McMansions With Nobody in Them

Bigger and newer housing means higher purchase costs and property taxes, which encumber a greater proportion of a family’s income for basic needs, squeezing out lower income families.

I currently live in Northern Virginia. The local real estate market is unique because it never lacks demand. It’s further affected by geography and law. The subway system limits growth because its rail lines mirror the residential patterns of the 1970s, when it was built, and people still want to live near Metro stops. Local zoning is biased toward single family houses on single lots or apartments that envision one kid, tops.  

All these factors limit the area and, therefore, the quantity of available housing stock. According to the basic laws of economics, demand exceeding supply drives prices up.  

But there’s another phenomenon that further constricts housing supply, one not limited to the National Capital Region. It also has a social justice aspect. It is McMansions. And it often goes together with another contemporary phenomenon: “fur babies.”  

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Pope Francis touched a nerve January 5 when he remarked that the uptick in childlessness is often accompanied by the phenomenon of acquiring sometimes expensive pets. Some pundits have renamed these pet substitutes for children “fur babies.”

Fur babies and McMansions go hand-in-hand. It’s a paradox that fewer people demand more space.  

Once upon a time, neighborhoods with kids had certain features one might sum up as “lived in.” A neighborhood with kids had open garage doors, a basketball hoop hanging somewhere, a ball lying around, some chalk marks on the sidewalk, and less-than-perfect lawns where kids ran, sat, and rolled.  

You don’t see that much.

That aspect of being “lived in” generally also has another characteristic: age. In our euphemistic day, it’s called being “vintage.”

Traditionally, when one bought a house, one moved in. Perhaps the house needed some work, but the owner then added “sweat equity” to mortgage payments.  

But what often happens in the Washington real estate market (though, again, not unique but more visible here) when older houses go on sale is that property is bought for land, not the house. The older house is demolished and “upgraded” with a McMansion.

The buy-and-replace mentality is commonplace among real estate agents. Two years ago, I looked at a house. The real estate agent was apologetic. “It’s so 1980s.” (That didn’t deter her from asking “only $829,000, since it’s outdated”). That the eventual owner still hasn’t demolished and replaced it in this neighborhood is an outlier.  

A lot of Northern Virginia housing stock, especially in Arlington, was built around World War II to handle the influx of military families. As long as families were the norm among D.C. denizens, and while the culture of Washington was still not yet one of 24/7/365 comprehensive government, those houses had buyers. Much of that stock is on the wrecking list because communities want to “upgrade” their housing stock (and increase tax ratables) while the new D.C. demographic wants more “representational” housing: McMansions.

Why do I call it a social justice issue? Because it makes housing increasingly unaffordable, especially for families.

Bigger and newer housing means higher purchase costs and property taxes, which encumber a greater proportion of a family’s income for basic needs. Municipal preferences for such houses also exclude more affordable housing stock. Coming from New Jersey, where “two family houses” were commonplace—a house with two apartments, one for the family, one to rent—I was shocked to find such houses practically non-existent in northern Virginia, even though they would relieve housing demand and make property more affordable by generating a supplemental income stream for house buyers. “Affordable” here means either an apartment or condominium (and try finding one with more than two bedrooms) or an attached townhouse (whose prices are not significantly lower).

Yes, those new houses are “picture perfect.” They look like model show houses because their owners spend so much time working to pay them off that they hardly live in them, much less fill them with life.  

Apart from the waste (a sin we rarely talk about these days) of demolishing decent housing to “upgrade” property (and make it more expensive), the buy-and-build mentality of the region enforces a de facto discrimination against moderate- and lower-income families, especially those with children. The city where I live preens itself on its “social justice” commitments. While recognizing it lacks affordable housing, it proposes largely to remedy that gap by building subsidized senior citizen “cottages.”  

A society that builds its future on the elderly and “fur babies” is a society “in deep doggy doo-doo.”  

A profit vision of property would tell me I don’t recognize the “creative destruction” of capitalism. I am inhibiting “risk taking” and “market mechanisms.” (I wouldn’t even talk about the idea of a “family house” whose memories unite generations). The fact is that increasing numbers of young people—a pool already in a demographic slump—effectively regard house ownership as an ever-more-out-of-reach “dream.”  

These are all issues Catholic social justice needs to weigh in on.

Joyce Kilmer once wrote a poem about an abandoned house in Suffern, New York, “The House with Nobody in It.” He mourned an empty old house because that house once “has sheltered life.” He contrasted it to a yet uninhabited new house which lacked “something within it that it has never known.”  

The difference is, writing a century ago, Kilmer expected that new house to fill its gap by putting “its loving arms around a man and his wife” and hearing “a baby’s laugh and [holding] up its stumbling feet.”  

Alas, our new houses are mournful in their sterility, especially when the primary denizens of oversized McMansions are the cat and dog. Or, at best, the one child in the “blue ribbon” school district.

[Photo Credit: Shutterstock]


  • John M. Grondelski

    John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) is a former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. All views expressed herein are his own.

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