McMansion Mania and the End of Affordable Housing

We're supersizing in the suburbs, and we can't seem to stop

| September-October 1999

On Northwest Skyline Boulevard overlooking Portland, Oregon, a French country manor sits majestically atop a 25-acre hillside, offering 360-degree views of the mountains and the Willamette Valley. The 6,000-square-foot house features a two-story entryway, copper roof, four bedrooms, six bathrooms, and a "great room" boasting a 25-foot ceiling. "We wanted to be able to accommodate all the features we needed in a house," says the Portland home owner.

If you continue along Skyline to Thompson Road, you'll come to Phase Seven of the Forest Heights Development. Rising from the steep hillside are several dozen contemporary mansions with five bedrooms, five baths, multiple decks, and price tags ranging from $600,000 to $800,000. "These are people's dream homes," says Lydia Dobranski, a Forest Heights resident who owns Edgewater Homes, a building company.

Not everyone has the same vision of the American Dream. Whether they're McMansions or architect-designed estates, megahouses are ostentatious symbols of America's class divide. Their proliferation and the decline of affordable housing in the United States are simultaneous trends that underscore the polarization of the American class structure in the year of the 10,000-plus Dow. But megahouses do more than reflect inequitable division of wealth. As noted by critic James Howard Kunstler, author of The Geography of Nowhere: The Rise and Decline of America's Man-Made Landscape (Touchstone, 1994), supersized homes reflect a fundamental problem with American culture: impoverishment of the public sphere and glorification of the private. "In these large houses people are compensating for the lack of a meaningful public realm or public places," Kunstler says. "It's especially characteristic of suburbia that the private realm is luxurious and the public realm is squalid."

Wealthy home owners and palatial residences always have been a part of the American mystique. But at the end of the millennium, the megahouse has gone mainstream. Over the past 50 years, average house size has gone from 1,100 square feet (the size of homes in Levittown, New York, the original carburb) to 2,200 square feet. And that's just the average. Thirty percent of new homes in the United States are more than 2,400 square feet, compared to 18 percent in 1986. These huge homes, which often sell for more than $750,000, have become a trend mostly in suburban areas of large cities. So prevalent are megahomes that the Campbell-Ewald Reference Center put "McMansion Mania" at the top of its list of 10 social change indicators for 1998.

At the far end of the megahouse spectrum are the mansions that rival the temples to commerce built for '20s-era business barons: Bill Gates' $50 million, 40,000-square-foot palace, for example, or Amway distributor Terry McEwen's 25,000-square-foot estate. "There's more wealth in big cities today than there has been since the turn of the century," says Pat Ritz, president of Oregon Title Company, who also helps write quarterly reports on housing trends. "People don't want to just get in the bathtub with it. They want new homes, country estates with whips and spurs. That's what megahouses are all about."

Bill Schweinfurth, chief operating officer of Vedder Community Management, a mobile-home-park management company based in Burbank, California, and his wife, Maggie, are a typical megahouse family. After moving to Portland from Los Angeles two years ago, the Schweinfurths built a 4,200-square-foot home on their 2-acre lot off Skyline Boulevard. Admitting that they hardly ever use the living and dining rooms, Maggie Schweinfurth says owning a four-bedroom, five-bathroom home is about the little luxuries space affords. Big closets mean she never has to put away off-season clothes; a second laundry room makes washing a breeze. And the bathrooms? "One for the kids, one for the master bedroom, a powder bath for entertaining, and one for the guest room." The only superfluous not-quite-bathroom, she muses, is off the mud room—the area leading to the backyard. The shower for the dog, she adds, was her husband's idea.

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