Affordable homes: learning from America

Lessons from Levittown

20 July 2018

In the 1950s, affordable houses were built with great speed to fulfil the homeowning dreams of young US families. Tony Mulhall revisited the suburbs of Levittown, Pennsylvania, to see what we can learn in building the homes people need today

In autumn 2017, UK Chancellor Philip Hammond commissioned Sir Oliver Letwin to discover why so few dwellings were being provided on large housing development sites in England.

At a time of acute housing shortage, there seems to be a disconnect between the 150 or so units per annum coming from such sites and the volume of housing that the country needs. In London, the projected requirement for 60,000 units per annum would need 400 of these large sites to be operating at any one time at the current rate of building.

Letwin has asked why developers cannot build more houses, more speedily, sell them more cheaply and achieve the same return on capital. He is due to deliver his report for the budget this autumn. To put this in context, it will have taken him a year to write it; in the same time frame in the 1950s, around 3,000 of Levittown, Pennsylvania’s 18,000 homes were built.

Post-war property push

After the Second World War, the USA had a crisis in housing as the economy boomed and military personnel returned home. Many different models for housing at scale were circulating at the time, from Le Corbusier’s European high-rise multi-family solution to Frank Lloyd Wright’s American low-density single-family detached dwellings.

Aerial view

Figure 1: Levittown from above

Inevitably responding to the aspirations embodied by the American dream, the desire to own one’s own home on a plot of land won the day. Levitt & Sons, east coast developers, took the opportunity and began to build at great speed what became, in professional planning terms, one of the most criticised forms of urban housing – the low-density, car-dependent, socially segregated US suburb.

Levitt reacted to market conditions in much the same way as the current UK government expects private developers to respond. However, the US firm was armed neither with compulsory acquisition powers, nor with those that new town corporations had in the postwar UK. So how did it build so quickly?

Giving people what they want

RICS published the information paper Placemaking and value in 2016, which looks at how creating great places contributes to enhancing and maintaining property value. An underlying premise is that, if you provide what people want, housebuyers will probably pay a premium for it. For too long developers and planners have imposed their own perceptions of consumer desires without understanding what those needs are, or meeting them in a way that is genuinely affordable.

Understanding such needs and desires and satisfying them at an affordable price was at the heart of the Levittown project; young US families starting out in life taking a stake in their community by buying their first house at a price they could afford, staking deposits they could save and relying on mortgage finance with affordable repayments. The mass production of thousands of houses at virtually the same time allowed the company to sell them for as little as $8,000, and with subsidies the front cost of a house to many buyers was only $400. The lesson for the UK is less about the form of housing than the delivery of so many homes in a short period of time.

Complete community

Levitt & Sons built 3 new self-contained settlements in the USA, 2 of which were called Levittown – one in Long Island, New York, the other in Pennsylvania. A third, called Willingboro, was built in New Jersey.

Levittown, on the north-east side of Philadelphia, is regarded as the city’s largest suburb and now has a population of around 52,000. When built, it was easily accessible by freeway for major new employers in the area. The land for its development was acquired in 1951 and the settlement completed in 1958. Local estate agents acting on behalf of Levitt’s quickly bought up almost 170 local farms, eventually amassing a total of 6,000 acres (2,4000ha), which was subsequently processed through the local planning regime.

Levitt & Sons set out to build a complete community based on neighbourhoods. The site was divided into master blocks about a mile square, bounded by parkways. Inside each block, the developer laid out 3 or 4 neighbourhood units of 400 houses, separated by local streets and landscape features. It introduced curvilinear roads as a traffic-calming measure, following 19th-century landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted’s plans to create flowing spaces through open-plan gardens front and rear.

Levittown resident's view

Phillip Pilgren is a local amateur historian who was born and raised in Levittown. His parents were among the first to move into the community. He and his wife have adapted and expanded their own home, raised a family and lived there ever since. Pilgren told me: “Americans like the independence of a stand-alone house and being able to upgrade or change their home as they see fit.”

Significant annual property taxes are levied on dwellings in the USA by the township – that is, the local authority – whereas they are not in the UK. Pilgren says low property taxes are thus one of two important factors in people’s choice to live in Levittown, the other being that it is a good school district.

These apparent opposites are easier to reconcile if you consider that a township may have commercial sources of revenue that help keep residential taxes down, as is the case in his area. UK governments have tried to sensitise residents to the relationship between council tax payments and services provided by the local authority, but have never come close to the almost visceral relationship between US citizens, their tax dollar and the public services they receive. There was a sense that Levittowners were highly attuned to this compact.

The Federal Housing Administration (FHA) also preferred such a street pattern. By providing mortgages to developments that followed this plan, institutional lenders began shaping US suburbs. To speed up transactions, Levitt pre-processed FHA and Veterans Association mortgages on its standardised houses; by adopting FHA site planning recommendations, this meant it could offer a seamless planning, financial and construction service.

Each neighbourhood had a site donated for an elementary school, and locations for churches and other public facilities were set aside on main thoroughfares also donated by the developer. Other amenities included swimming pools, parks, green belts, playgrounds and a shopping centre, all the facilities required to service a growing community. Landscaping was standardised so each plot received the same allotment of shade trees, fruit trees, evergreens and perennials and flowering shrubs. The final plan called for more than 400,000 plantings at a cost of $8m.

There were strict rules about the upkeep of homes and the use of property, not dissimilar to those applying to apartment blocks. Hanging laundry out to dry on a Sunday was prohibited as was fencing in gardens and yards, which would interrupt the free- flowing nature of the landscape around the houses. Most controversially there were also strict rules about who could buy in Levittown, preventing African-Americans from moving in until such segregational practices were outlawed in 1962.

Assembly-line building

Construction started in February 1952, shortly after the completion of Levittown, New York. Levitt perfected a 26-step rationalised building method – what was essentially an assembly line for timber-framed housebuilding. The individual house remained stationary while the construction workers moved from one to the next. Each worker had a single task such as pouring slabs, framing or installing electric sockets. This highly regimented process enabled Levitt’s workers to achieve dramatic economies. Once construction was completed in 1958, 17,311 homes had been built.

The Rancher

Figure 2: The Rancher house, Levittown, with original cladding

Levitt was responsible for commercialising many of Frank Lloyd Wright’s ideas about the arrangement of living space. Wright had devised a highly simplified and modular method of wood-based construction. Levitt eliminated the basement and the attic and replaced the garage with a carport and introduced a novel form of heating under the floor. He made the kitchen a small work area and combined the living and dining rooms into a single space.

What set Levittown apart from previous residential developments was not only the number of houses and the speed at which they were built, but also their extreme architectural uniformity. Although buyers were offered relatively minor facade variations as well as several colours, there was a single house plan. This repetition reduced construction costs by enabling work crews to repeat identical building operations, and use of pre-cut timber and identical components.

Levittown introduced the US public to modern production building. It demonstrated how standardisation, assembly-line production and technical innovation could be used successfully to produce houses for a mass market

Responding to criticism about the uniformity of housing, Levitt later created 6 house types, all appealing to the aspirational sensibilities of the buyer: Levittowner, Country Clubber, Rancher, Jubilee, Colonial and Pennsylvanian. The houses have since been adapted and extended with the carports enclosed and original sidings replaced. This, combined with the now mature landscape, has led to a much more diverse physical environment than the original form.

However, in the 1960s there was growing professional criticism of the uniformity of the American suburb. The benefits of diversity and a more urban lifestyle were being advocated by critics such as Jane Jacobs as they witnessed the inner cities being abandoned by the middle classes.

But not everyone wanted to live in the cramped inner city; in fact, the majority of the middle classes did not. This encapsulates the professional and political challenge still with us today: how do you plan and design housing for people in a way that meets their desires at a price they can afford and achieves social cohesion without consuming scarce, irreplaceable resources?

Lessons for today

Levittown introduced the US public to modern production building. It demonstrated how standardisation, assembly-line production and technical innovation could be used successfully to produce houses for a mass market. It showed that working Americans were attracted to suburban living no less than their wealthier counterparts. It also showed how entrepreneurial efforts could create cheap, quick, lasting and flexible housing that could not have been provided by government efforts.

The concept of the US suburb and the way it is built have proved remarkably resilient as an approach to housing successive generations affordably. But with an increasingly diverse population in the UK and USA and falling household sizes, can this uniform product continue to satisfy demand? Retrofitting neighbourhoods at higher density in pursuit of more sustainable development seems less likely in these suburbs since their infrastructure cannot support the more intense development that urbanisation would require.

Could Levittown be built now?

Witold Rybczynski from the University of Pennsylvania thinks not. Housebuyers’ expectations have moved on. Average house sizes in the USA when Levittown was being built were around 1,200 sq. ft (111 sq. m); today they are almost 2,500 sq. ft (232 sq. m). Even if a house size of around 1,200 sq. ft were to be supplied today, it would need to sell at $200,000 – significantly above an affordable price of $121,000 based on equivalent salary multiples paid in the 1950s.

In 'The Pioneering ''Levittowner''', Rybczynski argues that it is neither the size nor the construction costs that are keeping prices high; rather, the cost of serviced land. Municipalities are no longer legally able to finance the upfront costs of infrastructure in new communities, costs that now fall directly to the developer. More recently, challenges to the model have come in the form of transit-oriented development, New Urbanism, smart growth and so on, all offering alternatives focusing on higher-density development and public transport.

Affordable housing

The term 'affordable housing' has come to be associated with social programmes and government subsidies, but in the USA as in the UK it once meant commercially built houses that ordinary working people could afford. This was also a model that created profitable business for the company; as Levitt declared, 'Any damn fool can build homes. What counts is how many you can sell for how little.'

The tenacity of the post-war American dream – the lure of the detached house with front lawn and backyard – and the profitability of catering to this aspiration, may prove difficult to dislodge.

Tony Mulhall is Associate director, RICS Land Group

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