Where your home can't be a castle anymore

San Francisco joins the ranks of cities trying to rein in 'monster' homes, saying they destroy local charm.

When Alderman Sue Bell walks her district in Park Ridge, Ill., these days, she hears a common complaint: Gigantic new homes and expansions are destroying the old neighborhood's charm and character.

It's a lament that is being heard across the United States. So-called "monster" homes are generating local tension in dozens of communities, ranging from seaside towns like Santa Monica, Calif., and Palm Beach, Fla., to large cities like Dallas and Seattle.

And in San Francisco a bill to stop developers from shoehorning large homes into modest city lots is to be introduced today, highlighting one of the hottest issues in this fall's local elections.

Nationwide, the trend has stirred strong grass-roots opposition over an issue that is tied to America's longstanding love affair with ever-larger homes and is, in the view of many analysts, emblematic of the times. Prosperity has scrambled the political agenda, making housing, traffic, and other local quality-of-life issues top items, says Anthony Downs of the Brookings Institution. "People worry about things like home size when they don't have to worry about things like having a job," says Mr. Downs.

While issues of prosperity may seem less threatening than those of more troubled times, concerns about monster homes are generating plenty of controversy. "People feel strongly about this issue and are afraid that the ambience of their community is being destroyed," says Ms. Bell.

In her Chicago suburb, new homes and significant expansions must already go before an "appearance commission" to gain city approval. Now, there is pressure for more restrictions both here and elsewhere.

National profile

The National Trust for Historic Preservation, for instance, has long concerned itself primarily with preserving areas designated as historic. But monster homes are multiplying so rapidly that the organization is beginning to see them as a significant threat.

"We recognize this issue to be of critical importance all across the country," says Anthony Veerkamp of the trust. These monster homes, he says, "can threaten the character of neighborhoods and their right to determine their own futures."

Developers and some homeowners, of course, see it differently. Opponents of greater restrictions on home sizes worry about controls that begin to elevate subjective judgments on taste and style over basic property rights. And some analysts say underused property in urban areas only pushes people into the suburbs, compounding metropolitan traffic congestion and consuming open space.

But in scores of communities, the push for greater restrictions is gaining momentum. Santa Monica, for instance, passed more-stringent height limits for one neighborhood last year, says associate city planner Laura Beck. Other neighborhoods are clamoring for similar protections.

Monster homes, generally defined as homes significantly out of scale with existing structures in a neighborhood, are proliferating because rising incomes for the middle and upper classes have allowed for greater investment in homes.

"A lot of this is because we're richer and for Americans, more money means more housing," says Joe Gyourko, an economist at the University of Pennsylvania.

Indeed, Americans' deep-seated attachment to larger homes has surprised some experts. In many ways, it contradicts the countervailing sociological trends of recent decades. In a paper 15 years ago, Richard Green at the University of Wisconsin at Madison predicted that the average American home would get smaller as its amenities grew. He turned out to be only half right.

"Economics have outpaced demographics," says Mr. Green.

Over the past 45 years, the average size of the new American home has nearly doubled, from 1,140 square feet to 2,225 square feet, according to data from the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass.

The growth is more striking in light of the fact that the average size of the US family has shrunk by one-third during the same period. Add the fact that more women work - and are therefore out of the home for more of the day - and it's clear that Americans want larger homes, regardless of how often or intensely they are occupied, say experts.

Of course, there are some social changes that make larger homes more practical. Telecommuting has grown, so has the automobile population relative to the number of drivers, necessitating larger garages. But mostly, says Mr. Gyourko, "we're making a statement" with larger homes.

In San Francisco, Steve Nichelson saw a statement he found inappropriate when a developer announced plans to raze a 700-square-foot cottage on his street and replace it with a 6,000-square-foot home.

Grass-roots cause

He founded a neighborhood organization to oppose monster homes and found himself suddenly at the head of an expanding grass-roots campaign to stop similar developments around the city.

"There are literally dozens of these kinds of out-of-scale developments going on around the city," says supervisor Mark Leno, who plans to introduce the ordinance today that will set a 30-foot height limit for most new single-family homes.

Monster-home restrictions have been particularly popular in resort communities like Aspen, Colo., and Jackson, Wyo.

The aim in San Francisco, says Mr. Nichelson, is not to thwart housing development, which he says the city badly needs. Indeed, it's the torrid economic growth of nearby Silicon Valley that has created an area-wide housing shortage, which in part is driving up real-estate prices in this city and acting as a lure to developers.

"We're just tired of outsiders trying to maximize square footage in order to maximize profits without regard for the neighborhood where we all live," Nichelson adds.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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