Witold Rybczynski On The Housing Recovery in America

Levittown/ New York Postcard Club/Public Domain

Everybody is excited about the apparent rebound in the housing market in the US; it is one of the few industries that is almost impossible to offshore, and it employs a lot of blue-collar workers. But what kind of housing? Author Witold Rybczynski wonders.

Those who believe that economic recovery will be spear-headed by consumer spending, see us going back to business as usual, that is, expanding the homeownership rate, and building as many large houses as the market will allow. New Urbanists, on the other hand, see the recession as a wake-up call and foresee a return to denser communities. Others see the increase in rental housing as a harbinger of a new Age of Tenants. Advocates of small houses see, well, more small houses. The problem is that most of this is wishful thinking; the truth is that we don’t know whether the housing recession was a correction or a game-changer.

Much depends on young people and their attitude to the automobile. I have noted that How we get around dictates what we build; the entire suburban enterprise is based on the car. Many people are choosing to stay connected with smart phones rather than cars. If this stays true when they start raising families, then we will see more urban infill, transit oriented development and multi-family housing.

Rybczynski thinks it is tied to the recovery:

If high unemployment and low wages drag on for another five years, that will mean that many young families will have been tenants for a full decade—that’s long enough to break the homeownership habit, especially if you can’t afford it anyway. But that’s only a guess.

I am of two minds. I have written in one post that I believe we are going through a fundamental technological change, as big as the one that helped nurture suburbia:

In the 1950s, President Eisenhower's massive public investment in the highway system changed the way America lived and worked; we are ankle deep into a change just as significant.

And in another, that things don't change that quickly.

Call me a jaded cynic, but I see the same suburban developer, customer, planning and product that there ever was; the only thing that has changed is that the money is tighter.

One would hope that we would learn from the past disasters and build better insulated homes on smaller lots, but I suspect that in the hurry to put nail guns back in workers hands, we will have more of the same. Or, as I wrote earlier, Meet the New Housing Market, Same as the Old Housing Market

Tags: Green Building | Housing Industry

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