walkitout (walkitout) wrote,

a Possible but Improbable Future

Once upon a time, after we'd collectively exhausted ourselves killing each other, we rebuilt. Because the United States had not been itself the site of (much of) the action, our factories were intact and ready to be redirected from building bombs to building cars and appliances and a whole bunch of other stuff. The Levitts got really famous for mass-producing housing and they were imitated around the country, thus supplying material for generations of complaints about suburbia and its woes.

What the Levitts did was accept a government contract to provide housing, at first rental and then for sale (the sale stuff backed by the FHA). They got some agricultural land (the famous potato fields) about a half hour from a locus of economic activity (NYC), they reduced housing to a sort of bare minimum (2 bedrooms, 1 bath, a combined living area, and an attic tall enough to expand into additional bedrooms, all sitting on a concrete slab which included radiant heating, in one of two shapes), and then they had their non-union workforce specialize in particular steps of construction. Previously, the Levitts had been doing what everyone else did as housing builders: make housing for rich(er) people.

The Levitts had previously specialized in housing for rich(er) people for the same reason that condos and apartment buildings seem always to be built as "luxury" housing. The financing for large multifamily is cobbled together from multiple sources (and the builders often as well), and must navigate complex zoning and development processes. There is no certainty in this process, and worse, the business cycle must be managed as well, to buy the land during a bust, work through the regulatory maze and hopefully get the building sold (or rented out) before the next crash. Oh, and hope whatever it is in the area that means there's a market for these units doesn't entirely disappear and that you aren't out-competed by single family choices.

FHA loans, cookie-cutter (ticky tacky) (monotonous conformity) (choose your derogatory adjectival phrase here) plans, mass quantities (ultimately, 17K+ houses built by the Levitts), non-union labor and deskilling of construction were all crucial in creating mass suburbanization.

But our world of about a half hour from a locus of economic activity has been mostly filled in (and then some). If I remember SimCity correctly, at some point we're supposed to start seeing those single family homes, that low density development, be replaced with multifamily, multistory, etc. You can't make more land (except you can, by going up and down).

Even though unemployment is a huge problem, rents continue to rise. We haven't been building and a lot of that spare capacity from the boom years is in the Wrong Place (rules 1-n of real estate are location). With financing is persistently available at very low interest rates (and the Fed promising to keep it that way), I believe we might have a near future involving cookie-cutter, mass quantity, non-union labor, etc. producing vast seas of multi-family where once there were oceans of single-family homes and low density development. And if the world of the Levitts involved a whole lot of jobs, at least some of those jobs came from building those homes and then making the crap to go in them.

Sure, a couple wars a long ways away are no WW2, but maybe we could sort of pretend they were and, skipping over the horrors of making the women stay home with the kiddies and treating black people badly, maybe we could go straight to the part where we rebuild our world to better suit our needs. Maddow and everyone else goes on about infrastructure and they seem to always mean roads and electricity and clean water and so forth. But housing matters. If we could get some regional or even national leadership on creating a more predictable path towards multifamily development (because that maze of zoning is a nightmare, and not just for developers), I think it would be good for a lot of people. Maybe not the people who want to keep their in-town septic system, but everyone else.

Oh, and while we're at it, when are the developers going to notice that the three bedrooms _always_ sell or rent first, regardless of the price point? This _should_ be interpreted as meaning more of them ought to be included, but that just does not seem to happen (or at least not quickly).
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