By: Keegan Wagner
In March 2020,
It has become increasingly obvious that there is something fundamentally wrong with the way cities approach housing, and to fully grasp this idea, one must first understand how this came to be.
A few years after Japan surrendered during World War II, American forces were brought home, initiating demand for more housing. Bill Levitt, an American real-estate developer and housing pioneer, saw this demand and came up with an idea that would lay the groundwork for several decades of urban planning.
On Oct. 1, 1947, the first official suburb opened with 300 homes in Levittown, NY. The goal was to mass produce affordable housing for the returning troops by alternating between just a few different blueprints, and using the cheapest materials on the market. Not long after, Levittowns started popping up in other states, and city planners were quick to copy the design.
This new movement, along with the rise of the automobile, created the perfect storm, leaving many unforeseen consequences to follow. One of which was the phenomenon of ‘white flight’, where wealthier white residents would move out of the city and further into the suburbs to avoid the gritty, crime-ridden streets of downtown. Not only did this increase demand for more suburbs, but it left cities in economic decay.
By the year 2000, California’s population had tripled since 1950, and they soon realized a problem.
Due to the vast amount of low-density zoning, cities were running out of space and couldn’t build any more homes. Housing prices began to increase dramatically and people were forced to live on the streets. Today, the average Californian home can go anywhere from $775,000 to $1.5 million.
Attempts by municipal governments to rezone land to allow for higher density construction have failed due to heavy amounts of red tape and the rise of NIMBY (Not in My Backyard) protesters. These are “anti-gentrification” activist groups who seek to prevent any further development with the goal of preserving local culture and demographic majorities.
Further attempts to subsidize the construction of affordable housing units have also failed, as contractors will often work with corrupt politicians to drive up prices and pocket the extra money.
Los Angeles City Council’s Urban Planning department originally replied to an interview request; however, after discussing interview topics, they chose not to respond. This is not uncommon, as the city government has a reputation for ignoring prevalent issues: the creation of Skid Row, an economically segregated neighborhood of homeless citizens in downtown L.A., is a prevalent example of this behavior.
If the problem is left unattended, California will soon become one of many states with high homelessness rates and inflated housing prices. It has already begun to take shape right here in Maryland, with Howard County being the 2nd richest, and, therefore, one of the most expensive counties in the United States, despite the relatively low population.
Ideas to stop this problem from developing further are few and far between, but city governments must be open to the idea of citizens taking the problem into their own hands. Take Elvis Summers for example, a man who voluntarily built temporary mobile housing units for homeless people. The idea was an incredible success and he had built over 35, with the goal to make many more, until the L.A. Sanitation department seized and destroyed all but a few. Cities must also prioritize high density development over preserving every instance of cultural diversity if they hope to prevent unattainable economic thresholds in the housing category.
All things considered, the issue will eventually stop itself when the market reaches a maximum saturation point, and the prices will plummet. Ideally, cities would nurture their communities instead of allowing nature to take its course, but expecting something of that standard from the government may be wishful thinking.