The swelling McMansion backlash
Local governments and ordinary citizens are saying 'no' to so-called Hummer houses and starter castles. Tactics include energy-consumption restrictions, petitions and outright building moratoriums.
By Christopher Solomon
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Release the zoning hounds: The McMansion backlash has begun.
Reeling from the towering megahouses that have been cropping up in neighborhoods nationwide, communities aren't just standing by and letting them flourish unchallenged anymore.
From Atlanta to Austin, Texas, and beyond, more governments have started imposing stricter building limits and even temporarily halted new construction while they try to get a handle on the explosion of these 4,000- to-10,000-square-foot homes, sometimes sneeringly called "garage mahals," "Hummer houses" or "starter castles."
"It's happening in lots of places," John Nolon, counsel to the Land Use Law Center at Pace Law School in New York, said of the backlash.
A drive around many American neighborhoods confirms it: Today’s homes are big. No, not big -- huge. The average American home swelled from 983 square feet in 1950 to 2,349 square feet in 2004 -- a 140% increase in size. And everything about them is bigger, from their three- and four-car garages to the professional-grade stoves and refrigerators. In 2004, 43% of new homes had 9-foot ceilings, up from less than 15% in the 1980s.
Outsized houses, and criticism of them, isn’t new -- it’s happened since the Gilded Age, said Robert Lang, a professor and the director of the Metropolitan Institute, a research institute tied to Virginia Tech. The modern mega-house trend "is about a 20-year trend," said Lang, “but it’s more obvious now; people are putting more money into housing than they have been in the past."
Wrangling over the size of homes and their impact was once confined to areas where lots of money pooled -- places like Aspen, Colo., and Fairfield County, Conn. Indeed, Pitkin County, home to Aspen, is now considering a 15,000-square-foot cap on homes -- a limit discussed since a Saudi prince built a 55,000-square-foot manse there in the early 1990s.
But now mega-homes have started to appear in established city neighborhoods and suburbs nationwide. These places share one characteristic: "It's confined to growth areas with some affluence in general," said Pace's Nolon. "You see it in areas like Santa Fe and Los Angeles and San Francisco and some parts of Atlanta -- you probably don’t see it in Detroit."
The White House next door
What's behind the shift? People with money are looking back to close-in communities in or near big cities. Older, close-in communities often have more character. They also have a shorter commute.
"They love the neighborhood; the house needs improvement," Lang says of the newcomers. Much of this post-war housing -- "the housing stock that was the good life of 1955, which was defined by good job and meatloaf," said Lang -- is now tired and rather small by today's standards. Many of the homes are simply bought for the lot, razed and replaced. Naperville, Ill., a city of 130,000 people with a historic downtown that sits about 25 miles west of downtown Chicago, has seen 325 "tear-downs" since 2001.
Communities that have been dealing with an influx of large homes include Lakewood, Colo.; Arlington, Va.; Cresskill, N.J.; Oak Park, a suburb of Dallas; Austin, Texas; and Atlanta. "There are 40,000 local governments in the United States, and they make the call on this," said Nolon. "It's all kind of a grand experiment at the local level."
Many of those homes appear without much problem, said Lang. But it's the "man bites dog" examples that get people scared -- and showing up at city hall. In DeKalb County, Georgia, which includes part of Atlanta, "When it really hit the fan was in one particular community, when a developer built a replica of the White House," recalled Vernon Jones, the county's chief executive.
Austin typifies the McMansion craze -- and the backlash that's followed. Several of the city's neighborhoods like Tarrytown and Travis Heights have seen an influx of large homes, said Kathie Tovo, president of the Bouldin Creek Neighborhood Association, who lives in a "funky, fun" area just south of downtown that also has seen some change. Just down the street from their modest home, Tovo and her architect husband bought a house as an investment. After they finished remodeling it, the home next door got knocked down and replaced by a 4,000-square-foot building housing two condominiums. "What had been not a tiny, but a modest-size and -scale cottage, has been replaced by something hugely bigger than what's the scale along that street," Tovo said. "The entire yard is now lined by this massive house," she says of her house.
Tovo and others, including many elected officials, worry that the homes are not only out of character with many neighborhoods, but that they put stress on older infrastructure and too quickly raise property values and thus tax rates. This forces out longtime residents, including a more ethnically and economically diverse mix of people. "Some people have made the argument that this is infill," Tovo said. "But it really isn't; you don't end up with more people, you just end up with the same number of people in bigger houses."
Hollering 'time out'
Many communities are trying different things to get a handle on the rapid changes and keep their character:
In January, the mayor of Atlanta imposed a brief moratorium on housing permits in five upscale Atlanta communities in the northeast part of the city. That has since expired, but the city is looking at rewriting some zoning codes to limit what gets built.
In Marin County, Calif.,which was forced to start dealing with the issue earlier than other places due to San Francisco-area wealth, a 1997 "big-and-tall ordinance" requires design review for any home that’s more than 4,000 square feet or over 30 feet high, said Brian Crawford, deputy director of planning services for the Marin County Community Development Agency. Why 4,000 square feet? "In 1997, 4,000 square feet was considered a large home." Now, Crawford said, "It's not unusual for us to get 6,000- to 8000-square-foot-home proposals. We had one recently that was 14,000 square feet."
Earlier this year, the county bolstered its regulations to add an array of design considerations; planners can now consider the median home size of the surrounding neighborhood when deciding whether to approve a home, he said.
After two years of study, Georgia's DeKalb County, which has seen McMansions appearing in older neighborhoods, put a new strategy on the books earlier this year: A neighborhood that doesn't want the megahouses can gather the signatures of 60% of its residents, then petition the county's board of commission for a zoning overlay. "You have to do it on a neighborhood-by-neighborhood basis," said Jones, the county's chief executive. "It gives the politicians, the elected officials a grasp of what the people really want in that area." (Read about how you can fight for your neighborhood here.)
In February, Austin put in place interim rules that limit the maximum size of a new single-family home on any lot that previously had a house. For now, a builder can build up to the greatest of the following: 2,500 square feet; 20% larger than the home that was removed; or a 0.4-to-1 floor-to-area ratio for the lot. There also are limits on major additions to homes. Meanwhile, a task force is studying the issue.
Austin residents seem torn about the regulations. Tovo has gotten calls from upset residents who see all this as a threat to their ability to sell their existing homes and land for top dollar.
A McUpside to McMansions?
That concern speaks to what some people argue are the upsides of large houses -- within reason:
Bigger homes can bring a lot more tax money to a small town that doesn't have much of a commercial tax base. "If it's an old, old neighborhood, any new development coming in can be good," said Jones. Even a mega-house is better than a crack house, he said.
People who have lived in an area a long time and bought their house cheap stand to make a lot of money as property values increase, said Lang. "If you don't think you can pay the taxes, sell the house, then downscale the living space and live somewhere else in a nice place," he said. He is not particularly sympathetic to the argument that people should be able to live in a neighborhood forever. "Who said everything's frozen for all time?" He added, "Some seniors live in an area where there's housing abandonment. I'll bet they'd like to trade."
Making big houses go green
One strategy some governments have pursued in trying to discourage larger houses, or at least shrink their impact, is to make them pay their way, energy-wise:
Shrink the energy footprint. In Marin County, Calif., where planners are now making sustainability a hallmark of the county plan, newer rules require that any project of 3,500 square feet or more, whether a new home or a remodel, meet the energy budget of a 3,500 square-foot home. In short, the bigger the house, the more efficient (relatively speaking) it has to be, said Alec Hoffmann, the county's green building program coordinator.
Think green. Also in Marin County, projects that must undergo design review, or get a variance -- that is, any home over 4,000 square feet -- must fill out a green-building checklist and meet a certain number of points.
Go big -- and pay. In Pitkin County, Colo., home of Aspen, if a new home is more than 5,000 square feet, the builder must either provide onsite renewable energy (via something like solar panels) or pay a $5,000 fee to the Colorado Office of Resource Efficiency, which will use the money for renewable energy projects elsewhere. If the house is 10,000 square feet more, the fee goes up to $10,000 if no onsite renewable energy is provided. And if a home exceeds its property's allocated energy budget as determined by local codes -- due to a large spa, a heated driveway, etc. -- the homeowner must "buy" energy from the Renewable Energy Mitigation Program, up to $100,000.
More supersized indigestion to come?
Are big houses -- and big controversy -- the future?
Some evidence suggests that for an increasing number of home buyers, bigger isn't better. Many baby boomers are now empty-nesters who need less space. The average American home size, which zoomed starting in the 1980s, gained just 25 square feet between 2001 and 2004, said Steve Melman, director of economic services for the National Association of Home Builders. (Read more about the small-house trend here.)
Yet, said Melman, there's plenty of people who apparently still want houses of 4,000 square feet and larger. Drawing an analogy, he said, "I think a lot of people still want that -- they still want the SUVs even though the price of gasoline went up." (The U.S. Census' survey of Construction reported that 0.5% of new homes constructed in 2004 and 2005 were 6,000 square feet or larger -- that might not seem like much, but that's still 10,000 homes.)
Yet the backlash, too, is just getting started, say observers. "You're going to see a lot more of this," said Lang -- especially in places like southern California and Florida that have all but run out of virgin land to build on, and where builders are eyeing older suburbs. "By 2020, this could be some nasty stuff; something could probably make its way to the Supreme Court."