Lawmakers in several Southern California communities have proposed or approved limits on house sizes to ensure that remodeled homes remain in character with their surroundings and don’t impose an excessive amount of house on a standard-sized lot. While such restrictions shouldn’t prevent homeowners from remodeling and enlarging their homes, reasonable limitations are appropriate, necessary and good public policy.
Savvy homeowners easily recognize a so-called “McMansion” when they see one: These super-sized houses are all house and no land. They consume every inch of the lot on which they’ve been built, and they invariably appear to loom over neighboring residences. They’re usually multistoried, have little or no front yard, backyard or side yards, and seem designed to block their neighbor’s sunlight and invade their privacy, both of which are already curtailed by the natural proximity of urban properties.
Property rights advocates argue that homeowners should have a virtually unlimited right to build whatever size and sort of residence they prefer on their own property. Complete freedom is a useful reference point at which to begin the debate, but it’s too extreme to be an acceptable endpoint. There’s a lot to be said, too, for freedom of house expression. Yet even free speech has its appropriate boundaries and limits in a civilized society. Some limits must be placed on the size and design of urban residences. Proportionality is a good guide to the fine line between what’s reasonable and what’s over the top.
What’s more, the property rights of next-door homeowners should be taken into consideration along with the rights of those who wish to construct these super-sized homes. While one owner dreams of a McMansion, his or her neighbors may equally value open space around their home, day-light streaming into their downstairs windows and the comfort of living in privacy without having an over-sized house sitting uncomfortably close to their own residence. No one who has been subjected to the prying eyes of a too-close McMansion neighbor’s child can feel quite at ease in his or her own home.
Homeowners who have young children or numerous live-in relatives might argue that they simply need a much bigger house and can’t afford a larger lot on which to build it. Given that many nuclear-sized families have lived and still live comfortably in 1,200-square-foot or smaller post-war tract houses, the argument that any family needs a monster-sized house doesn’t hold much water. In fact, the U.S. Census Bureau found that from 1950 to 1999, the average U.S. house more than doubled in size while the average family shrunk.
This argument against McMansions is not to say that homeowners shouldn’t be allowed to expand their homes or knock down existing structures to build a larger residence if that’s what they want. But newer bigger residences shouldn’t be built without due consideration of the rights and needs of the neighborhood as well. If people could be counted on to take such considerations into account, government restrictions wouldn’t be necessary. But without some guidelines, there will be people who will build the biggest possible house on the smallest possible lot with no regard for anyone other than themselves. Government should allow as much latitude as possible, but still set reasonable restrictions on the size, type and shape of the structures that can be built on residential streets. That benefits both current and future residents of the neighborhood.
Limits on McMansions are also good public policy because housing preferences can be cyclical, and today’s huge houses inevitably will fall out of favor sooner or later. One-person households of all ages already make up a large proportion of homeowners in many cities, and as this group of homeowners grows, demand will increase for smaller houses that are more easily manageable and less costly to maintain. We might yet re-imagine today’s McMansions as tomorrow’s group assisted-living homes for the nation’s fastest-growing population, that is, senior citizens. One can only hope.
Marcie Geffner is a freelance reporter in Los Angeles.
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