McMansion Mania and the End of Affordable Housing

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.

This unabashed materialism makes large homes an easy target for class grievance. The size of the megahouse is especially difficult to stomach given that average U.S. family size continues to decline. Yet a far more complex issue is the relationship between the rise of the megahouse and the decline of affordable housing–dual trends set in motion by gentrification, inequitable housing subsidies, and exclusionary zoning laws. “The people willing to spend the kind of money these mansions cost inflate land values,” says Tasha Harmon, an affordable-housing advocate and member of the steering committee of the Coalition for a Livable Future in Oregon. “The people who want to do the right thing–build smaller, more affordable homes–can’t afford the price of land.”

Consider the striking disparity between housing subsidies for wealthy and low-income households. According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, an estimated 18 percent of this fiscal year’s total housing subsidies will go to households with an average annual income of just under $9,000. By contrast, an estimated 63 percent of total housing subsidies will go to households with an average income of $123,000 or more. Many suburban municipalities also favor large homes; zoning codes in most wealthy suburban neighborhoods establish minimum lot sizes with two-car garages and limit or outlaw smaller houses and multifamily dwellings.

These policies, in effect, have made affordable housing obsolete. Demolition, gentrification, and sprawl reduced the number of affordable, low-cost unsubsidized housing units available by 19 percent between 1996 and 1998. Subsidized housing suffered a similar fate. In 1998 alone, 13,000 subsidized units were lost as private landlords quit the project-based Section 8 program in search of higher, market-rate rents. As a result, waiting lists for subsidized housing increased by as much as 25 percent between 1998 and 1999. Today, more than 2 million families wait an average of two and a half years for subsidized housing–seven to ten years in major cities such as New York, Houston, and Los Angeles.

The detrimental effect megahouses have on affordable housing is symptomatic of larger problems of livability in suburbia. If suburban zoning codes encourage megahouses, they also encourage auto-based sprawl and decimation of green space by restricting pedestrian-friendly, mixed-use development. The Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU), a San Francisco-based organization that pushes for changes in development policy, puts it this way: “Disinvestment in central cities, the spread of placeless sprawl, increasing separation by race and income, loss of agricultural lands and wilderness, and the erosion of society’s built heritage [are] one interrelated community-building challenge.”

In the past decade, the relationship between community and public space has become a recurring theme in architecture and urban planning. There is no “third place” in contemporary American life, wrote critic Ray Oldenberg 10 years ago, “no public places that host the regular, voluntary, informal, happily anticipated gatherings of individuals beyond the realms of home and work.” So sterile is the contemporary subdivision, he wrote, that it “cries out for something as modest as a central mail drop or a little coffee counter at which those in the area might discover one another.”

For the rest of this article, read the September-October 1999 issue of Utne Reader.

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