McMansions: Affordable housing of the future?

There is no better testament to the real estate mantra of “location, location, location,” than Livingston County.

Its location, coupled with the cheap fuel of the past, helped Livingston County develop as an upscale commuter’s nirvana, like so many other similar communities across the country. For a long time, Livingston County was a bright spot in Michigan’s otherwise dismal economy, one of the tops in growth and per capita income, a community where real estate was king.

But heavy is the head that wears the crown.

Livingston County’s building boom has gone bust as Michigan’s economic challenges have turned into a smackdown of epic proportions. As the American car companies work to stay alive, Michigan’s unemployment rate stays well above the national average.

This is bad news indeed for the state, and even more so for communities like Livingston County, places in which the lifestyle is dependent on automobiles and jobs to which to drive them. Livingston County is the canary in the coalmine for a lifestyle that appears to be disappearing as fast as the equity in our homes.

Not so long ago, new homes, growing seemingly ever larger, sprung up where taxes were lower and land was plentiful and cheaper, well outside the reach of the county’s core cities, villages and settlement areas, on dirt roads in areas without utilities and connections. No one thought much about how the development was occurring because driving from here to there, from subdivisions surrounded by cornfields to good-paying jobs outside the county, was affordable, the cost of commuting a price worth paying.

That’s not the case anymore.

Many believe the days of McMansions in the ’burbs — homes standing as testaments to our uniquely American habit of supersizing everything — are numbered.

Consider that in the last six decades, as people fled cities for suburban areas, the average American home swelled from just under 1,000 square feet to nearly two-and-a-half times that size, or about 2,400 square feet; at the same time, the size of the average American family shrank.

Add to that the more recent trend toward mega-homes of 4,000-10,000 square feet — buildings that are energy hogs, expensive to heat, cool and maintain.

Suburbs and their McMansion developments could suffer the same fate as inner cities did several decades ago, morphing from bustling hubs to poverty-stricken areas characterized by crime and decay.

Looking around at Livingston County today, it seems highly unlikely that could happen, but consider the long-term effect of high energy costs, foreclosures, shrunken home values and job losses on upscale commuter communities a decade from now.

People built their dream McMansions in the sticks because energy was cheap, land was plentiful and those uniquely city problems — crime and drugs — felt oh, so far, far away. But with the U.S. economy still tailspinning, jobs disappearing and banks foreclosing, what becomes of the American suburban McMansion commuter subdivisions?

People approved for risky mortgages, people who’ve lost their jobs, people abandoning Michigan for warmer and more lucrative climes, are all leaving behind a trail of homes — including some McMansions.

Communities are creating policies, and spending time and money to fix up thousands of properties left in limbo by foreclosure. These aren’t homes in decaying core cities; these are homes in upscale communities, homes where the grass isn’t being cut and the pools aren’t tended.

Some planners predict McMansion subdivisions will provide the affordable housing of the future. The behemoth houses will get carved into apartments for the poor, who will be driven from urban areas by home prices rocketing upward because suburbanites are moving in.

It’s not so far-fetched an idea. Large homes in cities were divided into apartments and left for the poor in the 1960s and 1970s, as people of means fled to upscale, suburban commuting oases like Livingston County.

The problem with this scenario is that the McMansion subdivisions are isolated, with no direct pedestrian routes or easy access to goods and services. While the housing may one day become “affordable,” the social cost of isolating the poor may be far, far greater; hopefully, we’ve learned from the collapse of the “projects” in the 1960s.

People much smarter than I will have to come up with solutions, but it’s obvious we need to continue fostering more affordable, efficient and reliable transportation. We need more sidewalks, bus lines and, yes, commuter trains.

That said, we must also make a huge ideological and lifestyle shift. Even if we are unwilling to do so, the current economic crisis will eventually force all of us to live within our means. After the credit-fueled decades of spending more than we earn, we need to find ways to exist without wasting so much material and space. Chewing up farmland for gated communities makes no sense; there is efficiency in clustering residential, business and industrial developments.

We must develop economically sound communities that can thrive in the good times and survive in the bad, in which people of all income levels can live and work happily and successfully.

Heaven forbid energy prices go any higher. People left in commuter developments will become prisoners of their cul de sacs and gated communities, cut off from outside contact and able to leave only under the most considered of circumstances.

That’s no way for anyone to live.

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