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Friday, May 9, 2008

Our Looming Housing Crisis

posted by on May 9 at 10:19 AM

Couldn’t sleep last night, so I sat up and read the new New Yorker. It’s the Innovators Issue and there’s a Malcolm Gladwell profile of area innovator Nathan Myhrvold. Myhrvold’s a Microsoft millionaire and, you know, all innovative and and shit. I’d never heard of Myhrvold or his innovations or his hundreds of millions before… and, in all honestly, I didn’t make through the piece. (I skipped ahead, I’m ashamed to say, to a dishy review of Barbara Walters new autobiography.) So I can’t tell you just what innovations Myhrvold is busily innovating away at. But I trust Gladwell: If he says Myhrvold’s an innovator, that’s good enough for me.

But this detail, which comes early Gladwell’s piece, stayed with me…

He started Microsoft’s research division, leaving, in 1999, with hundreds of millions. He is obsessed with aperiodic tile patterns. (Imagine a floor tiled in a pattern that never repeats.) When Myhrvold built his own house, on the shores of Lake Washington, outside Seattle—a vast, silvery hypermodernist structure described by his wife as the place in the sci-fi movie where the aliens live—he embedded some sixty aperiodic patterns in the walls, floors, and ceilings. His front garden is planted entirely with vegetation from the Mesozoic era.

I was speaking with a friend this weekend about two couples who, like Myhrvold, worked in tech, got rich, retired, and built insanely elaborate mansions—excuse me, houses—in the area. Microsoft and Amazon and other tech companies, which are all located here for entirely arbitrary reasons (and could pick up and move tomorrow), created hundreds of millionaires and a quite few billionaires. My friend—who isn’t rich, but associates with richies—figures that two hundred or more these tech-money mansions—excuse me, “houses”—have been built over the last twenty years by tech millionaires with more money than taste.

Hey, it’s their money, and they can spend it however they like. God only knows what kind of monstrosity I’d build—or have built—if I had Myhrvold’s money. Probably something like this on top of Beacon Hill.

But here’s what I wonder: What is going to happen in twenty or thirty years when the tech booms millionaires start to die off? Who is going to buy all these sci-fi movie mansions with Mesozoic gardens? A lot of insanely elaborate, insanely expensive houses are going to come flooding onto the market all at once—places that cost tens of millions of dollars to build—and there’s no guarantee that our region will have the millionaires—billionaires—it’s going to take to buy up all these houses when they come up for sale in twenty or thirty years.

So who’s going to buy up all these houses in two or three decades? Who’s going to live in them?

RSS icon Comments


You're being nutty.

Posted by Mr. Poe | May 9, 2008 10:23 AM

You are not seriously concerned. Or are you?

Posted by David Sucher | May 9, 2008 10:26 AM

Get developers to buy them, then renovate them in to apartments. You could fit several families in some of those monstrosities.

Posted by Lobot | May 9, 2008 10:27 AM

No, Poe, he's right. Once their gazillionaire owners "move on," these over-indulged dream houses typically sit vacant for decades.

Posted by Fifty-Two-Eighty | May 9, 2008 10:28 AM

first museums, with tours as at "the breakers", then pay for entrance parks such as the huntington gardens. then condo's. then maybe cool ruins. then not so cool ruins inhabited by post-apocalypse tribes of mutant zombie cannibals. Oh excuse, the filthy rich are already mutant zombie cannibals, figuratively speaking.

Posted by LMSW | May 9, 2008 10:31 AM

There's been a $40 million-plus house on the market for about five or six years on the east side of the lake if I remember correctly. That's what happens. Meanwhile these crazy houses continue to suck up energy and resources because they need to be kept up in the fruitless hope that someone wants to spend all that money on it.

Posted by Jessica | May 9, 2008 10:32 AM

At least a couple of them can probably be the Seattle branch of (or its descendants). They're doing neat things with the old Armory in SF...

Posted by Cow | May 9, 2008 10:36 AM

A glut of ten-million dollar houses does not equate to a housing crisis. The price gap between a normal house and an uber-mansion is enormous, so there is quite a cushion for high-end market fluctuation.

If a $100,000 Rolls Royce suddenly started selling for $70,000, how would that affect the price of a Honda? It wouldn't.

Posted by Mahtli69 | May 9, 2008 10:36 AM

You're starting to understand, Dan.

Only, it's not just the hideous mansions -- the $600,000 Wallingford bungalow is just as impractical and unsupported as a million-dollar home with mesozoic plants.

Local tech companies are no longer minting millionaires, and this area is in for a rude awakening.

Posted by A Non Imus | May 9, 2008 10:38 AM

Those with enough money simply tear down the existing house and build their own monument to themselves.

And Dan, you're showing just how out of touch you are if you've never heard of Myhrvold.

Posted by Bigyaz | May 9, 2008 10:42 AM

If you think these houses are a problem, ELF 'em. All of 'em. There. Solved.

Posted by Mr. Poe | May 9, 2008 10:43 AM

The aliens.

Posted by PA Native | May 9, 2008 10:43 AM

The weird, sorta flying saucer house used in Woody Allen's "Sleeper" is in the foothills near here, and just sold after 30 years of sitting empty. The windows were all broken, the carpets and wood in the house were all rotted, the electrical system was totally worthless, and there were wild birds and animals living in it. Something to look forward to.

Posted by Fifty-Two-Eighty | May 9, 2008 10:46 AM

And last night I stayed awake wondering how many times the word "uh" is said in one day.

Posted by crazycatguy | May 9, 2008 10:48 AM

I don't get the concern here. Rich people have built huge mansions throughout history. In NY they were converted to multi-unit housing, or museums, or libraries, or stores for fancy designers. In vacation spots they were turned into hotels, or tourist attractions. In wine country, a few became wineries. And, in lots of places (like Philadelphia) the next generations of the family are still living in the houses.

Posted by PopTart | May 9, 2008 10:50 AM

@13: they sold the Sleeper house? Awesome! I remember driving past it on a semi-regular basis, and remarking every time that it looked cool.

Posted by Abby | May 9, 2008 10:55 AM

in the 70s the mansions around volunteer park became hippy flophouses.

Posted by chris | May 9, 2008 10:56 AM

Probably the same thing that happened to the mansions on Capitol Hill in the mid 20th century. They become run-down and super cheap, until the next boom cycle when they will become over-valued/re-valued.

Posted by boxofbirds | May 9, 2008 10:59 AM

Yeah, Abby. Finally. Forget what the sale price was, but it was peanuts compared to what it's gonna cost to get it liveable again.

Posted by Fifty-Two-Eighty | May 9, 2008 10:59 AM

What will happen to these mansions? Same thing that happened to the ridiculous homes built by previous rich eccentrics: The building becomes a white elephant, the value of the place is reduced to the land value, and the next rich eccentric comes along to bulldoze the previous monstrosity to build their monstrosity.

p.s. Is Paul Allen dead yet? If not, why?

Posted by Coup de Taste | May 9, 2008 11:01 AM

Once they reach the White Elephant stage, these mansions will either

a) be burnt to the ground for the insurance
b) be broken up into condos
c) be turned into museums like the gilded-age "summer cottages" in Newport RI.

At least that's been the experience with rich people's real estate cast offs in my corner of the country. The arson solution is the most common, btw. Insurance fraud is the RI state sport.

Posted by Providence | May 9, 2008 11:02 AM

Hey, Providence: My mom met Buddy Cianci on Wednesday at the opening of some Broadway-type show there. Said he pulled up in a limo with a "leggy blonde" on his arm. It's good to see that some things never change.

Posted by Fifty-Two-Eighty | May 9, 2008 11:08 AM

@5 wins!

Posted by freshnycman | May 9, 2008 11:15 AM

Actually, @11 wins.

Hey, who forgot to close the tags on this article - it's making all of SLOG look teeny tiny ....

Posted by Will in Seattle | May 9, 2008 11:26 AM

BTW: all "Mesozoic plants" means is ferns, monkey puzzle trees and cycads, all of which are common all over Seattle. They actually make for a very low maintenance garden, which in this area would require little watering.

Posted by inkweary | May 9, 2008 11:44 AM


Posted by K | May 9, 2008 11:52 AM

Ferns are neato.

Posted by Bellevue Ave | May 9, 2008 12:07 PM

Although Myrvold's house may be wacky (and is supposedly the inspiration for the house in Cryptonomicon by Neal Stepehenson, the one with the crashed 747 in pieces hanging from the ceiling)
the vast majority of the tech billionaires are actually pretty conservative in their tastes.
Most of their houses will be readily accepted by your garden variety rich person, so you dont have to worry they will become white elephants on the real estate market.
In fact, most anybody who makes a bunch of money is usually pretty conservative in their tastes- its usually the second generations, the ones who didnt have to earn it, who squander it on follies.
I used to work in the houses of rich movies stars and rock stars in LA, and I was always amazed at how pedestrian and conservative they were- guys from Saturday Night Live make money, and they buy Rembrandts.

Posted by Ries Niemi | May 9, 2008 12:35 PM

#17 - same here in San Francisco. In the 70's huge Victorians stayed vacant, became squats, or were divided up into studio apartments. That said, it's the upper-middle class I think that sits more precariously on the fence of wealthy security - there's always going to be a top .5% that goes unaffected by economic downturn.

Posted by Dougsf | May 9, 2008 12:38 PM

uh, that would be post-Rapture so why worry about it?

Posted by michael strangeways | May 9, 2008 1:41 PM

The guy may have too much money, but non-periodic tilings are teh awesome.

Posted by Greg | May 9, 2008 2:07 PM

There's always the wartime uses as well, in case an invading army descends on us. Or the urban wars happen. Or, like in the Day of the Triffids, "comets" blind almost everybody and giant walking plants kill off a huge number of people, then all the survivors can band together in the mansions and rebuild society while fighting off the mutant plants.

Posted by PopTart | May 9, 2008 2:53 PM

Dan honey, all of us non-billionaire boomers will be living in them, only they will be divided by sheets and blankets like in Dr Zhivago. We will sneak out at night to steal shingles from the mansion next door to heat our hands over. We will be shot if we are caught.

Posted by Marit | May 9, 2008 4:50 PM

I love all you post-apocalyptic types. Lake Washington houses are not going to be divided up into squats and flophouses; they're going to continue to be owned by very rich people. And freak houses like Myhrvold's are going to get torn down, gardens ripped out, and redone from scratch. That's what rich people do. There are no abandoned mansions on Mercer Island waterfront.

Posted by Fnarf | May 9, 2008 5:09 PM

If I came into that kind of money, I'd be hauling ass down the Frank Lloyd Wright archives in Arizona and hiring them to build me Fallingwater over the Duwamish. Or something.

But it would definitely be Frank Lloyd Wright.

Posted by Jubilation T. Cornball | May 9, 2008 5:46 PM

If I came into that kind of money, I'd a 25,000 square foot house where one half looked like The White House and the other half looked like a Tuscan villa, and then I'd build a wall covered with exact replicas of famous paintings by Leonardo, Michaelangelo, Rembrandt, Van Gogh, etc., with numerous openings through which you could see the house and also many, many twice-life-size replicas of famous statues (David, Venus de Milo, etc.), only painted to look like real people.

Just to piss the neighbors off.

Posted by Fnarf | May 9, 2008 5:54 PM

Chinese multi-millionaires, and you'll be grateful to be employed by them as servants, because the alternative...

Posted by MarkyMark | May 9, 2008 6:13 PM

I thought the Sleeper house was in Denver?

Posted by Sleeper House | May 9, 2008 6:23 PM

No no no... the owners will obviously leave behind a trust fund for the upkeep of the house while it sits empty, ready and waiting for the day when they are thawed out of their cryogenic freeze.

I just found out my uncle wants to have his head frozen, and he's not even rich. Seriously.

Posted by erika | May 9, 2008 6:45 PM

The baby boomers will start dying off by then. These mansions will then be turned into funeral homes.

Posted by RainMan | May 9, 2008 7:30 PM

@38 In the foothills just outside Denver.

@34 You are NO FUN. I can be post-apocalyptic if I want to. I just can't decide whether my post-apocalyptic wardrobe is going to be more Mad Max or medieval.

Posted by PopTart | May 9, 2008 8:51 PM

I vote for "our new Chinese masters."

But, failing that,

President M.C. Hammer? After his comeback, retirement, and move into national politics, of course.

Posted by CP | May 10, 2008 10:04 AM

@41: I'm going for an Imperial-style tunic and toga combo, myself.

Posted by Greg | May 10, 2008 10:05 AM

I predict that a sex advice columnist who got rich syndicating his column will accidentally place the winning bid for Myhrvold's place on ebay. He'll then hold elaborate dinner parties there, until one day, some asshole from the local newspaper will crash the party and find a repeating pattern in the aperiodic tilings. But it will turn out just to be a drug-induced hallucination, so it'll all be ok.

Posted by Ivan | May 10, 2008 1:36 PM

Two or three decades ago, millionaires were very rare, but now they are everywhere. So in two or three decades, when the current millionaires and billionaires die off, there will be even more billionaires and trillionaires to buy such mansions and build more, until the earth is totally destroyed by human beings.

Posted by Victor | May 14, 2008 1:36 PM

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