• U.S.

HOUSING: Up from the Potato Fields

18 minute read

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On 1,200 flat acres of potato farmland near Hicksville, Long Island, an army of trucks sped over new-laid roads. Every 100 feet, the trucks stopped and dumped identical bundles of lumber, pipes, bricks, shingles and copper tubing—all as neatly packaged as loaves from a bakery. Near the bundles, giant machines with an endless chain of buckets ate into the earth, taking just 13 minutes to dig a narrow, four-foot trench around a 25-by-32 ft. rectangle. Then came more trucks, loaded with cement, and laid a four-inch foundation for a house in the rectangle.

After the machines came the men. On nearby slabs already dry, they worked in crews of two and three, laying bricks, raising studs, nailing lath, painting, sheathing, shingling. Each crew did its special job, then hurried on to the next site. Under the skilled combination of men & machines, new houses rose faster than Jack ever built them; a new one was finished every 15 minutes.

Three years ago, little potatoes had sprouted from these fields. Now there were 10,600 houses inhabited by more than 40,000 people, a community almost as big as 96-year-old Poughkeepsie, N.Y., Plainfield, N.J., or Chelsea, Mass. Its name: Levittown.

Levittown is known largely for one reason: it epitomizes the revolution which has brought mass production to the housing industry. Its creator, Long Island’s Levitt & Sons, Inc., has become the biggest builder of houses in the U.S.

Super-Selling. The houses in Levittown, which sell for a uniform price of $7,990, cannot be mistaken for castles. Each has a sharp-angled roof and a picture window, radiant heating in the floor, 12-by-16 ft. living room, bath, kitchen, two bedrooms on the first floor, and an “expansion attic” which can be converted into two more bedrooms and bath. The kitchen has a refrigerator, stove and Bendix washer; the living room a fireplace and a built-in Admiral television set.

Levitt & Sons’ President William J. Levitt describes the product simply as “the best house in the U.S.” Coming from Bill Levitt, that exaggeration is natural, and pardonable. At 43, the leader of the U.S. housing revolution is a cocky, rambunctious hustler with brown hair, cow-sad eyes, a hoarse voice (from smoking three packs of cigarettes a day), and a liking for hyperbole that causes him to describe his height (5 ft. 8 in.) as “nearly six feet” and his company as the “General Motors of the housing industry.”

His supreme self-confidence—his competitors call it arrogance—is solidly based on the fact that he is the most potent single modernizing influence in a largely antiquated industry. Last week he added another cubit to his self-esteem and his builder’s stature; in seven days, his salesmen sold another 350 houses in his Levittown “store” (where lumber, piping and other materials used in each house are on display). Said Bill Levitt: “I told them I’d give them an extra week off this summer if they did it. I don’t say these things unless I’m sure it can be done.” With that batch of orders, Bill Levitt raised his 1950 production goal by another 1,500 houses. In his building year ending next March he will have put up about 5,900 houses, 5,500 in Levittown and the rest in another Long Island project.

Ranch v. Cape Cod. The influence of Levitt & Sons on housing goes much further than the thresholds of its own houses. Its methods of mass production are being copied by many of the merchant builders in the U.S., who are putting up four of every five houses built today. It is such mass production on one huge site which is enabling U.S. builders to meet the postwar demand and to create the biggest housing boom in U.S. history.

In the record year of 1949, when 1,025,-100 dwelling units were started, builders thought they had reached their peak by starting about 104,000 units in one month. Yet in May this year, 140,000 units were started—and June was probably even better. This year the U.S. will probably build 1,250,000 units; there is scarcely a city without some big new development. Though some of the houses are ugly and some projects poorly planned, most had one thing in common: the houses are nearly all “ranch houses,” a loose term for any house whose rooms are concentrated on the first floor.

On a 220acre farm near Lexington, Mass., Boston’s Builder Joseph F. Kelly, who in three years has sold about 3,000 Cape Cod houses, is starting work on 400 ranch-type houses to sell for less than $10,000. In Portland, Ore., Builder Franklin T. White is frankly copying many features of Levitt’s ranch-type house, adding some of his own—and selling it at a higher price ($8,500). In Philadelphia, Matthew McCloskey Jr. is at work building 522 Levitt-type houses, though they do not contain all the Levitt equipment.

Outside Los Angeles, on what was once a huge beet farm, Aetna Construction, Inc. and Biltmore Homes, Inc. are building 17,150 one-story houses, all monotonously arranged on a 3,500-acre gridiron, just about eight feet apart. The prices: $7,825 to $9,600.

In Richmond, Calif., Builder Paul Trousdale (TIME, Dec. 2, 1946) has teamed up with ex-Prizefighter Joe Louis and plans to build 4,000 houses for Negroes. In San Francisco, Builder Henry Doelger has put up so many rows of his five-room, white stucco houses (one story above a garage on a 25-ft. lot) that local wags call the southwest corner of the city the “White Cliffs of Doelger.” Just outside Chicago, Builder Nathan Manilow, whose well-planned Park Forest development on a 2,400-acre plot makes a complete city of 3,000 rental houses, is getting ready to build another 2,800 houses to sell for $8,500 to $14,500.

The Great Change. Yet the demand for low-priced houses is still above the supply, notably in cities like Chicago, hampered by antiquated building codes and tight union restrictions. Furthermore, those who had hoped prices would drop are sadly disappointed. The prices of lumber, plumbing and heating equipment, etc. are all on the rise again. Some builders are also beginning to jack up their prices. When they do, many find that it is just as easy to sell their houses as before.

To a man, Bill Levitt and all the other builders know exactly whom to thank for the boom and the steadily expanding market. Said one San Francisco builder last week: “If it weren’t for the Government, the boom would end overnight.”

At war’s end, when the U.S. desperately needed 5,000,000 houses, the nation had two choices: the Federal Government could try to build the houses itself, or it could pave the way for private industry to do the job, by making available billions in credit. The U.S. wisely handed the job to private industry, got 4,000,000 new units built since the war, probably faster and cheaper than could have been done any other way.

The Government has actually spent little cash itself. But by insuring loans up to 95% of the value of a house, the Federal Housing Administration made it easy for a builder to borrow the money with which to build low-cost houses. The Government made it just as easy for the buyer by liberally insuring his mortgage. Under a new housing act signed three months ago, the purchase terms on low-cost houses with Government-guaranteed mortgages were so liberalized that in many cases buying a house is now as easy as renting it. The new terms: 5% down (nothing down for veterans) and 30 years to pay. Thus an ex-G.I. could buy a Levitt house with no down payment and installments of only $56 a month.

The countless new housing projects made possible by this financial easy street are changing the way of life of millions of U.S. citizens, who are realizing for the first time the great American dream of owning their own home. No longer must young married couples plan to start living in an apartment, saving for the distant day when they can buy a house. Now they can do it more easily than they can buy a $2,000 car on the installment plan.

Fountain of Youth. Like its counterparts across the land, Levittown is an entirely new kind of community. Despite its size, it is not incorporated, thus has no mayor, no police force, nor any of the other traditional city officers of its own. It has no movies, no nightclubs and only three bars (all in the community shopping centers).

And Levittown has very few old people. Few of its more than 40,000 residents are past 35; of some 8,000 children, scarcely 900 are more than seven years old. In front of almost every house along Levittown’s 100 miles of winding streets sits a tricycle or a baby carriage. In Levittown, all activity stops from 12 to 2 in the afternoon; that is nap time. Said one Levittowner last week, “Everyone is so young that sometimes it’s hard to remember how to get along with older people.”

The community has an almost antiseptic air. Levittown streets, which have such fanciful names as Satellite, Horizon, Haymaker, are bare and flat as hospital corridors. Like a hospital, Levittown has rules all its own. Fences are not allowed (though here & there a homeowner has broken the rule). The plot of grass around each house must be cut at least once a week; if not, Bill Levitt’s men mow the grass and send the bill. Wash cannot be hung out to dry on an ordinary clothesline; it must be arranged on rotary, removable drying racks and then not on weekends or holidays.

There are perquisites as well as rules. For the young children there are parks and countless playgrounds. For the old folks (the 5-to 35-year-olds) there are baseball diamonds, handball courts, six huge 75-by-125-ft. swimming pools, plus 25-by-75-ft. kiddy pools, shopping centers and 60-odd fraternal clubs and veterans’ organizations.

“The Old Freeze.” Actually, Levittown’s uniformity is more apparent than real. Though most of their incomes are about the same (average: about $3,800), Levittowners come from all classes, all walks of life. Eighty percent of the men commute to their jobs in Manhattan, many sharing their transportation costs through car pools. Their jobs, as in any other big community, range from baking to banking, from teaching to preaching.

Levittown has also developed its own unique way of keeping up with the Joneses. Some Levittowners buy a new house every year, as soon as the new model is on the market.

Levittowners’ isolation is more real than apparent. Said one housewife last week: “It’s not a community that thinks much about what’s going on outside.” The members of Long Island’s horsy set, who have watched aghast as the Levitt houses have marched toward their sacrosanct land of polo, privet and croquet, also tend to think of Levittowners as a class apart. One elderly dowager regularly takes her friends through Levittown in her chauffeur-driven limousine to show “what Levitt has done for the poor people.” Levittown housewives encounter even more galling snobbery. Says one: “Whenever I tell people outside where I live I get the same old freeze. Some of them think that everyone who lives in Levittown is on relief. But the only people who criticize the place are the ones who don’t live here.”

Future Slums? The most frequent criticism of Levittown, and of other projects like it, is that it is the “slum of the future.” Says Bill Levitt: “Nonsense.” Many city planners agree with him, because they approve of Levittown’s uncluttered plan and its plentiful recreational facilities. Nevertheless, in helping to solve the housing problem, Levittown has created other problems: new schools, hospitals, and sewage facilities will soon be needed; its transportation is woefully inadequate, even by Long Island standards.

But most Levittowners think the disadvantages are far outweighed by the advantages. Said ex-G.I. Wilbur Schaetzl, who lived with his wife and a relative in a one-room apartment before he moved to Levittown: “That was so awful I’d rather not talk about it. Getting into this house was like being emancipated.” Bill Levitt puts it in his own brash way: “In Levittown 99% of the people pray for us.”

The Money Itch. William Jaird Levitt never planned to be a builder; he just drifted into it. Born in Brooklyn in 1907, he grew up in an argumentative family, and in that atmosphere his self-confidence waxed mightily. His father, Abraham, was a lawyer who used to spend summer nights lecturing to Bill and his younger brother Alfred on everything from art to the Dodgers. Bill, the family extravert, liked the baseball lectures; Alfred, shy and retiring, preferred those on art.

Bill cared little for school or books, quit New York University after his third year because “I got itchy. I wanted to make a lot of money. I wanted a big car and a lot of clothes.” In those years his favorite phrase was: “The masses are asses.” After Bill had tried his hand at several jobs, he and his father decided to build a house on a piece of Long Island property which they hadn’t been able to sell. Alfred quit New York University—after telling the dean that the place couldn’t teach him anything more—and drew plans for a Tudor-style house. Says father Abe: “Alfred loved to draw, but he didn’t know what a two-by-four was.” Nevertheless, they sold that first house at a profit—and the Levitts were in the building business for good.

With Alfred designing and Bill handling the selling and organizing, they sold 600 houses in the next four years. Describing the team, Abe likes to say: “Bill wouldn’t be a success without Alfred and Alfred wouldn’t be one without Bill. Together they’re terrific.” But it was Bill who furnished the drive and salesmanship. In 1934, the Levitts built “Strathmore-at-Manhasset,” Long Island, their first development: 200 houses, priced from $9,100 to $18,500. In the next seven years, they built about 2,000 more houses.

Norfolk Fiasco. Not till the war came did they try their hand at mass production. Near Norfolk, Va. they laid long, roadlike strips of concrete for foundations, then erected walls and roofs over them to form 1,600 squat houses that were little more than shacks. The development was a flop and about 230 of the units are now empty. More successful were 757 houses the Levitts built in Norfolk for the Navy. This success convinced them that low-priced houses could be profitably mass-produced. But the idea was temporarily shelved in 1943, when Bill Levitt joined the Seabees as a lieutenant (j.g.).

When he left the service in 1945, says he, “the dice -were loaded. We had known all along we could mass-produce houses if there was a market for them and credit for builders. Now the market was there and the Government was ready with the backing. How could we lose?”

Levitt & Sons built about 1,000 houses in 1946 while quietly picking up property for their Levittown project. Before the war, the land cost only $300 an acre; now it has soared to $3,600. “The potato farmers,” says Bill Levitt, “got rich off of us.”

The 26 Steps. There is no secret to mass-producing houses, says Bill Levitt. It is merely “size plus organization.” But Bill and Alfred Levitt worked out a new kind of organization for housebuilders.

They broke down the building of a house into 26 operations, and hired 80 subcontractors to do the building. They kept their own staff comparatively small (400). Since the builders were doing the same job over & over again, they soon developed amazing speed. To speed things up further, the Levitts gave production bonuses and instituted a company-paid pension plan for their employees.

In the building industry, shot through with featherbedding union practices, they had another advantage: neither the subcontractors nor Levitt’s organization is unionized and there has been no great pressure from unions. Legend has it that once, when unionists were picketing Levittown, one of the pickets left the line to look at a house. He got so interested he ended by buying one. Says Bill Levitt: “I’m not against unions. I just think we can build houses faster without them.”

Shortage into Plenty. Levitt builds them faster by using paint sprayers and many other labor-saving gadgets banned by the building unions. He prefabricates many of his materials. At his central warehouse, all the lumber needed in a house is precut to size, plumbing fixtures are assembled, staircases are prefabricated; thus only 20% of the construction work need be skilled labor.

When lumber was scarce, Bill Levitt had plenty; he had bought Western timberlands and a mill to supply him. When nails were short, he set up his own nail-making plant, made enough to sell to outsiders. When Congress lifted a veterans’ priority clause, Levitt announced that vets would still come first at Levittown, thus had a potent lobby to work for him whenever he ran up against local building restrictions or Washington bureaucrats.

But his greatest coup was forcing manufacturers to sell to him direct, a practice traditionally frowned on by them. By browbeating, cajoling and threatening to take his business elsewhere, Bill Levitt now buys even his television sets from the manufacturer, pays no middleman’s fees. By his special building and buying methods, he saves $1,000 a house.

Although he has a reputation as a know-it-all, he is quick to pick up good ideas. When a prospective buyer complained that he could get a four-burner stove that would take up no more room than the three-burner ones in Levittown houses, Levitt said: “You get it and I’ll buy it.” The buyer did, and Levitt canceled an order for 1,000 of the old stoves and paid $4.50 more apiece for the new ones.

Despite his own success, Bill Levitt is no foe of public housing; he thinks it is still needed. And he thinks the “dog-in-the-manger” attitude of building associations against it is “stupid.” Says Levitt: “Some public housing is necessary for the lowest income brackets. Private industry can’t build profitably for them.”

The Levitts’ own building has been hugely profitable. As president and co-owner (50%) of the $10.5 million Levitt & Sons, Inc., Bill pays himself $125,000 a year; Architect Alfred, who owns the other 50%, draws the same. Father Abe, who now spends his time landscaping, is paid $60,000 for being what some Levittowners call “vice president in charge of grass seed.” From outside interests (e.g., the California timber stands and two country clubs which are operated in connection with the Levitts’ more expensive Strathmore developments) the brothers get another $150,000 a year apiece. And when they sold 4,028 of Levittown’s rental houses (leaving them only 1,600 rental units) to Philadelphia’s Junto School (TIME, March 13) for $5,150,000, a big chunk of it was clear profit, taxable at 25% as a long-term capital gain.

How much the Levitts make on each house is a closely guarded secret. Most guesses put the net at more than $1,000 a house, or better than $5,500,000 on this year’s Levittown houses. Says Bill: “I don’t like to be associated with anything that doesn’t make money.”

Strangely enough, the biggest house builder in the U.S. has built no house for himself. In winter he lives with his pretty wife Rhoda and their two sons, Bill Jr., 17, and Jimmy, 5, in a twelve-room Fifth Avenue apartment, which he rents for $4,900 a year. Summers they spend at Great Neck, L.I., in an English Tudor mansion (which Levitt rents for $7,500 a season) which has both a swimming pool and a private bathing beach on Long Island Sound. On summer weekends Bill sometimes plays golf (low 90s) with wife Rhoda (low 80s) but is not disturbed by his constant defeats. Says he: “I hate all forms of exercise.” He has little interest in anything not connected with building, seldom reads anything but the newspapers and magazines. To visitors in his office Bill Levitt likes to hand out copies of his favorite book, Elbert Hubbard’s Message to Garcia.

How Long? By 1951 Levitt & Sons expect to build another 10,000 Levittown houses. But whether the Levitts, or all of the other builders, will build as many houses as they plan depends on how long the housing shortage—and the housing boom—lasts. Last week the Department of Commerce estimated that about two-thirds of the pent-up housing demand has already been filled. However, said the department, the “remaining backlog is still large and appears sufficient to warrant construction close to the recent yearly rates for [another] three years.”

That seemed a conservative prediction, if the big builders like Levitt could keep on thinking up new mass-production tricks, and small merchant builders could adapt more of them to their operations, thus broadening the market for small, cheap houses. By stabilizing the construction industry, builders could offer more permanent work to labor, and thus eliminate the cause of the featherbedding that now adds so much to building costs. And as efficiency increased, the mass builders might also find that they could economically supply some of the individuality that their houses now lack.

Bill Levitt himself has few fears for the house-building future. He thinks that the U.S. will build 1,000,000 houses a year for the next few years; then the rate will drop to 500,000 or 600,000 a year. Says he: “That’s a big drop from what we’re doing now, but it’s still good business.”

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