The mansion wars:
In the town where I live, a once-placid Washington suburb, the mayor has just sent out a letter asking the natives to stop throwing eggs at one another's homes. Such is life on the front lines of the anti-mansion war.
Until recently, I didn't know that "mansionization" was a word, much less that there was a growing national movement against it. I didn't fully appreciate the menace of big houses. I live innocently in one of the many small houses in the Town of Chevy Chase, Md. (not to be confused with our tonier neighbor, the Village of Chevy Chase, which for some time has tolerated palaces).
Our townspeople have inhabited 2,000-square-foot brick colonials and wooden bungalows built from Sears kits. In the past few years, a For Sale sign has meant a death sentence. We'd walk by and mutter, "Dead house standing," waiting for it to be torn down and replaced with a 6,000-square-foot neo-Victorian.
Some locals were so enraged they persuaded the town council this year to impose a moratorium on tearing down homes or building large additions. That just enraged the rest of the town, leading to a complex class war.
In a front-page story in The Washington Post, a newcomer complained of reverse snobbery — "I feel I should be embarrassed that I need a mudroom" — while locals mocked their new neighbors for living in McMansions they derided with names like "the Gucci House." One town veteran piously explained the problem with the people buying these $2 million houses: "It's conspicuous consumption, meaning in a sense their values are all out of proportion."
My first impulse was to side with the mansionizers. This was partly out of self-interest because my property would sell for a lot more if a bigger home could be built there, but it was mainly because of my knee-jerk libertarian reaction to the moralizers trying to boss their neighbors around.
Who were they to control other people's property? Who were they to impose their tastes on newcomers? As long as the builders were following the zoning rules, let them be guided by their customers' choices, not rules made by the neighborhood busybodies. The message from the market seemed clear enough: People want bigger houses.
But when I talked to housing experts, they pointed to another message from the market: People want neighborhood busybodies. A majority of new homes in rapidly growing urban areas are in communities governed by private homeowners associations that impose much stricter rules than governments do.
Some people chafe at the restrictions, but most are willing to pay a premium for them, according to a study by Amanda Agan and Alexander Tabarrok, economists at George Mason University. They found that a home in the Virginia suburbs of Washington that was part of a private community typically sold for 5 percent, or $14,000, more than a similar home nearby not governed by a homeowners association.
More than 50 million Americans are now ruled by these associations, which regulate things like the size of the house, the architectural style, the color and the landscaping. The rules have always sounded creepy to me, but after my town's fight, I'm starting to see why people buy into these communities — and why some economists suggest that traditional towns like ours be allowed to turn themselves into private homeowners associations.
The fury in our town was triggered by people's powerlessness to control what their neighborhood looks like. They couldn't shape the zoning rules, which are dictated at the county level, and they couldn't stop newcomers from cutting down trees or building homes that looked out of place.
When a builder challenged the moratorium, the judge ruled in his favor by citing the "long line of cases that the government may not use its police powers to regulate aesthetics."
But most people apparently want aesthetics to be regulated — not by politicians at the county or state level, but by homeowners in the neighborhood. That's why the developers of private communities write constitutions that give so much power to the homeowners associations.
Those founding fathers learned by trial and error that empowering local busybodies is the best way to maximize home values and minimize strife. If our town were ruled by a homeowners' association setting clear aesthetic guidelines, the homeowners could probably work out a compromise allowing bigger houses that would blend gracefully with the neighborhood. They wouldn't be reduced to throwing eggs at the ones they didn't like.