Unwanted McMansions? Make Them Affordable Housing

by Dawn Wotapka on October 6, 2011

Ed. Note: The following piece appeared in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal.

Should the nation’s excess McMansions be converted into affordable housing? That’s what Arthur C. Nelson, director of the Metropolitan Research Center at the University of Utah, suggests, according to The Atlantic Cities.

During the boom, builders rushed to build supersized homes to fill what seemed to be an insatiable demand. But Americans today don’t necessarily want jumbo homes perched on supersized lots.

McMansions, a type of home became popular with affluent boomers during better times, have fallen out of favor as more consumers seek smaller, more affordable homes that cost less to operate. They also want to trim the gas tab by living closer to their jobs and public transportation – the opposite of McMansion developments deep in suburbia filled with gas-guzzling SUVs. (There’s no precise definition of a McMansion, but it’s often a case of you know it when you see it.)

Such changes in taste — and, of course, the foreclosure crisis — has left America saddled with about 30 million more homes on large lots than the market needs, The Atlantic Cities writes. But rather than let them languish on the market indefinitely, Mr. Nelson suggests converting these excess homes into affordable housing or housing for multi-generational or multi-family households. (Developments called Mr. Nelson for comment, but he was not available.)

Such homes, he points out, can have more bathrooms than bedrooms, allowing for residential space that could be divided into private units, with a common kitchen and living room. Some already have or could be outfitted with second or third kitchens. Plus, there’s plenty of room for several cars and, usually, enough of a backyard for a swing set or two.

“When you add up the spaces and how they’re distributed, the typical McMansion can be occupied by three-to-five households with their own splendid privacy, their own large space,” Mr. Nelson is quoted as saying.

To be sure, there will always be people who want a big house for their large families or just to showcase their success. For those who want to live alone, Mr. Nelson thinks there could be a future market in retrofitting existing homes to include smaller spaces such as garage apartments and basement suites.

“The McMansion was the right housing stock for a very specific moment in time,” The Atlantic Cities’ Emily Badger writes. “That moment, from the standpoint of demographics, has passed.”

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