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McMansions, real estate wars, and media tricks

By Nicholas Stix
web posted August 15, 2005

In suburbia, the thrill is back, as a "prairie war" rages across the country over the size of houses. A Fox News report last Friday covered the war in Los Angeles over "McMansions" aka "mansionization," houses that are "super-sized," extended outwards and upwards or built new on small lots as replacements for homes a fraction their size. The houses, also called "starter castles," are two to three times the size of the homes that previously stood on the same lots, and are so large that neighbors in normal-sized homes claim that the houses on steroids cut off all of the sunlight to their backyards, and wipe out their privacy. Whereas homes in the neighborhoods in question typically take up less than 40% of a lot (leaving the rest of the acreage to front and back yards), these homes take up the vast majority (in some cases, virtually all) of the lots they are built on, and are built higher than traditional area homes for the lots in question.

Across the country, some cities have changed zoning ordinances, limiting the height of new houses, and forbidding the building of homes taking up more than a certain percentage of a lot, while many other cities are debating proposals for such changes. In Los Angeles, a movement is afoot to change zoning ordinances to forbid residential builders from building new homes or expanding existing homes to take up more than 40% of a given lot.

During Friday's story, Fox News (I don't know who the reporter was, and the FNC site had no link) ran an interview with "L.A. resident" Laura Riddle, who said the issue was adequate "housing" and that the "1950s" homes on so many of the lots were inadequate to today's housing needs.

Something smelled rotten. First of all, families were on average much larger during the 1950s they didn't call it the "baby boom" for nothing. Second, the woman talked like a flack spewing rehearsed talking points. Idiotic talking points, to be sure, but talking points nonetheless. Outside of the Pitchman's Retirement Home, mere "residents" rarely sound that polished.

And so I googled under "Laura Riddle" and "real estate," and sure enough, she's a realtor! She works for Century 21. Riddle may live in L.A., but so do many realtors. But for FNC to identify Riddle merely as a "resident" was dishonest, and robbed viewers of the ability to weigh her possible motivations.

Kerry Cavanaugh of the L.A. Daily News got it right in a July 26 story, in identifying Riddle as a "Realtor and area resident."

But Realtor and area resident Laura Riddle said the proposed ordinance would force homeowners like herself out of the area. Riddle's elderly mother is moving in with her and she couldn't find a house in the neighborhood big enough to accommodate her growing family.

"There's a whole NIMBY trend. If you don't like that house and think it's ugly, don't buy that house. It comes down to homeowners' rights."

Cavanaugh's story, by the way, was picked up by outlets all over the country.

Riddle was also ridiculous in her statement to Cavanaugh. How large a house do you need to make room for one elderly woman? Is Riddle's mother the Imelda Marcos of L.A.? Riddle appears to be in her forties; how large could her "growing family" be? And using her elderly mother as a front for making a killing in the real estate market is really slimy.

Riddle's statements were also irrelevant to the non-McMansion homeowners' beef. They have no intention of buying the super-sized homes; as Riddle has to know, they wish to keep their present homes, without their neighbors' McMansions diminishing their quality of life or their property's value. And Riddle's opponents would say that it does indeed "come down to homeowners' rights."

No one in either of the stories talked about it, but if a super-sized house will rob the adjacent home of sunlight and privacy to the degree that opponents claim it will, it may also reduce that home's value by tens of thousands of dollars now, and hundreds of thousands a few years down the road.

Somehow, I doubt that the owners of the houses on steroids would be at all happy, if their immediate neighbors returned fire by expanding their own homes or replacing them with equally Canseco-like structures. Note too that -- to steal a line from Steve Sailer -- if people like Riddle become the Typhoid Marys of overbuilt lots, many middle/upper-middle class suburban neighborhoods will end up looking like a cross between urban, apartment building-dominated neighborhoods and cramped, ugly, working-class neighborhoods in which small houses are jammed next to each other, on tiny lots. (Oddly enough, a realtor named Laura Riddle was listed last year in the Austin, Texas area, where land isn't at nearly the premium it is in L.A. What would the odds of that be?)

The bottom line is that Laura Riddle hopes to make a killing in Los Angeles selling "McMansions." Readers of Cavanaugh's article will have seen her statement, noted her profession and vested interest in promoting structures on steroids, and taken her words with a chuckle and a grain of salt.

It is no coincidence that Riddle was quoted both by Fox News and the L.A. Daily News. Either she reached out to a reporter in a given story or the reporter reached out to her. (Since she was quoted first by Kerry Cavanaugh, my hunch is that the Fox News reporter googled under "McMansion," saw Riddle's name in the second story listed -- which had the catchiest title, "McMansion Invasion" -- and called her up.) That in itself is perfectly ethical, regardless of who contacted whom first. Riddle has a right to promote herself, in her silly, disingenuous way, and reporters need representative talking points. But it is unethical for a reporter to present a speaker with a clear vested interest, without identifying that interest.

Note that the Fox News story was balanced, in presenting residents who oppose the McMansions, and thus support changing zoning ordinances.

For a similar case from the other side of the country and the other side of the political aisle, last year Sade Baderinwa of New York's ABC Eyewitness News covered a city hearing on rent stabilization, and interviewed "resident" Mike McKean, who opposed letting residential property owners raise rents.

While it is true that Mike McKean is a New York City "resident," just as Laura Riddle is a Los Angeles "resident," the reason McKean was at the hearing was because he has been a housing activist for over 20 years! I know of McKean's history, because I met him in late summer or early fall, 1985, at the office he shared with another housing activist I knew. The basic position of activists like McKean is that apartment rents in Manhattan should remain at the World War II level forever.

Sade Baderinwa misled viewers by misrepresenting McKean as a "resident," instead of as a "tenant activist." That made me wonder if Baderinwa wasn't showing underhanded support for McKean's political position. Otherwise, she blew the story. To paraphrase veteran Chicago newspaperman, media critic, and author of Priests at Work, Jim Bowman (last Friday's first item), with Baderinwa and the Fox News reporter (or his producer), you've got the Hobson's choice of whether you want to look dumb or be dumb. (Full disclosure: Jim is a friend; I don't want to be accused of misleading my readers!)

You'd be surprised just how often journalists quote people who are either interested parties or personal friends in stories, as if they just happened by. I know some New York political operatives who get quoted all the time by their journalist buddies, without the journalists ever mentioning the connection. I even once was interviewed by a New York Times reporter, long ago, through one of the operatives. However, the reporter told me he couldn't use my experience, because it didn't fit into his angle.

It is almost impossible to know if someone quoted in a story is a reporter's personal friend, but one can occasionally take down and google the name of a vaguely identified interview subject, to try and see if the reporter is playing by the rules.

Nicholas Stix can be reached at add1dda@aol.com.

 

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