Happy 70th Birthday to a Great American Suburb

This story from the Wall Street Journal reminds us of the history.

An excerpt.

Today most American homes take four to six months to build, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. This makes the following fact even more extraordinary: At one point in the 1940s, a house was completed every 16 minutes in Levittown, N.Y., the first mass-produced suburb in America.

Until William Levitt and his sons broke ground on what was formerly a potato patch on Long Island, inefficient small operators dominated the housing sector. Levitt—who had been introduced to the efficiencies of mass production during World War II—knew his competitors couldn’t meet the increasing demand for new housing as more soldiers came home. He wanted to be the one who did.

The entrepreneur analyzed the home-construction process and segmented it into 27 steps. He then adopted an inverse of the assembly-line method popularized by Henry Ford —his workers moved as the objects remained stationary. A swarm of masons, carpenters, electricians, plumbers and tilers methodically completed their assigned tasks. Prefabricated cupboards, stairs and window frames sped things along.

To shave costs further, and to feed their ravenous appetite for lumber, Levitt & Sons bought a forest in Oregon. Then they built a sawmill that cut boards to their exact specifications. Cement was mixed on-site in Levittown, and appliances were purchased directly from manufacturers. They even made their own nails.

Over five years, the company produced 17,000 unpretentious, move-in-ready houses. They contained two bedrooms, a living room, a kitchen, a bathroom, an “expansion attic” and floors with radiant heat.

Initially these 750 square-foot bungalows were only for rent to veterans for $65 a month, though tenants could buy after one year for $6,990 (or about $80,000 today). After the Housing Act of 1948 became law, the Federal Housing Authority loosened credit and offered many Americans the chance to purchase a home with a 30-year mortgage and only 5% down. The New York Herald Tribune reported that half of Levittown’s properties were snapped up within two days of becoming available.

Paul Manton, president of the Levittown Historical Society, told me earlier this year that now “there are maybe five of six homes scattered throughout the area that still look something like they did in 1947.” But even these houses, says Mr. Manton, have undergone some changes. The 2010 census put Levittown’s population at under 52,000, down from its estimated postwar high of 65,000. The median sale price for homes sold in January was $380,000, according to the real estate website Trulia.

Seventy years after Levittown welcomed its first residents, the U.S. remains largely suburban. In America’s 50 largest metropolitan areas, 79% of the population lives in surrounding suburbs, according to a 2016 study by the Urban Land Institute. And some 75% of Americans 25 to 35 live in suburbs.

About David H Lukenbill

I am a native of Sacramento, as are my wife and daughter. I am a consultant to nonprofit organizations, and have a Bachelor of Science degree in Organizational Behavior and a Master of Public Administration degree, both from the University of San Francisco. We live along the American River with two cats and all the wild critters we can feed. I am the founding president of the American River Parkway Preservation Society and currently serve as the CFO and Senior Policy Director. I also volunteer as the President of The Lampstand Foundation, a nonprofit organization I founded in 2003.
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