Why Can't We Build an Affordable House?

levvittown postcard photo

Witold Rybczynski asks in the Wilson Quarterly: "Why Can't We Build an Affordable House?" He notes that "ne of the reasons we are in this mess is that people bought houses they couldn’t really afford" and that when the market returns, people will want smaller houses, closer to the designs of Levittown with their thousand square feet instead of the average of 2,469 SF before the crash. "Would it be possible to build a modern version of the affordable Levittowner? It would probably be a small house, closer to the 1,000 square feet of Alfred Levitt’s design than the 2,469 square feet that is today’s national average for new houses. Building smaller houses not only reduces construction costs, it is also good for the environment, saving materials and ­energy—­and land. The house would still have three bedrooms, but it would also have at least ­one ­and ­a ­half bathrooms, since people have come to expect a powder room, even in small houses. Closets would be bigger, and there would be more of them. There would probably not be a living room, but the house would include a family room facing the backyard."

levittown streetscape photo

Rybczynski writes that housing will never be as cheap relatively as it was in Levittown because of the costs of servicing land. That is true; all kinds of lot levies and charges are piled on by municipalities to pay for schools and services. But he also writes:

"Smaller houses on smaller lots are the logical solution to the problem of affordability, yet ­density—­and less affluent ­neighbors—­are precisely what most communities fear most. In the name of fighting sprawl, local zoning boards enact regulations that either require larger lots or restrict development, or both. These strategies decrease the ­supply—­hence, increase the ­cost—­of developable land. Since builders pass the cost of lots on to buyers, they justify the higher land prices by building larger and more expensive houses—McMansions. This produces more community resistance, and calls for yet more restrictive regulations. In the process, housing affordability becomes an even more distant ­chimera. "

Municipalities never demanded big lots to fight sprawl, they did it to get rich taxpayers instead of middle class ones. The builders did it because a kitchen, bath and service connection cost the same whether the house is 1000 square feet or 3,000 SF; the rest is just cheap air. The lenders loved it because they had one loan to do the paperwork on rather than three.

I am also less sure that the single family Levittown style house on a detached lot will or should come back, unless it is built at a density that can support public transit, is sited on land that isn't any good for agriculture, in places with water and renewable power. It is not just the house size, it is the whole suburban model that it represented in 1950 and still does. ::Wilson Quarterly

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