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Vol. 17 No. 36 - June 21, 2017


The innocence of housing


This was once a country where children could play stick ball in the streets and ride their bikes without adult supervision or play dates. This was once a country where modest homes filled the landscape of American towns and sharing a bedroom with your sister was considered normal. This was once a country where a family of five managed with just one bathroom, and miraculously, everyone got to school and work on time. Things have changed mostly for the better, but change also brought with it a loss of innocence, particularly in our housing expectations.

I'm on my way to Long Island, N. Y., this week where I grew up and lived for better than 35 years, so I was especially interested in the 70th anniversary of a town I knew very well, Levittown. Although I didn't live in Levittown, it was a very close neighboring community, and the story of how it came about as an icon in the housing history of this country brought back so many memories.

After World War II, William Levitt, who was already a real estate developer, saw the need for affordable housing for returning veterans. His military experience introduced him into the aspects of mass producing construction projects. He applied the principals of Henry Ford's assembly line methods to housing, and at one point in the 1940s was completing a house every 16 minutes, versus the four to six months it takes today.

Granted, the original homes were small with 750 square feet, two bedrooms, a living room, a kitchen and a bathroom compared to the 2015 census report average of 2,687 square feet. There were no basements. Houses were built on slabs with radiant heat but they did have an expansion attic for additional bedrooms. They came with brand new appliances purchased directly from the manufacturs, making the bungalows move-in-ready. Over a five-year period, Levitt produced 17,000 unassuming homes, giving him the ultimate title of the Father of Modern Suburbia.

At first the homes were only available for rent for $65 a month, however, the tenants could buy one after a year for $6,990 (about $80,000 in today's money). In 1948, the Federal Housing Authority allowed credit to be acquired more easily and offered Americans 30-year mortgages with 5 per cent down, essentially creating the modern mortgage system we still benefit from. Not surprisingly, every available home in Levittown was sold within two days.

Today Levittown doesn't look much like it did in the 1950s of my youth. Most of the homes have been renovated and expanded, but still show the quality of the original construction. The median sale price for Levittown properties sold in January, according to Trulia, was $380,000. The suburbs of America's cities are still providing housing for 79 percent of the population, according to the Urban Land Institute, and William Levitt and his vision is no small part of that.

I have personal fond memories of Levittown, where I swam in one of their community pools for a good part of the summer, thanks to my best friend's grandmother who gave us her pass. It was a wonderful era to grow up in, and I consider myself lucky to have experienced the freedom we had compared to today's children's over scheduled lives. Somehow, we all managed to grow and survive in our simple one bathroom homes, without stainless steel appliances and quartz counters in uniquely suburban America.

Let us know what you think, post a comment.

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