Suburbs Attacked Because Middle-Class Hates Plumbers in Big Houses

Frontier Centre, Housing Affordability, Uncategorized, Worth A Look

Sixty years ago this month something happened on Long Island near New York that was to help shape Australian cities. It deserves to be better known. The first homeowners moved into Levittown, a 17,000-residence housing estate built by Bill Levitt. Essentially, Levitt applied the principles of Henry Ford’s production line to housing. In the process he brought prices down so much that suburbia became available to the working class. This did more than perhaps anything else to democratise the prosperity of the postwar economic boom.

Of course, Levitt couldn’t put a house on a production line. So what he did was bring the production line to the house. He broke up the construction process into several dozen separate tasks. Then he broke up his workforce into teams, each specialising in just one task. Each team would do its job on one lot and then move on to the next house and do it again. (Levittown had just three house designs.)

When those around him refused to share his passion for cutting costs, he simply went around them. The unions didn’t like his work practices so he hired non-union labour and paid them top dollar. When suppliers wouldn’t give him satisfactory discounts for his bulk purchases he bought forests and timber mills and nail factories to supply himself. He reformed conveyancing practices to help low-income clients who had never been able to afford a lawyer before.

As a result of the innovations Levitt and other developers introduced, house prices tumbled. At a time when the average manufacturing worker was earning $US2400 a year, Levitt was selling a basic Cape Cod for $US7990. He went on to build other large housing estates, providing decent accommodation for hundreds of thousands of (white) working class Americans and inspiring developers in other countries, including Australia.

Another legacy of his success was the vitriolic criticism he attracted from intellectuals, people such as academics, writers, professionals, and government policy experts. The negative attitude to the outer suburbs that formed then has persisted to this day.

Lewis Mumford, the most respected writer on cities of his time, was particularly contemptuous. He said Levittown was socially “backward”, inhabited by “people of the same class, the same incomes, the same age group, witnessing the same television performances, eating the same tasteless prefabricated foods, from the same freezers, conforming in every outward and inward respect to a common mould manufactured in the same central metropolis.”

This criticism of suburbia was to be repeated by thousands of intellectuals around the world from then to now. The grounds for the criticism have changed a bit over time, with environmentalism now providing the flavour, but the level of hostility has been pretty consistent.

A persisting feature of the criticisms of the intellectuals is that most have been mere assertions without basis in fact, and have been proved wrong once anybody bothered to test them.

Eventually a sociologist named Herbert Gans went to live in one of Levitt’s estates and published a book called The Levittowners in 1967, disproving just about all the assertions of Mumford and the other critics. He found there was a rich diversity of human beings living there – but his findings were largely ignored by the intellectuals, who continued to be unable to see beyond the buildings to the people living in them.

A similar blindness affects much criticism of so-called suburban sprawl today. For years it has been asserted by intellectuals that the outer suburbs, compared with areas closer to the city, are socially and environmentally inferior. There are now numerous studies disproving this (for example, the recent one showing lower density improves sociability, by Jan Brueckner and colleagues at the University of California), yet the intellectuals continue to assert it. Why so?

It comes down to self-interest. First, jobs: most of the criticism of sprawl is used to justify an alternative vision of the city where intellectuals of various kinds would play a strong role in planning and regulation. The media is happy to promote this view because a planned city, with all the reports and regulations and formalised disputes this entails, is much easier to report on than a city made of the spontaneous decisions of thousands of individuals.

Another reason for the persistent anger is middle-class status anxiety. Most intellectuals are members of the middle class, which defines itself in part by possession of an old inner-city pad or a nice house and garden in an inner-ring suburb. To see mere tradesmen in the 1980s acquiring bigger houses than those owned by many lawyers and academics sent a shiver through the middle class, and helped create an audience for absurd criticisms of prole housing, of the sort embodied in the term McMansion.

Does any of this matter? I suspect it does. I believe that over time the relentless criticism of the new suburbs helped create the intellectual and then the political environment in which governments were able to impose massive levies and taxes on new homes for the first time in history. This was one of the worst cases of intergenerational inequity this country has seen, and did much to produce the housing affordability crisis we face today. I suspect governments were able to get away with this only because the intellectuals had denigrated new suburbs to the point where they had almost no defenders among the ranks of the powerful and the influential.

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