The history of environmentalism in the suburbs Crabgrass Crucible includes this description of how Levittown encouraged good looking lawns:
Abraham Levitt, among others, remained keenly aware of the additional work and expense suburban horticulture demanded, as well as the collective benefits that could follow if all Levittowners took the time and trouble to cooperate. However well-chosen and planted, all their grass, shrubs, and trees would die, and the chickweed prevail, if new owners’ commitments and skills were not also fortified. Through a gardening column in the Levittown newspaper, Abraham opened up a weekly line of communication to bring home to Levittowners how “lawns, like all living things, require care.” He “used to come around in a chauffeur driven car” to check on his homeowners’ floral upkeep. If lawns went unmowed or unweeded, he sent his own landscapers to do the job and followed up with a bill in the mail. Most developers at the lower end, like the Romano brothers, were far less solicitous, especially once their homes had been sold.
As lawn cultivation was taken up by new as well as longtime homeowners, its collective benefits, reinforced by the pressure of neighbors’ peeled eyes, helped make it the most ubiquitous of horticultural practices on Long Island. Whether these residents were white or black, however, their memories downplayed the landscaping contributions of builders and developers. Early Levittowners recalled a “sea of dirt” or mud that surged with rain, an uneven respreading of the topsoil, and scrawny, “inexpensive” shrubbery and trees. Residents later remarked little about any lawn damage from roaming children or dogs, or the neglect of lawn care by a neighbor next door. Instead, whether they were Levittowners or lived in African American Ronek Park, their recollections revolved around a joint if rival pursuit of horticultural handiwork. “Everyone” took up the mowing and watering and often the fertilizing and weed killing. As with Levittowners, Eugene Burnett remember “a kind of competition goin’ with that” that made Ronek Park yards into “some of the most beautiful lawns I’ve ever seen anywhere.” Caught up in the lawn-making enthusiasm, even Robert Murphy tried to plant one outside his Crystal Brook home. Yet for large lot owners, the dynamic was less intensely communal – the Murphy’s lawn was not even visible from the road. For denizens of Old Field, but also for smaller lots of horticultural hobbyists, lawns drew less investment of emotion or energy than other vegetation they cared about. (77)
Three pieces of this stand out to me:
- The pressure to maintain a nice lawn was present in the early post-war mass suburbs. It may have been present in earlier suburbs but fewer Americans could access those communities.
- It appears some of this pressure was promulgated by Abraham Levitt, part of the company that founded the community. At the same time, the developers of Ronek Park did less to landscape new homes there and the pressure to have a nice lawn also was present there.
- There are some hints that social class matters here regarding lawns. Was the lawn an essential part of purchasing a single-family home which offered access to the middle class American Dream? Could a poor lawn reduce or invalidate the success of the new suburban homeowner?
It is hard to imagine images of postwar suburban homes, whether in magazines, film, or television shows, without lush green lawns.
SmartAsset released their 2018 rankings for “The Best Cities for Living the American Dream.” Here are the top cities and the factors they used to develop the rankings:
Diversity score. To create this statistic, we looked at the population percentage of different racial and ethnic groups in each city. A lower number represents more diversity. Data comes from the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2016 1-year American Community Survey.
Economic mobility. This metric looks at generational change in economic position for families. A higher number shows greater mobility. Data comes from The Equality of Opportunity Project.
Homeownership rate. This is the percent of households who own their home. Data comes from the Census Bureau’s 2016 1-year American Community Survey.
Home value. This is the median home value in every city. For this study, a lower home value is considered better as we use it as a measure of affordability. Data comes from the Census Bureau’s 1-year American Community Survey.
Unemployment rate. This is the unemployment rate by county. Data comes from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and is for January 2018.
Several quick thoughts:
- The five measures seem to make sense. You could quibble with different aspects, such as measuring the unemployment rate at the county level rather than the city or metropolitan region.
- What would make sense to add to this list of five measures? There is no measure of educational achievement on this list and it might be interesting to consider the foreign-born population in each place (particularly since the foreign-born population is at a high in American history). Do lower taxes matter?
- The list is skewed away from two areas: (a) the East and West coasts and (b) the biggest American cities. I would imagine the coastal cities have difficulty with home values. However, it is less obvious to me why the biggest cities, particularly those in the South and Midwest, do not make the top of these rankings.
- How many Americans would give up where they currently live to move to one of these places that supposedly offers a better chance at finding the American Dream? Some experts suggest Americans should simply go where there are opportunities, whether these are jobs, cheaper housing, or less taxes. Yet, it is not necessarily easy to just pick and go, particularly to places like these that might not be very well known. (And, it could also be the case that a large influx of people to each of these top-ranked locations would influence these places.)
Within a set of observations in Harper’s in 1953 about the new way of life in six mass-produced suburbs, Harry Henderson discusses the financial situation of the new suburbanites:
Three quick thoughts:
- If we still adhered to the guideline of one week’s pay to cover housing, a lot of suburbanites would be in trouble. That rule suggests 20-25% of earnings should be for housing, not 30% which was a more common guideline today. But, with the dearth of affordable housing in many metro areas plus a desire of many suburbanites to be in communities that will help them be successful (i.e. good housing values, high-performing school districts, middle- to upper-class neighbors, a community with a good reputation, etc.).
- The desire to achieve the American Dream of owning a home in the suburbs is a powerful one as these residents of mass suburbia were willing to stretch financially – taking on extra work, living with in-laws – to make it happen. I would guess that this is still the case today.
- The full article is both an interesting snapshot of suburban life at the beginning of mass suburbia as well as an odd read since it treats suburbia as the exotic. Henderson admits at the beginning that the notes are subjective but they both provide some interesting information as well as provide insights into how outsiders viewed these early suburbs.
Critics of the American suburbs have long charged that suburban lives are incomplete, diminished, or not all they are cracked up to be. Yet, Americans keep moving to suburbs and aspiring to live there. I was reminded of this by seeing a quote from Bennett Berger’s 1960 study Working-Class Suburb: A Study of Auto Workers in Suburbia:
The critic waves the prophet’s long and accusing finger and warns: ‘You may think you’re happy, you smug and prosperous striver, but I tell you that the anxieties of status mobility are too much; they impoverish you psychologically, they alienate you from your family’; and so on. And the suburbanite looks at his new house, his new car, his new freezer, his lawn and patio, and, to be sure, his good credit, and scratches his head bewildered.
Why can’t Americans take the hint and stop moving to or living in the suburbs when the problems (an auto-dependent lifestyle, emphasis on private houses, limited community life, use of lots of resources to sustain daily life, etc.) are so clear? There are two possible answers to this question:
- Suburbanites are being duped or pushed by larger forces to live in the suburbs. There is little doubt that the federal government has promoted suburbia over decades. If they truly were free to choose, Americans would pick the dull or anxious life of the suburbs.
- Americans truly do want to live in the suburbs. They like the lifestyle associated with it with the ability to own a house and drive a lot. The American Dream, even if it is just aspirational and not easy to attain, involves moving to the suburbs.
At this point, Americans have been choosing the suburbs (with generous pushes and promotion from various sources) for over a century when they have the means to do so. To reverse this pattern would require a lot of change.
Can comparative data about owning cars and homeownership in the United States help us think about how the two together help define a unique American way of life?
The data across countries suggest Americans are world leaders in owning vehicles and not so high on the list of homeownership. Few countries have more vehicles than us but over forty have higher percentages of homeownership. Yet, put these two features of life together – driving and owning a home – and they create something fairly unique in the United States.
To start, it is not just that Americans have a lot of vehicles: daily life and spaces are structured around these vehicles. For most Americans, getting to the places that are required for daily life – work, food, school, recreation – requires a vehicle. This is seen as normal and we have adapted in unique ways to this including developing fast food and big box stores (both could not exist in the same way unless people have their own vehicles, and often large ones at that, to operate). It does not have to be this way and indeed many other industrialized countries are not as dependent on vehicles for these daily activities.
As for homes, the availability of cars plus a desire to have a private single-family homes means that Americans are pretty spread out. This way of life reaches its apex in the American suburbs, which range from denser communities where driving involves shorter distances to places on the metropolitan edges where significant driving is needed for every major activity. This suburban form already existed to some degree before cars with the help of trains and streetcars. But, the availability of cars to the public in the 1920s really helped boost suburbanization as did subsequent decisions by different bodies of governments and others to promote an automobile-based society.
Critics of this way of life are plentiful even as we are nearing one hundred years of this arrangement. For more than a third of the existence of the United States, the goal of many is to own a vehicle and a home. To change this would require significant adjustments in a variety of areas. Imagine an America with smaller car companies (think of everything from the economic ripples to what commercials would replace auto ads on TV) or fewer fast food restaurants or no new sprawling suburban developments. We can see the resiliency of car and home narrative still: even as fewer than two-thirds of Americans own their dwelling (with more recent drops after the fallout of the housing bubble plus rising housing costs in certain places), it is still the goal of majority of residents (including younger Americans) and is said to be worth aspiring to. When the economy picks up, it seems Americans return to purchasing cars and homes.
Either cars or homeownership separately may not be enough to mark a unique American lifestyle. Put them together and they shape an entire society of over 300 million people.
Joel Kotkin argues that millennials would rather live in suburbs than big cities:
It has been often asserted that millennials (defined as the generation born between 1982 and 2002) do not want to buy homes or live in suburbia; Fast Company, saw this as “an evolution of consciousness.” The Guardian declares that millennials are refusing to accept “the economic status quo” while Wall Street looked forward to profiting from the idea that millennials will be satisfied to live within a “rentership society” (PDF)…
Meanwhile, the much mocked suburbs have continued to dominate population trends, including among millennials. As people age, they tend, economist Jed Kolko notes, to move out of core cities to suburban locations. Although younger millennials have tended toward core cities more than previous generations had, the website FiveThirtyEight notes that as they age they actually move to suburban locations at a still higher clip than those their age have in the past. We have already passed, in the words of USC demographer Dowell Myers, “peak millennial,” and are seeing the birth of a new suburban wave (PDF).
To some extent, the meme about millennials and cities never quite fit reality outside of that observed by journalists in media centers like New York, D.C., and San Francisco. More than 80 percent of 25- to 34-year-olds in major metropolitan areas already live in suburbs and exurbs, according to the latest data—a share that is little changed from 2010 or 2000.
Suburban tastes remain predominant with 4 in 5 people under 45 preferring the single-family detached houses most often in suburban locales (PDF). Surveys such as those from the Conference Board and Neilson consistently find that most millennials see suburbs as the ideal place to live in the long run (PDF). According to a recent National Homebuilders Association report, more than 2 in 3 millennials, including most of those living in cities, would prefer a house in the suburbs.
If these trends continue, the suburbs will live on for quite a while in the United States.
This raises a question that I occasionally think about: what exactly would it take for millennials and other Americans to give up on suburbs? A few possibilities:
- Significantly higher gas prices. Apparently, getting up to $3-4 a gallon was not enough.
- Ecological disasters in the suburbs. Since there isn’t likely something that would affect all suburban areas at once (and not urban or rural areas), perhaps this would involve incidents in a number of major metropolitan areas.
- Another burst housing bubble. If housing it not more attractive in suburbs, this might change a lot of minds.
- All major employers move to big cities. I’m not sure why they would all do this is a significant number of workers are still in the suburbs but perhaps many employers needing educated workers would moving to cities, leaving suburban residents with low-wage, low-skill jobs.
Even with one of these scenarios, it would take significant time to see the suburbs on the whole decline and wealthier pockets would hold on for quite a while. Overturning the association between the American Dream and suburban life will be hard to reverse.
The recent changes to the American tax code signal a shift toward homeownership:
It may be a few years before experts can accurately assess how the new tax reform law will affect each city’s individual housing market, but one thing is clear: For the first time in a century, the federal government has backed away from subsidizing homeownership as a pathway to the “American Dream.”…
“It’s very hard to come up with how this is helpful to housing,” said Jonathan Miller, President and CEO of Miller Samuel Inc., a real estate appraisal and consulting firm “It’s either neutral or negative; there’s no positive, at least that we’re aware of at the moment. All this does is make everything more expensive, at least in high-cost housing markets.”
As a result of the bill, Moody’s Analytics estimates that housing prices will drop about 4 percent nationwide relative to projections in which the law doesn’t exist, and those drops are more pronounced in high-cost housing markets.
A lower sale price is good news, though, right? Not necessarily. Average home prices will drop because of the lowered cap on the MID (from $1 million to $750,000), and a new cap on SALT deductions. These two tax deductions were baked into the price of homes-for-sale, so without them, prices will seem lower. But homeowners and buyers could end up with less mortgage interest to deduct, and a potentially astronomical property tax bill. Previously, there was no cap at all on property tax deductions.
Several things to keep in mind:
- The context – the specific address of the residence – matters a lot for this bill. And, local communities and states can respond uniquely to how the changes affect local homeowners.
- A lot of urbanists have criticized the subsidies from the federal government for single-family homes and suburbanization. Might these tax code changes help encourage more density in certain locales (and these high-price/high-tax locations are also ones where affordable housing is sorely needed)? Of course, since context matters here, some of those who prefer more sprawl could move to cheaper states where the disappearing SALT deductions matter less. But, isn’t this good for limiting Americans deducting mortgage interest?
- Could this help some communities move away from such reliance on property taxes? As one example, some have argued for decades that school funding needs to be more equitable and this is directly tied to property values and taxes: wealthier communities can draw in more tax revenue. (I would argue this is a red herring to as there are bigger issues at work.) Could these federal tax changes encourage more revenue sharing within counties, regions, and states?
Perhaps the best thing to keep in mind is the first sentence of the article quoted above: it could take years to see how this all plays out.