Fred A. Bernstein

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A Country of Micro-cribs and Mega-mansions

America's housing disparity grows worse

Published in The Huffington Post, December 2, 2011

Michael Maltzan, the Los Angeles architect, has had a very good couple of years. He recently completed a home for Michael Ovitz that, at 28,000 square feet, is the size of a small museum. At the same time, Maltzan has been winning design awards for the New Carver Apartments, a residence for the recently homeless in downtown Los Angeles. The building is designed to hold 97 men and women and, altogether, its rooms don't total the 28,000 square feet of Ovitz's pad. (Each room is under 300 square feet.)

Maltzan's body of work encapsulates the housing disparity that is giving some people homes the size of public buildings, while others are lucky to have cribs the size of cribs.

There is a lot of talk about wealth disparity, but the numbers can be hard to grasp. (What's it like to earn $84 million a year - or more than $250,000 a day - as Larry Ellison did in 2010?). Easier to see the housing disparity, the gap between the closet-sized houses of the poor, and the house-sized closets of the rich.

According to Maria Foscarinis, director of the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, at least 840,000 people are homeless on any given day; in a typical year, 3.5 million Americans, 1.35 million of whom are children, will have no place to live.

At the same time, there are at least 14 million vacation homes in the United States. That means that for every homeless person, at least four houses are sitting empty.

Meanwhile, according to Ms. Foscarinis, the number of Americans who aren't considered "homeless," but who are sleeping in friends' spare rooms or on relatives' sofas out of necessity, has climbed to about six million since the foreclosure crisis began. "The increase in doubling up," she says, "makes a couple of things clear: First, homelessness is part of a larger continuum, and it is affecting an increasingly broader part of the U.S. population."

The rich, of course, aren't exactly doubling up. In fact, people who add indoor baseball courts or sprawling guest wings to their houses usually have one or two other places to lay their heads.

One couple I recently wrote about has three vacation homes - in Malibu, Nantucket, and Palm Beach. Each of these seaside retreats, together with its outbuildings, is as big as Chateau Ovitz. Indeed, while the average home size in America appears to have leveled off, after years of growth, the average doesn't reveal what is happening at the extremes. At least on the coasts, architects report that very large houses are the most robust part of the residential market.

And some of the owners of gigantic houses have the nerve to call them green. (If your house has half an acre of heated, air-conditioned space, it isn't helping the environment - no matter how much bamboo you used for your kitchen floors.)

Some architects feel a responsibility to try to get clients to build smaller houses than they think they need. George Suyama in Seattle, Max Levy in Dallas, and Johnsen Schmaling in Milwaukee have shown clients that beautifully proportioned spaces, with strong connections to outdoors, can make less seem like more. In their houses, quality of space takes precedence over the quantity of space. Those houses echo the ideals of the early post-war years, when California's Case Study houses were meant to show Americans how to live affordably, but well. The Case Study houses were about 1,000 square feet - barely big enough these days to qualify as pool houses in some communities.

Architects like Suyama, Levy and Johnsen/Schmaling are heroes - but they're also exceptions. Most people determined to build big houses won't take no for an answer, and it's hard for architects to turn down well-heeled clients looking to spend millions. (Just as it's hard for an architecture writers like me to turn down chances to write about those houses once they're finished. But when writing about enormous houses, I do everything I can to avoid endorsing the bigger-is-better delusion.)

When I can, I write about compact houses and apartments - trying to spread the word that small can be beautiful. But there is only so much journalists, and architects, can do.

This is a problem for the government, which can reduce the housing disparity be imposing taxes on the income - or expenditures - of the very rich. Otherwise, I don't expect a lot of trickle down - especially when the trickling is supposed to happen from a $20,000 shower heads studded with Swarovski crystals.

In a more just world, anyone seeking to build a 30,000-square-foot house would also have to fund a homeless shelter - and make it at least as big as the house.