Most of us remember the atmosphere of pre-2008 America. One of its signature features was the jerry-built McMansion, usually constructed in isolated developments miles outside cities on hitherto perfectly serviceable farmland, heaving up in eczematous patches that scarred the rural landscape.
Loudoun County, Virginia, outside Washington, D.C., is one such place, notable for possibly being the McMansion headquarters of America—at least insofar as it has managed to sustain itself over time. When the 2008 crash descended on America, other developments across the country were abandoned like Machu Picchu, their pools filling with algae and mosquito larvae, or turning into crime-ridden hellholes like Victorville, California.
The country is now emerging from another deep recession, albeit with a twist. The Great Depression of 1929, like almost all economic downturns, featured a rise in income equality. Thanks to the dubious economic “innovations” that have structurally changed the economy, income inequality has accelerated, and one sees it in the booming real estate market.
The truly rich, of course, are not a part of the new McMansion phenomenon, except perhaps as investors in real estate investment trusts. Below them are the aspirational rich, whose peculiar bureaucratic and networking talents as coat holders of the genuinely wealthy served them very well during the COVID recession—certainly better than hamburger flippers or production line workers. The aspirational rich seek houses suitable to their station, and thus the new McMansion craze.
Geographical tastes seem to have changed. Perhaps the commute from Loudoun County to K Street was getting too much, or living in a raw, undeveloped place without wine bars and outdoor cafés became unappealing. For whatever reason, we now see the fad of the infill McMansion in long-established neighborhoods in large cities or their inner suburbs.
The modus operandi is always the same: Take a totally usable older house that is the same style and size as neighboring dwellings, though perhaps needing a rehab, and knock it flat, along with every mature tree on the property—there will be no room for them, owing to the enormous footprint of the planned structure. Then construct a particle-board chateau that has at least 75 percent more square footage than the neighbors, complete with a quarter-acre driveway for the obligatory Range Rover.
One needn’t worry about zoning regulations. In Fairfax County, Virginia, where I live, the politicians have apparently been purchased by real estate interests, so setback or height restrictions are not enforced. The resulting McMansions accordingly squat on their properties like an aircraft carrier in a duck pond.
While the sheer size of the structure guarantees disharmony with the local houses, the eye-lacerating incongruity of its style brings it to a new level. The structures resemble the architecture of the Loire Valley, Elizabethan England, or Renaissance Tuscany—as imagined by Walt Disney, or perhaps Liberace. As with McMansions everywhere, the new owners could have obtained a sounder design for less, but they prefer the turrets, portes-cochères,
and ill-proportioned Palladian windows that they bought.
The basic proportions are unfailingly clumsy. The roofs aren’t symmetrical, so that one more giant walk-in closet could be shoehorned in. From the side, this asymmetry and the too-small windows make the construct look like an old sawmill in the Pacific Northwest, or a three-story wooden barracks hurriedly thrown up during World War II. Some manage to look imposing from the front, mimicking George Mason’s brick mansion. But closer inspection reveals the fraud: The front is a brick veneer; the sides and back consist of vinyl siding. Often enough, the brick is a shocking uremic yellow.
Sometimes where a perfectly good house, a spacious 1950s ranch of 2,500 square feet or so, is perched on an ample lot, a developer will tear it down and erect not one but two aspirational-rich mausoleums. Since they cannot be wide, they resemble New Orleans shotgun shacks—narrow and extremely deep—but on a gargantuan scale. In order to obtain the apparently mandatory 5,000 square feet of interior space each, the builders are obliged to reach upward, which increases the appearance of disproportion. The effect is that of a domino placed on its side.
Why do the aspirational rich seem to adore these ghastly structures, when a perfectly livable, aesthetically more pleasing, and more solidly built house could be purchased for less? I’m no psychologist, but it likely stems from the same reason these people would choose Walter Keane over Rembrandt or Kindergarten Cop over Citizen Kane, and by a crushing margin. It simply appeals to them.
At some level, there is little doubt that part of it is motivated by the Ozymandias Complex: “Look upon my works, ye mighty, and despair!” It is certainly the despair of neighbors enduring a barnlike building looming into the sky just over the property line and blotting out the sun. But if one earns one’s daily bread lobbying to increase the allowable amount of rodent hair in breakfast cereal, being detested by the neighbors might not be unduly troubling.
This is not just about cynicism toward people whose bank accounts are as flush as their aesthetic tastes are impoverished. One by one, relatively affordable houses—and I emphasize relatively, in today’s market—are being systematically erased and substituted with houses costing twice as much. The process tends to raise the valuation of neighbors’ properties (and hence their taxes) while lowering their quality of life.
All of this is rationalized by the fact that land prices in cities and inner suburbs are considered too high to economically justify building smaller houses on the same lots. This is correct as far as it goes, but it is a symptom of a larger problem. Land prices are high because FIRE interests (finance, insurance, and real estate) want them that way as they ceaselessly work to pump up demand. And it also circles back to the growing personal income imbalances in the economy. In any case, one sees very few small or normal-sized houses built where land is much cheaper anymore.
And that still does not answer the question of why it is not more economical simply to rehab the existing house, or, if you must bring them down, build multi-family dwellings, like townhouses, on some of those lots. There are millions of people—the young, childless couples, and seniors—who have no need or desire for a huge house, and their options are becoming more limited by the day. But if you are a real estate agent, would you prefer a fixed-percentage commission on a $500,000 house or a $1.2 million house? And the huge residential construction industry can only maintain its present scale by the raw quantity of board feet of lumber they nail together.
If the infill blight is a matter of economics, it is not the mythical economics of perfectly balanced supply, demand, and market signals. Rather, it is a byzantine economics similar to national defense, where perverse incentives, artificial creation of cost, and political contributions to those who make the regulations are the deciding factors.
Spending half a million dollars in a large metropolitan area for a starter house already makes “affordable housing” a macabre joke. But how about spending seven figures? Whether it is conscious collusion, or whether all the elements of the Real Estate Industrial Complex are acting together on a blind, instinctive drive, like worker ants, to eradicate cheaper housing, is moot. Thus considered, the McMansion syndrome is not a silly First World problem of aesthetics, but rather, if not restrained, might become the symptom of a Third World city like Rio de Janeiro, where opulence and squalor are juxtaposed.
Quality of life does not merely encompass being ticked off that your neighbor’s hulking Tower of Babel invades your privacy. Building as close to the lot lines as possible ensures that all the trees will be gone, adding to the heat island effect in the locality. The huge roof and massive driveway not only cause flooding problems for neighbors in heavy rains (this is a problem where I live), they also mean more storm water polluted by fiberglass shingle pellets and driveway oil washing into streams and bays. The new houses are wired accordingly, ensuring disproportionate, inefficient power draw from our already rickety electrical grid. As for the rubble of the old house, most of it will end up in a landfill.
Structural problems at the national level prevent the appropriate taxation of the truly wealthy and their coat holders for the foreseeable future. But at least some localities could crack down on these residential monstrosities by actually enforcing the zoning codes they do have, and limiting infill McMansions in size by instituting ordinances that restrict replacement houses’ square footage. Likewise, they could enact property tax surcharges on houses above a certain size, steeply graduated as their size increases.
The infill McMansion spectacle is a warning and a symptom, like political polarization, of the rising income inequality and concomitant decline of community feeling in the United States. It is not something that fell out of the sky, but a phenomenon that was carefully engineered by financial management.