The History of Suburban Housing

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For at least the last thirty years, I've been hearing "affordable housing" advocates yammer about the high cost of housing, and how working families can no longer afford "decent" housing, which they apparently consider to be the three or four bedroom, two bathroom detached home. They go on and on about what is necessary to create more of this type of housing and our "moral obligation" to create more of it. In light of the current situation, I'm going to make a conscious effort to continue my occasional series on factors that influence the overall market for housing. I'm going to examine the broad macroeconomics involved, the assumptions necessary, whether it is or is not long term sustainable, and the choices we face in sustaining or curtailing it.

Today's topic is how the housing market of today came about and what sustains it. A century ago, roughly eighty-five percent of the population did not live in major cities, but rather in small farming communities which more or less blanketed the nation. Suitable land for housing could be anywhere, and so it was much more readily available and much cheaper. When the criteria is "anywhere there's land I can farm," you can choose any arable parcel and build a house on it. Even if you don't live on a farm but in one of the small towns, when you can walk the length of the town in five or ten minutes, it's a lot easier to arrange housing for everyone. If one particular town becomes too crowded, the next one over became attractive. If you need a place for a few more people, one of the farmers whose land immediately surrounded the town could usually be persuaded to sell some land. The cities were dense affairs, much more like european cities than is the case today. Indeed, the few large cities we had built up before World War II still retain that urban core with dense multistory housing that is characteristic of the period. The typical pattern of the day was that young women, in particular, would continue to live with their parents until marriage. Young men of marriageable age would most often live in rooming-houses or boarding houses once they became gainfully employed. Apartment dwelling was only somewhat expected for young couples just getting started and urban dwellers who might have been together for many years, yet could not afford anything better in close proximity to their profession. Urban housing was tight-packed because the land was very expensive by standards of the time, and urban transportation was communal to a far greater extent than today. It is much more common today for even people in Manhattan to own and drive cars than it was before World War II. The use of steel as a building material was a big deal for those urban centers because it meant that it was possible for them to build further up. San Diego is very much a post war city, but even we still have areas that were built in those times - packed in tightly, cheek by jowl, extremely dense living. Once upon a time, before reliance upon military work and bad policy ruined it, San Diego was a major west coast port and the base for the largest fishing fleet in the world - two of my aunts married tuna fishermen. Even further out, in what were before WWII the "newly urban" areas of North Park and National City, the housing very much resembled classic "company town" housing - 600 and 800 square foot one and two bedroom cottages sitting on 3500 square foot lots. These were the era's predecessor to the exurban bedroom community of today, usually owned by members of the skilled trades or young professionals. The core suburbs today such as La Mesa were still economically speaking, farming communities. Even Mission Valley was mostly farms until the early sixties. During this time frame, only the comparatively wealthy lived in larger houses within city limits. If you go to Mission Hills above Old Town, or Grant or Banker's Hill (and here and there in other neighborhoods) you can still see a very few of the large houses for the well-to-do of that era.

Indeed, the three bedroom, two bath detached house in an urban setting for the working class is almost entirely a creation of the post World War II mood in this country. For several years, very little housing had been built, and now these men who had gone off to war and saved the world as seventeen and eighteen year olds who had traditionally remained with their parents or moved on to boarding houses until they got married were now returning as twenty-two and twenty-three year olds who were traditionally married and starting families by that point in their lives. The women to marry them wasn't a problem; the housing to put the new families in was. These folks had several years of savings (war bonds, the wartime sacrifices, etcetera), and the traditional apartments were considered a poor and at best temporary inconvenience until that new modern post-War marvel - tract housing - could be built in sufficient numbers. And if such housing was horribly inefficient in terms of land, utilities, and transportation, nonetheless we were the wealthiest nation in the history of the world, and accommodating their desires for such was the least the nation could do for our valiant warriors. Furthermore, with the aforementioned savings they had accumulated during the war, the young men and their new wives could afford to pay for this new housing. If you're wondering about "It's a Wonderful Life," keep in mind that most of that 1946 movie takes place well before the war, and even by the time of its release, the country hadn't yet shifted very far from the way things were done pre-War.

The land was available and largely vacant then, and certainly could not and can not be covered effieciently by public transportation, but the newly affluent families (through savings during the war and better jobs after) could afford far more automobiles as well. For the first time, women were staying in the work force in significant numbers until motherhood. There was plenty of land available. As a young child in the early sixties, I can still remember when there was space between all of the suburbs, even when we drove to Los Angeles to visit family members or Disneyland. I-5 was brand new thanks to President Eisenhower, and from the point we got out of the Pacific Beach, there weren't any towns visible from the road, just widely separated houses, until we passed Oceanside and Camp Pendleton, at which point there wasn't anything more until San Clemente and San Juan Capistrano, then another good long way past that before there was anything more again. It wasn't until just before Disneyland that we saw more city. The I-5/405 split in the middle of present day Irvine was out in the middle of nowhere back then. My parents almost bought a 320 acre farm just east of the Del Mar fairgrounds the year I was born. One of my best friend's parents had considered a farm in Mission Valley, despite the fact my friend's father was in the navy. If you clicked on the images, you know none of these are empty land any longer.

Why not? Suburban housing and to a lesser extent, support services have eaten it up. The only open area between the Mexican border and the Tejon Pass is the stuff that's been held aside for other reasons, such as Camp Pendleton, which the Marines badly need. Los Angeles with 3.8 million people has an area of almost 470 square miles, while by comparison cities of similar population elsewhere such as Ahmedabad in India, Alexandria in Egypt are a fraction the physical size. If we're going to keep doing the same thing, we're going to run out of places to put everybody. In fact, in Southern California we have essentially done so. New development is taking place in Hesperia and Victorville, or out past Banning, or out in Hemet or eastern Murrieta, all of which are an hour and a half minimum trip time from the center of the urban areas they service, even if you're driving it at an hour when there's no traffic. Nobody wants to drive an hour and a half each way to work - especially not in stop and go traffic when gas is this expensive.

This also creates a lot of logistical problems. Most inhabitants of the cities concerned would have no trouble naming the most salient problem, which is transportation. When you have that many people that spread out, and you need to move them all significant distances at pretty much the same time, it takes a massive amount of transportation infrastructure to do so. US 395, the predecessor to I-15, was one lane each direction from Escondido until just a few miles south of present day I-10. But it isn't just transportation. Utilities are a much larger headache to supply than sixty years ago as well, and the logistics of keeping that many people supplied with groceries and gas and everything else make the transportation and utilities problems seem easy.

Finally, there are legal and political barriers to continuing to build housing in this manner. Environmental concerns are the most obvious of these, but building codes, zoning, and other concerns form significant obstacles to its continuation, as does the consumption of land. Once upon a time Southern California was some of the most productive farm land there was. My wife's uncle was a well-off citrus grower until the developers bought his land for millions of dollars. I can remember (barely) large tracts of citrus in El Cajon and Lemon Grove and Escondido. The only reason the hillsides north of Escondido are still relatively uninhabited avocado farms is because they're steep enough to render development difficult. The same applies to all of the other agricultural land remaining.

All that aside, I would like for housing prices to be affordable, and for everyone who's going to grow up in this country for the next century to be able to afford the type of housing they want, where they want. Absent some major changes in public policy and employment practices, it's not going to happen. The land no longer exists, we can't afford ongoing losses in arable land (look up how few countries in the world are net exporters of food), the transportation networks are saturated, environmental regulations are restricting development as are legal hurdles such as necessary permits (which add roughly $20,000 per unit to the cost of new housing, but over $100,000 to the price due to constricted supply), and lets not forget legal challenges from NIMBYs, BANANAs and environmentalists who already have their 3 bedroom 2 bathroom suburban home, and whose property values just happen to increase in a manner directly dependent upon how far they can constrict the supply of new housing. In short, the current situation does not appear to be sustainable absent major societal changes.

Caveat Emptor

Original article here

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About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Dan Melson published on August 29, 2014 7:00 AM.

You Never Have To Sell to a Any Particular Offer was the previous entry in this blog.

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