a likely surplus of 22 million large-lot homes (houses built on a sixth of an acre or more) by 2025—that’s roughly 40 percent of the large-lot homes in existence today.

..

Demographic changes in the United States also are working against conventional suburban growth, and are likely to further weaken preferences for car-based suburban living. When the Baby Boomers were young, families with children made up more than half of all households; by 2000, they were only a third of households; and by 2025, they will be closer to a quarter. Young people are starting families later than earlier generations did, and having fewer children. The Boomers themselves are becoming empty-nesters, and many have voiced a preference for urban living. By 2025, the U.S. will contain about as many single-person households as families with children.

..

By the estimate of Virginia Tech’s Arthur Nelson, as much as half of all real-estate development on the ground in 2025 will not have existed in 2000. It’s exciting to imagine what the country will look like then. Building and residential migration seem to progress slowly from year to year, yet then one day, in retrospect, the landscape seems to have been transformed in the blink of an eye. Unfortunately, the next transformation, like the ones before it, will leave some places diminished. About 25 years ago, Escape From New York perfectly captured the zeitgeist of its moment. Two or three decades from now, the next Kurt Russell may find his breakout role in Escape From the Suburban Fringe.

posted by stbalbach at 9:22 AM on February 29, 2008


This is the fault of hundreds of lazy county planning office across the US.

Not just lazy, they're getting bribes, either explicitly, or implicitly through tax income.


The checks and balances of city planning are literally in the hands of the citizenry. Developers are always in a position to make deals because they have the money; unless a city has thriving industry the only sensible thing to do is take development money. Developers don't have to bribe people, they just have to hope that no one steps up to call city councils on their giveaways and flaunting of various laws and guidelines.
posted by oneirodynia at 9:33 AM on February 29, 2008


Also: planners serve at the will of the mayor. If they were elected, they might actually be more accountable to the general public. Instead, they do what the mayor wants.
posted by oneirodynia at 9:34 AM on February 29, 2008


I thought everyone and their mom knew that these McMansions were built to last just over 11 years, the time span after which the contractor is no longer legally liable for defects in most states. And in 11 years, when you want to renovate, you might as well knock it down, because it will take more time and money to shore up that back wall for an extended master bathroom with jacuzzi than it would to just sell it and move.

I hate to sound elitist, but I grew up in a 1870s house, that was made of solid would, while it was under renovation for the first 10 years we lived there (yeah, stuffwhitepeopledo.com) and I got to see how the frame, foundation, and construction was really well done originally, and how the people before us managed to mess it up with their own additions, yet they could get away with it because the house was solid. And I think the house is fun. None of our doors are identical or the same size, we were able to pickup great solid oak pieces from house demolitions, and it adds character to the building. I can't stand being in a house that has identical doors, fixtures, same egg shell white paint job, in every room.

I wonder if burglars have started to pickout which house models have the weakest door locks and easiest entry points, as they are all made in the same cookie cutter fashion, one might as well learn the ins and outs of one model, and really make a living traveling from burb to burb ransacking the contents of McMasion Model 37.
posted by mrzarquon at 9:35 AM on February 29, 2008 [3 favorites]


I hate to sound elitist, but I grew up in a 1870s house, that was made of solid would ...

Don't worry.


octothorpe, what kind of construction did you use the plaster in?
posted by Kirth Gerson at 9:42 AM on February 29, 2008


...modern suburban houses, even high-end McMansions, are cheaply built. Hollow doors and wallboard are less durable than solid-oak doors and lath-and-plaster walls. The plywood floors that lurk under wood veneers or carpeting tend to break up and warp as the glue that holds the wood together dries out; asphalt-shingle roofs typically need replacing after 10 years. Many recently built houses take what structural integrity they have from drywall—their thin wooden frames are too flimsy to hold the houses up...

If you get past hyperbole, that's a pretty good description of new construction happening in many urban and near-urban "in-fill" projects as well. I attended an open house for a five story wood framed, mixed use project where I could feel the building sway with the wind and on the top floor feel the vibrations of people clomping down the stairs all the way to the bottom. But it did have granite counter tops and stainless steel appliances.
posted by peeedro at 9:47 AM on February 29, 2008 [1 favorite]


I wonder if burglars have started to pickout which house models have the weakest door locks and easiest entry points

Or you could just cut a hole in the wall.
posted by R. Mutt at 9:52 AM on February 29, 2008


McMansion has been the new derogatory for any middle-class greenfield suburb in America. Why do you care so much about how other people want to live? I agree the buildings are poor aesthetic taste but that is something of personal preference. This is sort of like the French blaming the stupid people of Algeria for the lack of non-arable land. Same sort of elitism, right?

The definition of McMansion is cheap construction coupled with poor location and environmental planning and the gross misuse of space for superficial vanity. And yes. other people should care that people choose to live this way. It fucks up water tables and wetlands corrupts otherwise productive agro lands and creates unsustainable transit and energy consumption.

The fact is the people that live there end up being the victims. They have been lucky until now that the housing bubble allowed them to move to other McMasion developments as the current one decays. But this game of real estate Three Card Monty is, as we see, over.

And these shortsighted morons are stuck in decaying unsustainable shit holes that are two hour traffic jams from any economic center—still convinced they have a right to live anyway they like and bewildered as why it's all gone terribly wrong. Golly. "Who do I sue!"
posted by tkchrist at 9:57 AM on February 29, 2008 [9 favorites]


On the subjects of Suberb vs. Exurb vs. Urban environments. Ya'll should check out this TED talk by James Howard Kunstler where he details EXACTLY what's wrong with suburbia (and by extension the McMansion design movement and where we can do better to make urban environments more people friendly. For example, get rid of the vast concrete wasteland that surrounds modern shopping locales.

Not only is Kunstler smart as a tack and points out good ideas for transforming urban environments into walk friendly and security friendly locations but he's pissed off and funny as hell when it comes to describing the evils of urban housing design. "We're normal, we're normal, we're normal..."

On a more personal note:

Exurbia, suburbia, the McMansion development and design movement are one of the worst things to happen to middle America. From here in Madison WI we can see housing developments going up by the ACRE every year. And what's happening is that the land is being gobbled up by development agencies from family farmers in the area who can no longer sustain "conventional" farming techniques. And these families don't have the capital necessary to switch over to sustainable farming techniques that allow them to market their labor and land capital to local markets rather than trying to compete with 100,000+ acre mega farms run by one gov't subsidized farmer beholden to agribusiness groups (Monsanto, ConAgra et al). So, a staple of local economies (the family farm) is being given over to residential land that does not produce as much locally invested capital as you might find on a family farm, particularly a farm that is not beholden to an agribusiness group. That's the sort of farm I feel we NEED to maintain our society as a viable (non balkanized) one.

And what we're finding is that these developments don't adhere to decent environmental standards and as such the land around them is losing its topsoil at an alarming rate. Add to that the effect you see outside of Chicago where people are moving farther and farther out to where Rockford IL is now considered a viable place to live for people who work in Chicago. This mean's they're driving and hour and a half every day to go to work. In single occupant vehicles. So the amount of pollutants is rising in those areas. AND to top it all off these McMansions are basically dumping grounds for families with too much stuff, too much credit and no real interest in using what they have. Just open up a garage in a 5+ thousand square foot home and you'll see, not cars, but junk piled as high as the rafters.

I think it's just damn crazy.
posted by Sam.Burdick at 9:58 AM on February 29, 2008 [9 favorites]


or what tkchrist said.

as a response... take personal responsibility for your own fuckups, people? I mean seriously, did you NEED 1,250 square feet for your 3yr old child? how much MORE shit do you need?
posted by Sam.Burdick at 10:01 AM on February 29, 2008


Currently reading a great new report issued today (47 page PDF) via The Big Picture. Hold on tight.
posted by fatllama at 10:04 AM on February 29, 2008 [1 favorite]


If you get past hyperbole, that's a pretty good description of new construction happening in many urban and near-urban "in-fill" projects as well.

In our old neighborhood, they knocked down a poorly maintained 1940s-ish house and threw up a cardboard box. Honestly, it looks like a cardboard box -- brown on the outside, box-shaped, with what looks like these pasted on "French Colonial" details in white, including a Juliet balcony that AFAICT can't bear any weight. It looked rickety when it went up, and I don't think they did any foundation work other than pour a slab (who pours a slab foundation for a 3000 sq ft house?) It sold. And since then, it's lost about 10% of its value. It'll fall down in 10 years, but OTOH, what it replaced wouldn't last much longer than that, either.

All over Seattle in the mid-2000s you saw this -- little starter homes getting demolished and replaced with in-fill McMansions that were massively out of character for the neighborhood. I expect that they will be among the first to come down when the housing boom starts again in the 2020s.
posted by dw at 10:08 AM on February 29, 2008 [1 favorite]


well that's another problem with it... where do you draw the line with "in character" and "out of character" housing design in a neighborhood. Keeping within character has left us with little boxes on a hillside &c.
posted by Sam.Burdick at 10:13 AM on February 29, 2008


well that's another problem with it... where do you draw the line with "in character" and "out of character" housing design in a neighborhood.

Well, given the cardboard box is in a transitional neighborhood with a mix of farmhouses, "Boeing Boxes" (1940s woodframes built during the WWII Boeing boom), and ranch houses, yeah, it's not like the neighborhood is all foursquares.

Still, it sticks out like a sore thumb. For a while, they even had palm trees in front to reinforce the attempt to make it look like a French plantation house. Of course, palm trees don't do all that well in Seattle, especially when last winter it was below freezing for three days straight.
posted by dw at 10:22 AM on February 29, 2008 [1 favorite]


Why do you care so much about how other people want to live?

I don't really care how other people want to live, until it affects me. Eventually, as it becomes more and more expensive to live in these places, the people who live there will want to soak the city-dwellers to subsidize their lifestyle. In fact, you're already seeing it.
posted by oaf at 10:23 AM on February 29, 2008 [1 favorite]


Kirth Gerson: I hate to sound elitist, but I grew up in a 1870s house, that was made of solid would ... Don't worry.

Thats what I get for not having my coffee.
posted by mrzarquon at 10:24 AM on February 29, 2008


yeah... there's always that one homeowner who thinks that plastic pink pelicans are haute couture.



(note: I have nothing but respect for the pink plastic pelican community)
posted by Sam.Burdick at 10:25 AM on February 29, 2008


Dude, those are flamingos.
posted by oaf at 10:27 AM on February 29, 2008


DAMMIT!

I knew it was one bird or another...


no offense to the pink plastic FLAMINGO community intended
posted by Sam.Burdick at 10:28 AM on February 29, 2008


What better candidate than McCain to tackle the McMansion crisis? He's been on top of crime ever since McCain slew McAbel.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 10:33 AM on February 29, 2008 [2 favorites]


McMansion has been the new derogatory for any middle-class greenfield suburb in America. Why do you care so much about how other people want to live? I agree the buildings are poor aesthetic taste but that is something of personal preference.

Why do I care? I care because these kind of developments are indicative of a wasteful, disposable, short-sighted society and that hurts us all. There's only so many resources to go around and the notion that if you can pay for it, you can be wasteful, makes me sick. So, yeah. Go ahead an drive your Yukon (how many resources went into building that thing let alone maintaining it and fueling it?) to your 1/4 acres McMansion that just so happens to sit on some really nice farmland that will never again be tilled and productive (which means yes, your food is going to come from farther away and cost more). Go ahead and pave over so many miles of decent soil and beneficial wetlands until, oops, the rain comes and the water has nowhere to go and we've not only got a disaster area because infrastructure is destroyed but we've messed up one of the most basic systems on the planet. I could go on. I take some comfort in the fact that heating one of those things must be a bitch and at some point it's just going to hurt too much ($$ for gas) to drive out of the driveway to anywhere. Maybe you were just baiting me . . . I have to figure you're somewhat aware if you bothered to use the term 'greenfield.'

Depending on how things play out though, it's easy to imagine a future where the middle and upper classes live in the cities, and the poor live in the older suburbs. As a migration back into cities would drive up housing prices in the cities making it harder for the poor to afford to live there.

. . . and all we have to do is look to Europe where the more desirable and pricey neighborhoods are in or close to the city center where the most goods, services, amenities, you name it, are available.
posted by nnk at 10:34 AM on February 29, 2008 [6 favorites]


Kirth Gerson:
octothorpe, what kind of construction did you use the plaster in?"

McMansions in the burbs. I wasn't plastering the walls, just painting them. Hardcoat done well does look much better than drywall and ages much better. I've been in five year old drywalled houses where you could see every single seam and nail showing through the paint.
posted by octothorpe at 10:34 AM on February 29, 2008 [1 favorite]


I'll agree with nnk and point out something else:

If we had REASONABLE urban planning where multi-use structures included viable living spaces for people of many income levels in the same building with similar access to services and utilities then we wouldn't have to worry about housing prices rising. But it seems that the same people who want McMansions ALSO do NOT want to live next to "poor" people. And this is important, it's becoming less and less what race you appear to be on the outside but how much you make and how well you can display your wealth that makes you acceptable.
posted by Sam.Burdick at 10:43 AM on February 29, 2008 [2 favorites]


Decent article. I've seen slumification happen before fairly quickly even in new developments in about 5 years, in california when aerospace went kaput. As it goes, the middle class leaves looking for jobs and those who can't afford to move don't, prices fall, so more poor move in, prices fall, no jobs so those who move in become more poor, etc.


I hate to sound elitist, but I grew up in a 1870s house, that was made of solid would, while it was under renovation for the first 10 years we lived there (yeah, stuffwhitepeopledo.com) and I got to see how the frame,

zuh? I've renovated a house, I'm not white people. but, yeah yeah, i get it. terrible joke.
posted by peppito at 10:50 AM on February 29, 2008


Hell, I don't want to live next door to ANYONE.
posted by jbelshaw at 10:55 AM on February 29, 2008 [2 favorites]


...take responsibility...

Indeed. Take responsibility. Create community. Organize an art fair. Develop a local culture. Arrange a farmer's market. Do something other than complain and despair.
posted by Eideteker at 11:05 AM on February 29, 2008


This doesn't surprise me in the slightest. A single McMansion can hold at least 20 low-income families.
posted by Afroblanco at 11:10 AM on February 29, 2008


Eideteker,

That's what I'm talking about. And the "take responsibility bit" can be fleshed out more as taking responsibility for the mistakes you made in overreaching your income with excessive credit to buy stuff you didn't need so that you can appear wealthy and good. I seem to recall being told at one point, perhaps erroneously, that some Calvinists believed that if you were wealthy it was because god had decided that you ought to be and that was evidence that you would be saved. Thus, if you made yourself appear to be wealthy then everyone would assume that you were saved and therefor would treat you with respect and honor you.


Now, if that was direct AT me (ie, telling me to stop posting to MeFi and get out and do something)... well, in the words of the Immortal Bugs:

"He don't know me very well do he?"
posted by Sam.Burdick at 11:13 AM on February 29, 2008


peppito: it is a terrible joke, but it stuck in my head from the whole cluster on metatalk a while back about the website.

But really you have people whose understanding of self worth and value and pride is tied directly to how they can show off their consumer lifestyle, and we have entire systems established to feed those fears and needs. So I guess one could draw the lines on the new rich vs old rich (or privileged), where you have people spending money that they haven't had before (or credit, as it appears they don't actually have anything that isn't mortgaged) on things so they can appear to be like the Old Rich. The problem is the stone walls are fake, the the McMansion is shoddy, and they are consuming themselves into oblivion. The old rich aren't rich because they have these giant houses, they have these giant houses because they are rich.

You see this even more in places like Seattle where you have people picking up these massive stock options and pay checks, and not knowing what to do with it. Instead of purchasing a reasonable house, people are either mortaging $500k for a two bedroom condo in the hip fremont area or capitol hill (hey, its a great place having massive windows on the pike/pine corridor, you can see the hobos pass out, and get the wonderful smells of the back alleys in the summertime!), or buying places out in bellevue, or those new horrendous places that are popping up that DW described. Sometimes its OK to rent for a while, and put all that extra money into investments and drive the same beater to work that you had before your shares vested.

I can't wait for the eventual squatters in the half built condo's where the team just walked away since they couldn't get paid and wouldn't have made any money trying to sell the things once they were completed. People cooking beans over a fire in an apartment with its still intake granite countertops, but with the windows covered in blue tarp, and the wood finish stripped to be used for heat.
posted by mrzarquon at 11:25 AM on February 29, 2008


I deliberately resisted calling you by name because I didn't want to sound antagonistic. I just wanted to present what you'd said in a different light. I agree with the statement, but not so much the sentiment. Yes, I'm angry at suburban sprawl and the ignorance that's fueled it, but I think it's more constructive to set aside blame in favor of constructive conversation. It sounds like we fundamentally agree, which is great. I hope to see you out there in the world, and I hope we both succeed in making it a better place.

Thanks for the TED link, as well. Sounds like Kuntsler is saying a lot of the same things I (we?) also believe. Recreate the commons. Our leaders (thought leaders moreso than political leaders) did a really good job over the last century in making us uncomfortable in being around each other. They're still at it, only now it's not so much race and religion as it is SES and political affiliation. But really, what we need is to be around one another once again. We need to rediscover each other, and along the way, ourselves. We need the commons to realize that we're all one and the same, and that our individual differences make us great. There will always be neighborhoods and divisions; it's hardcoded into our cognition to arrange and classify. But we need to come out of our comfortable shells a bit and be together.

Also, I hope I'm not the only one who dreams of SimCity2000-style arcologies whenever these threads come up. Hey, look, you can read The Night Land for free!
posted by Eideteker at 11:34 AM on February 29, 2008


peppito, see :
http://stuffwhitepeoplelike.wordpress.com/2008/01/29/37-renovations/
posted by lyam at 11:41 AM on February 29, 2008


Depending on how things play out though, it's easy to imagine a future where the middle and upper classes live in the cities, and the poor live in the older suburbs. As a migration back into cities would drive up housing prices in the cities making it harder for the poor to afford to live there.

Isn't this how most European cities are structured?
posted by Afroblanco at 11:44 AM on February 29, 2008


Also: planners serve at the will of the mayor. If they were elected, they might actually be more accountable to the general public. Instead, they do what the mayor wants.

I agree that planners should be elected, and not appointed. One only need to look at the career of Robert Moses to see why it's so dangerous to have such a powerful person not be answerable to the general public.

(Although I would argue that no mayor after LaGuardia was able to exert any sort of pressure on Moses. He was pretty much unchallenged until Nelson Rockefeller, and only then because Rockefeller's family controlled the world's most powerful bank.)

As a sidenote, I wish that Robert Moses was alive to read this article and grasp its relevance. Eat shit, power broker!
posted by Afroblanco at 11:53 AM on February 29, 2008


Hey Eideteker, lets get started on one.

Seriously.

I've wanted something like this for a while, the hybrid between hippy commune and new tech / high - tech solutions.

I want a thermal energy / vortex generator power system for the communal setup. A farming space, a biodiesel processing area, large composting facility, along with highspeed internet and access to a light rail or public transit system.

Maybe I can wait and buy out one of those large mcmasion areas when they go belly up, get the whole 20 unit lot for a steal, and then knock down half of it to reuse the farm land, and tap into some of the existing piping / electrical / network systems. And tear up the roads I don't need, maybe find a way to recycle them into basic building structures, like the rock walls of new england being a product of farmers just trying to find something to use all the rocks they just cleared from their fields.
posted by mrzarquon at 11:56 AM on February 29, 2008 [1 favorite]


Wow wow wow. I love elegant design. The stuff of Roark without all the Rand-trappings. That vortex generator looks neat.

I'm not sold on biodiesel yet. I'm concerned about how much carbon diesel generates. I'm doing a lot of reading on this sort of thing these days because there are just so many tradeoffs for everything.
posted by Eideteker at 12:35 PM on February 29, 2008


Eideteker: the big factor for bio, is if used properly (from reclaimed waste vegetable oil, which will dwindle in supplies) it can reduce green house gases and carbon output. You can convert an already existing diesel engine / generator to use the fuel, instead of having to build a whole new one, etc. And if the algae vegetable oil fields actually work, you could grow it in a very efficient space in the waste water of a septic system (high nitrite content in water is an algae's dream).

I already drive Bio, so I'd like to be able to keep my car in my 'home' of the future.

Unfortunately there is always trade offs for any energy production / capture. I am still surprised how much of energy we have is just from alternating magnetic fields created by giant spinning turbines powered by steam. How amazingly inefficient.
posted by mrzarquon at 12:55 PM on February 29, 2008


I hate to sound elitist, but I grew up in a 1870s house

..and an elite heating bill. Perhaps even elite lead pipes, asbestos, termites and various other things. Well built modern houses are remarkable in materials, energy conservation, air quality, etc.. it's like, would you drive a car built in 1900 on the highway as your primary transportation? House technology has come just as far. We all like antique cars and they are "elite", but there are some serious practical downsides!
posted by stbalbach at 5:19 PM on February 29, 2008 [1 favorite]


stbalbach- indeed, it is a bitch to heat. But it was a well built house then. A well built house now, as you described is even better. I am not railing against modern building techniques, just the cheap shoddy ones. But it is expensive to get a good house built, or to renovate an old one, or to get an old one in good enough shape (which means it was built well to begin with) to renovate.

My dad would love to have a more modern, energy efficient, but after all the renovation and construction work he's been involved in, he would want to build it himself. It is hard to seperate the good new modern construction from the crap stuff, since it requires so much trust on the inspectors and the sellers to know what exactly went into the building, unless you are allowed to tear down a few walls and see how they are really assembled, and if they really did put in the new space age insulation.
posted by mrzarquon at 5:32 PM on February 29, 2008


In any case I've seen plenty of cities with suburbs from the 40s-50s closer to the downtown than greenfield developments (though they were greenfield at the time of development) turn into ghettos.

((waves from her 1950s crackerbox, which at least has trees, in a struggling old suburb))

Old suburbs are slightly better built, but I would never purchase the house I'm renting; it doesn't have enough storage, pipes are crap, and because it's pier and beam, all kinds of critters tend to take up residence underneath. Its only efficiency is that it's shady so we don't blow lots of a/c. But in the winter it is never warm. And there are no fucking plugs in the bathroom. I could buy a brand new house, bigger, for what it would cost to make this one livable.

But McMansions have no trees, no sidewalks, and no neighbors that you ever meet. But they are the ONLY kind of new house you can buy anymore. All they have going for them is (maybe) good school systems and lack of much crime.

I don't get behind all the griping about tasteless Americans living in tacky subdivisions because people can only choose from what they're offered, and what they're offered is what developers THINK they want. Which is a very fad and industry-driven process. And let's face it, people do not want to build "solid" houses because they don't think they're going to be in that spot in 20 years.

Here's what I want: high-rise skyscraper farms and rooftop gardens in the cities, plus much more common greenspace (as opposed to "huge yards with no trees for the Texas summer") in the nearer suburbs. Investment in neighborhoods like mine, which would become instant hot spots if one of our local train lines ran through here. It's really close to downtown, and full of character, but needs bookstores, restaurants, and most importantly, better access, to thrive.
posted by emjaybee at 7:33 PM on February 29, 2008


indeed, it is a bitch to heat.

My parents up the road live in a 1872 Quaker farm house that has no insulation (just boards on the outside and plaster on the inside), original windows and oil heat boiler. Who cared when oil was cheap, even 10 years ago, but today the thing is a money pit just to keep it at 55 degrees. They huddle around a space heater wrapped in blankets, 3 layers of clothing and hats in a sealed off room during the evenings. I've looked at every heating alternative and can't come up with anything that makes sense. The room layout of the house requires central heat (point source heat like pellet stoves wont work) and because of poor insulation the only thing that can practically put out that many BTUs is oil or coal - wood would be too many cords it would smoke out the neighborhood not to mention labor, solar too expensive, can't do air ducts for heat pumps. If you have any suggestions. I really wonder how this planet is going to get off fossil fuels with so many old homes that have no practical options.
posted by stbalbach at 7:45 PM on February 29, 2008


expanding foam insulation is easy to do from the exterior walls. my parents had to do it to the front of the house, and it worked out really well. There are conflicting reports on its effectiveness vs other forms of insulation, but considering it is really easy to get done, especially on older houses that have nothing in the walls (punch a hole, insert nozzle, spray until it tops up, repeat).

Also, insulate the ceiling / attic space.

It doesn't matter what level of heating you use in that space, until you get it insulated it will be a waist. The thing with a building like that is one could gut it, put up new interior walls, add insulation, add radiant floor heating and triple glazed windows. But again, its expensive. But either pay up front or pay in installments over the next X number of years they have to continue to heat it that way.

Or sell it to someone who is looking to live in their dream converted 1872 farm house and have your parents buy a new modern efficient and not poorly built house.

I cautiously labeled my original statement as elitist (or really, snobbish) because to be able to comfortably live in and renovate an 1870s victorian house requires a large amount of resources that may not be available to everybody.
posted by mrzarquon at 8:02 PM on February 29, 2008


expanding foam insulation

the installers won't do it because the wood and plaster is so old it will crack the walls.

ceiling / attic space

It has multiple walk-in attics where the "help" used to live, plaster ceilings like the walls. Kinda looks like something out of a Dickens novel with all the curved ceilings, tiny windows, hidden compartment built-ins - it's easy to imagine Oliver Twist there with the Artful Dodger.

live in and renovate an 1870s victorian house requires a large amount of resources

that's true!
posted by stbalbach at 9:25 PM on February 29, 2008


Where exactly are all of these suburbanites supposed to move to? It's not like the major cities are flush with affordable established housing options.

When the wife watches the home improvement channels, they often show things like "1000 sq. ft condo in downtown Chicago, 1.2 million dollars".

If you live outside of the top 5 cities in America, a 1.2 million dollar home is only for the wealthy. For what most of the country considers the upper-middle-class, a $6,000 a month mortgage is completely out of reach. $3,000 dollars a month is a lot of gas, even at $5/gal.

The fact that the author is also a real estate developer should not be ignored.

For there to be a large influx into the city, city real estate prices will have to DROP, not INCREASE. And that is not going to happen due to the fact that you cannot add real estate to downtown, and skyscrapers are not cheap, and not everyone wants to pay 70% of their total household income to live in a 700sq ft box in the sky.

While there is little doubt suburbia will change in the next 25 years, so will city living. So will practically all facets of american life.

But this hysterical delusion that I'm going to sell my $250k house in the suburbs to move to a million dollar loft in the city is just that, a delusion.

I couldn't even if I wanted to. Which I don't.
posted by Ynoxas at 10:06 PM on February 29, 2008


When the wife watches the home improvement channels, they often show things like "1000 sq. ft condo in downtown Chicago, 1.2 million dollars".

Chicago, IL. Minimum price $1.25 million, maximum price: no maximum

1176 properties meet these criteria out of 38,236 total available.


The price you imply is the average is in fact in the 97th percentile. So who's having the hysterical delusions?
posted by dersins at 11:13 PM on February 29, 2008


There are places like Silicon Valley and Los Angeles that don't fit the model--there is no real downtown and all the jobs are sprinkled around all the suburbs. Because of the extremely high real-estate costs, smaller, older suburban track houses get torn down and well built expensive McMansions are built in their place.

The article more closely describes the all the towns built out of nothing an hours drive away in all directions from the center of these places--the only places lots of people who work in these areas can afford a 'real' house. And, indeed, these places are being hurt the most in the housing downturn and may turn into slums.

To Sam.Burdick's comment, what you described happening in Madison, WI, is what has happened over the last 40 years in Silicon Valley, which used to be filled with fruit orchards. An architect friend of mind described the area as "some of the best farmland and topsoil in America...covered up with asphalt." I'm guessing the 'hour away' towns may regress back into farms if they get depoplulated enough.
posted by eye of newt at 11:43 PM on February 29, 2008


Hardcoat done well does look much better than drywall and ages much better. I've been in five year old drywalled houses where you could see every single seam and nail showing through the paint.

I'm not disputing that L&P may be better than drywall for a bunch of reasons, but what you said there sounds like "Hardcoat done well looks much better and ages better than drywall done badly." If the seams and nails are showing after five years (or ever), then it was done badly.

Hardcoat may, as a rule, be done better because it takes more skill to do it at all. Any butcher can put up drywall, and since it's used in so much new construction, a lot of them make a living doing it. An appreciable number of other building tradesmen are also less than highly skilled. The ones in regulated trades (plumbers, electricians) probably are more reliably skilled. In our new house, we have had problems with the installation of electricals, the cabinet work, and the the heating system.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 4:42 AM on March 1, 2008


R. Mutt quotes "Many recently built houses take what structural integrity they have from drywall—their thin wooden frames are too flimsy to hold the houses up..."

Unless building codes are way more lax in the US than Canada this isn't true, not even close.

DU writes "Why on earth would I want lath and plaster walls? I like to hang pictures occasionally."

Two easy solutions to this: Traditional picture rail or those new fangled 3M stick on thingies.

tkchrist writes "The definition of McMansion is cheap construction coupled with poor location and environmental planning and the gross misuse of space for superficial vanity."

I'd add way more sq footage than anyone needs. Their isn't a DINK that needs a 6000 sq foot house with the possible exception of heads of state hosting state functions.

dw writes "I don't think they did any foundation work other than pour a slab (who pours a slab foundation for a 3000 sq ft house?)"

Nothing wrong with slabs done right, they are a good choice for places with either high water tables or rock. Much better IMHO than crawl spaces.

mrzarquon writes "It is hard to seperate the good new modern construction from the crap stuff"

Not hard at all, just take 20-30 years same as it was done 20-30 years ago.

mrzarquon writes "expanding foam insulation is easy to do from the exterior walls. my parents had to do it to the front of the house, and it worked out really well. There are conflicting reports on its effectiveness vs other forms of insulation, but considering it is really easy to get done, especially on older houses that have nothing in the walls (punch a hole, insert nozzle, spray until it tops up, repeat)"

Foam in place works great but it's also several dollars per sq foot of wall area.
posted by Mitheral at 7:31 AM on March 1, 2008


There are places to build in the city, mainly in the long expanses of parking lots built for commuters.

The thing is, the planning groups continue to widen roads and plan for another 50 years of the car being the mode of transportation, which is very short-sighted.
posted by drezdn at 8:24 AM on March 1, 2008


The real elephant in the room is the strong possibility, perhaps the inevitability, of the death of commuter culture. McMansions and the sprawling developments they occupy are dependent on cheap gas to get the home occupants from one point to another -- back in the thirties and forties, auto manufactures like GM subsidised the development of road systems while killing off rail networks that were far more efficient in getting people from one place to another. Now that we are nearing the age of cheap gas, the only real solution is to downsize living distances. Hydrogen cells and smaller car designs are merely stop-gaps toward the eventual realisation that personal enclosed vehicles (cars, trucks etc.) will become luxuries rather than so-called "necessities".

The people who are living past their means in the big-box exurbs may well mutate into the suburban poor we saw rioting outside Paris a few years ago. The loss of commuter mobility is just another thing that will keep the poor in poverty, while those who can still afford to change their situaiton will live closer to public transit and reserve their cars (if they bother to own one) for occasional trips rather than daily usage.

On a side note: Sam.Burdick's link to the excellent lecture by James Howard Kunstler sums up a lot of the dangers of the effects of bad urban design, especially the reliance on cars, and he also notes that hydrogen cells and other power sources for individual vehicles are merely pipe-dream fancy. Too bad there's an ad for BMW's hydrogen-cell-driven car line tacked to the end of the video. The commercial ironically undermines what Kunstler had been saying on that last point.
posted by spoobnooble at 8:28 AM on March 1, 2008 [2 favorites]


I meant to say "nearing the end of the age of cheap gas". Me no proofread so good.
posted by spoobnooble at 8:31 AM on March 1, 2008


delusion that I'm going to sell my $250k house in the suburbs to move to a million dollar loft in the city

except.. that's not what he's saying. He's saying walkable city-like developments will replace the traditional suburb developments -in fact have been for a while. Reston, VA for example. Columbia, MD. Planed communities with city-like features coming up on the outskirts of the traditional old cities. It's not even a prediction it's already happening, the difference is in the future it will become the norm.
posted by stbalbach at 8:37 AM on March 1, 2008


Nothing wrong with slabs done right, they are a good choice for places with either high water tables or rock. Much better IMHO than crawl spaces.

Thing is, I don't know if it's done right. Admittedly, our crawl space got water in it with the increasing number of major rain events in Seattle, and we were on top of a hill. But the foundation was in excellent shape; it was one reason we considered buying the house. As for the cardboard box, I never even saw them pour the foundation, and if they did, I don't think it's very strong. They were framing days after they cleared the lot.
posted by dw at 2:55 PM on March 1, 2008


"Also, anyone extolling the virtules of lathe and plaster has never owned a house built that way. What a fricking nightmare to repair. Or hang a picture on."

Not even. That is why old houses like mine have molding like this and we hang pictures from the molding with hooks like this which works just fine. The thing is that you must never, ever put nails through that plaster. Our house is 97 years old and the plaster is in great shape, except for a small area where some previous owners decided to put a new window in and butchered it. If you never put nails through it, it will last a long time.

Plastered walls are amazingly sound-proof. That alone makes it worth it.
posted by litlnemo at 3:55 AM on March 3, 2008


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