Reader, I solemnly regret to inform you that America is indeed back on that bullshit.
The McMansion is back.
A recent article by Ana Swanson in The Washington Post states that after the recession and the general evacuation of Pleasantville following the financial crisis, “Americans have started to flip houses again,” which means they’ve started to flip McMansions, which has resulted in this: “Since 2009, construction of these homes has steadily trended upward, data from Zillow, a real estate website, shows.” Have we learned nothing? I scream as I recall growing up in a manicured suburban wasteland in Illinois. Why are we doing this again?
Swanson provides key insights into this resurgence: adjusted for inflation, oil prices are about what they were in the early 2000s, and (likely wealthy—goddamn them) millennial couples want more space for their kids. But these aren’t the only reasons why the McMansion is back. It is the apex of a long-standing American dream, or triple-dream as Dolores Hayden describes it in Building Suburbia: “house plus land plus community.”
The financial crisis of 2008, we thought it was safe to say, killed that dream. Visions of the future are hard to kill. Especially in America, where we’re borderline impervious to learning the Big Historical Lessons our disastrous actions are supposed to teach us. So, I want to take a look at each part of this dream in an attempt to sound the alarm.
This isn’t true for every single suburban scenario, but it’s safe to say that during the housing bubble people didn’t buy houses to live in houses. Many were bought to be sold, or “flipped.” And where there are McMansions there is flipping.
Kate Wagner of McMansion Hell fame describes the relationship between McMansions and flipping like this: “[McMansions] were built to sell in the year they were selling, not for future generations. These houses are kind of disfigured, because they were built from the inside out, to have the most amenities to sell faster.”
So, aside from the fact that the houses are slapdash garbage titans, what’s wrong with this situation? Aren’t people just finding a way to make money? Fair enough. But some market endeavors are riskier than others. And 2008 levelled the inherited wisdom that the U.S. housing market doesn’t go down. Flipping houses, if we see a resurgence, will likely bloom into a greater crisis on account of the regulatory weakness of the Dodd-Frank Act, the pale successor to Glass-Steagall, whose repeal made the bubble inflate in the first place.
Now, houses are generally built to be sold, rather than as a provision for who needs them. The focus is always price. There may be attempts to mitigate this, but price-focus and speculation as means for maximizing profit. This brings more danger, or greater vulnerability to “market externalities.”
Economist David Harvey lays out the pre-crash thinking like this:
I buy a house for $300,000 and three years later its value has appreciated to $400,000. I can then capitalise upon the extra value by refinancing for $400,000 and walk away with the extra $100,000, which I can use as I wish. The enhanced exchange value [Marxist for “a commodity’s worth on the market”] of housing becomes a hot item. The house becomes a convenient cash cow, a personal ATM machine, thus boosting aggregate demand, including, of course, the further demand for housing.
Basically, flipping has a tendency to jack up the housing prices whether it’s warranted or not. This creates greater demand for more houses so people can make more money flipping them. People start treating houses as a series of personal banks. Which manifests in how McMansions look. To paraphrase Wagner, they all look like gaudy goddamn banks. But now throw a whole bunch of weird financial instruments and predatory loans at this scenario to make the market grow even more.
The proof is in the pudding: the housing crash resulted in 4 million people losing their hopes. “The pursuit of exchange value,” Harvey writes, “destroyed access to housing.” And almost ended the world economy. Let’s not forget that part. So this whole pursuit has a level of financial precarity hiding behind its glossy aspirations.
I can’t emphasize enough how great the risks are. People lost their livelihoods. Whatever the dream promises in terms of security, financial and domestic, is a false promise.
But reader, I know that not-so-slyly sliding in a Marxist economist to soothsay about economic collapse may not be the most convincing argument. So let’s talk about land. Or better yet, geography. Suburbs are distant from urban locales where most of the jobs are. America’s not big on public transit, so most of the people are going to be driving cars.
Let’s leave the emissions problem to the side for now. We’ve weakened our dependence on foreign oil (good!), but we did it through things like fracking (BAD). But if anything happens to our fossil fuel supply, let’s say increased tensions with foreign oil suppliers, or hard regulations on fracking and tar sands pipelines, suburbanites’ ability to reproduce their everyday lives will become increasingly hard to reproduce in a reliable way.
Because this doesn’t just impact the price of gas on your way to work. It’s just about answering a simple question: where did your breakfast come from? Trace it back to the store, which you drove to, then from the stores to the shipping trucks, from the trucks to train, maybe, then to other trucks which hauled it all in from farms, etc. etc. etc. You get where I’m going with this?
The whole supply chain becomes less tenable over time when we look at climate change forecasts. And I’m not an anti-growth, anti-civ guy begging for the great Malthusian population culling of a coming ecopocalypse. But there are better and worse ways to live. McMansionland, tract housing out in isolated enclaves, isn’t a good one. Especially when we factor back in all the emissions.
This, aside from the house, is one of the strongest parts of the dream. Celebration, Florida, a suburb owned and run by Disney is the most garish realization of what this community is supposed to look like. Watch a rerun of That ‘70s Show or Leave It to Beaver and you get the idea.
And this dream looked the most tantalizing and most possible in the post-war era. The Keynesian economy provided a solid social net, unions had enough power to bargain, and America’s blossoming into a global empire and economic powerhouse after Bretton-Woods, inequality was, compared to now, far lower. What bad things could happen to suburbia?
No dream in America was ever been born innocent. Suburbia brought with it all the patriarchal problems one would expect in a glorification of the nuclear family—gestures broadly in the direction of Mad Men. It proved to be a kind of social hell for women. And like everything in American history, racism and class also played huge roles in its conception.
White flight, red-lining and block-busting curated monocultural (read: white) suburban communities under the misguided impression they had bootstrapped themselves into heaven on earth, while the black community languished in the urban nightmarescape. This wasn’t true for all kinds of reasons. Chief among them being that from the 1920s to the 1980s the government exponentially increased its monetary support for the suburban project by shelling out money to commercial developers with little oversight.
Moreover, if you were a fat cat, the idea of the unions rolling deep in your business making all kinds of demands, and winning them, kept you in a cold sweat until the wee morning hours. Making home-ownership part of the American dream was a clever way to corral the working classes into atomized enclaves where they were unlikely and unable to strike. As William Levitt of Levitt & Sons, one of the biggest contractors of the post-war era, put it, “No man who has a house and a lot can be a Communist. He has too much to do.” Part of the suburban project was to crush solidarity and rollback whatever gains everyday people had collectively won for themselves.
So, suburbia has some sexist, classist, and racist elements. What in American history doesn’t? Let’s take a deeper look at what McMansionland communities actually look like. And the best way to do that is to look at how they affect kids. Because, reader, every dream is a vision of the future and every vision of the future is about kids.
White America dreamt of a semi-rural monoculture and were willing to burn whoever it took to secure that for themselves. This influences how we look at teen delinquency, as Elliott Currie points out in The Road to Whatever: Middle-class Culture and the Crisis of Adolescence. Usually, people refer to black and brown kids as disenfranchised or troubled. This is explicitly racist and problematic in way I can’t fully explore here.
But it shows us how hard people bought into the suburban dream: all the unwanted things and all the untouchables live there. Not here. This is best expressed by one of the young women he interviewed for the book:
She had heard that I was interested in the problems of teenagers, and she wanted to talk with me about her own harrowing suburban history, which included heavy drinking and drug use, self-mutilation and attempted suicide. But she wasn’t sure that her experience would be useful to me—that it would be sufficiently serious to be of interest—because it was “more of a white kind of messed up.”
I want to note that Currie’s book doesn’t just interview kids form the ritzy, gauche, isolated suburbs where McMansions are usually found, but it’s clear that he includes those “communities” in his study.
The nearly 200 year old suburban dream was uniquely American in its focus on the utopic vision of private homeownership. We didn’t want a great city, we didn’t want a close-knit township. We wanted tract housing and privacy. Unsurprisingly, communities built to honor these dreams ended up being awful, lonely places to grow up. Crushing ennui aside, kids fell prey to a brutal social Darwinism at home. Currie characterizes it as follows:
The rejection of the idea of mutual responsibility, a righteous distaste for offering help, the acceptance or encouragement of a view of life in which a competitive scramble for individual preeminence and comfort is central, the insistence that even the most vulnerable must learn to handle life’s difficulties by themselves and that if they cannot it is no one’s fault but their own—these were not the idiosyncratic views of a few parents but pervasive themes in American society and culture during the years in which the teens were growing up.
A pharmacologically “inspired” mental health industry and a zero-tolerance school system did a solid job of cracking down on kids as soon as they left the house. I have strong memories of kids selling their prescription drugs, getting tossed out of school for minor infractions, then spending the rest of their time getting loaded. One kid I knew got his brains blown out by a drifter on his eighteenth birthday. They were playing Russian roulette in his basement. And America doesn’t seem like it’s currently in a place where it can offer a more cohesive, compassionate suburbia.
Teenagers pushing their limits is normal. Getting in trouble as a kid is part of life. But this isn’t just any kind of trouble. Currie writes that it’s usually more than one major problem. It’s never just the drugs or just the problems at home or at school or just the suicide attempts or self-harm. It’s usually a couple all at once. It ruins and takes lives.
Of course, not every suburban community is a benighted hellscape full of cookie cutter McMansion monstrosities where kids OD in the living room beneath 60 ft. vaulted ceilings that take half an oil field to heat. But enough of it is. And it’s hard to imagine a more opulent, well-resourced version of suburbia than the run we had in the Bush Jr. era. When looking at all this, we need to ask ourselves, will the kids be alright? Is this the best choice for the next generation? Will we have to endure nu-metal again?