Forthcoming Book: American Nightmare

The American dream of families owning their own homes has become a victim of class warfare, with the middle class attempting to suppress homeownership among the working class and other people they view as undesirable neighbors. That, at least, is one of the major themes of American Nightmare: How Government Undermines the Dream of Home Ownership, which the Cato Institute will publish next May.

The Antiplanner’s work on this book is the major reason why I haven’t posted as regularly this year as in previous years. I began research for the book in January, started writing in July, and submitted the final manuscript to Cato on November 4. Though this was my third book since starting this blog, it was the most time-consuming because it required so much new research and analyses.

A large part of the book deals with the role of housing in the recent financial crisis. Other parts look at tax-increment financing and other issues that I’ve covered in this blog or other papers. But the topic of middle-class vs. working-class housing is fairly new. For the purpose of this book, I define “middle class” as people with jobs that pay a salary and usually require college educations while “working class” refers to people with jobs that pay wages and depend on physical labor or repetitive activities.

Homeownership was originally not an American dream but an immigrant dream. In the late nineteenth century, homeownership rates among the urban middle-class (who were nearly all native-born Americans) were very low, probably less than 10 percent. Homeownership rates among the urban working-class (many of whom were immigrants) were much higher, probably at least 25 percent.

Working-class families saw a home as a potential source of income, whether by taking in boarders, growing livestock and vegetables in the yard, or taking in sewing, laundry, or other home businesses. Middle-class families saw homes as merely a place to live, and in the absence of land-use regulation, they had little incentive to buy a home because they feared their neighbors might be a factory, store, or–shudder–a working-class family and their boarders and associated businesses.

Revelations about the sad living conditions of the poorest of working-class families, particularly in New York City, led responsible members of the middle-class to ask two questions: First, how could they improve living conditions for the poor? And second, how could they make sure the poor don’t move in to middle-class neighborhoods? Not surprisingly, the second question was answered first.

Initially, protective covenants in some developments required that houses be built to certain standards that made their cost prohibitive to the working class. Later, the “benefits” of such standards were extended across entire cities through zoning codes, which being written by the middle class often included restrictions on boarders, backyard livestock, and in-home businesses. As a result, middle-class homeownership rose dramatically between 1900 and 1930, but working-class homeownership probably declined, at least through 1920.

After World War II, rising working-class incomes leveled the playing field. By the mid-1960s, working-class incomes were a little less than middle-class incomes, but working-class families often lived in similar homes, drove similar cars, and had many of the same amenities such as televisions, phones, and indoor plumbing. But that didn’t make everyone middle class: working-class people had and have distinctive tastes. As sociologist Bennett Berger wrote in 1969, “it is a great mistake to equate an income which permits most of the basic amenities of what the middle class calls ‘decency’ with becoming middle class.”

Not coincidentally, the War on Sprawl began about this time. This is a step some readers will find hard to accept, but American Nightmare interprets the war on sprawl as a continuation of the middle class’s war on working-class homeownership. As Berger presciently noted in 1960, “Status groups respond to the clamor by money for prestige by tightening their entrance requirements.” They do so by “designating such economic possessions ‘vulgar’ and asserting the indispensability of a particular style of life—that is, something that cannot be immediately purchased with no down payment.”

By using urban-growth boundaries and other policies to make housing more expensive, the middle class could once again make homeownership an exclusive status symbol. Of course, they didn’t think of it this way; they liked to believe they were protecting the environment. Yet there was and is a strong underlying belief that only educated people like themselves could appreciate the advantages of suburban living, while less-educated people should be penned up in dense cities lest they drive noisy cars in suburban neighborhoods or off-road vehicles in nearby rural areas.

The War on Sprawl is, above all, an aesthetic war. It isn’t about land, which is superabundant in this country; nor is it about driving, the environmental effects of which can be reduced through improved technology to near-negligible levels. Instead, it is about supposedly ugly strip developments and so-called ticky-tacky homes, problems that can theoretically be prevented with land-use planning and architectural design codes that make housing so expensive that only people with salaried jobs can afford to buy homes.

American Nightmare tracks all of this history in detail, beginning before the American Revolution and continuing up to the 2008 financial crisis. The book is 92,000 words long, which makes it a bit longer than Gridlock‘s 82,000 words but not as long as Best-Laid Plan‘s 114,000. The book can be pre-ordered from various on-line dealers, and of course the Antiplanner will announce when it is published.

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18 thoughts on “Forthcoming Book: American Nightmare

  1. Dan

    Revelations about the sad living conditions of the poorest of working-class families, particularly in New York City, led responsible members of the middle-class to ask two questions: First, how could they improve living conditions for the poor? And second, how could they make sure the poor don’t move in to middle-class neighborhoods?

    I would say the people asking the second question were most likely some of the husbands of some the women running the temperance movement at that time – it would be nice to improve the lot living in the slums, surely. Just as long as they didn’t improve too much to take away from me!

    DS

  2. LazyReader

    It’s nothing new, when the first prototypical suburbs we’re created, “the streetcar suburbs” the wealthy tried to separate themselves from this newly emerging middle class. In Australia, it is claimed by some that housing affordability has hit “crisis levels” due to “urban consolidation” policies implemented by state governments. In parts of Australia price to income ratios for housing are as high as 9 to 1. I’m glad he brought up the aesthetic concept as well. Yes we do have some hideous strip developments but they are cheap to allow emerging entrepreneurs the means to start up small business that they otherwise couldn’t afford elsewhere. Just like the High-speed rail exists as a form of class warfare against the seemingly evil, polluting auto drivers. But suburban neighborhoods in the post-war years now exist for middle class and lower class individuals, including non-whites never mind the tendency that efforts to combat sprawl often result in subsidizing development in wealthier and whiter neighborhoods while condemning and demolishing poorer minority neighborhoods that some in the social circle deemed unattractive. Aesthetic appearance is an important part of sprawl’s negative image. There’s probably loads of research out there backing up the importance of aesthetics to communities. Besides any research, though, beautiful things or places are awesome; They bring tremendous joy to people. And just a little extra time spent to minute details such as not having one too many billboards and neon signs. Suburban neighborhoods are often filled with the vibrant sense of community the New Urbanists say is lacking. There’s nothing wrong with preferring to spend time in a private backyard rather than in the commons area New Urbanists want us to spend time in. If the issue is aesthetic, hire a better architect or do what this McDonald’s did….

    http://www.roadsideamerica.com/tip/959

  3. Dan

    To expand on LR’s point, the rich have always separated themselves from the riffraff – in small walled towns from antiquity the rich were always higher in elevation. It is nothing new as LR states. The rise of wealth for standing armies, leisure time, the Enlightenment, and the Industrial Revolution allowed us to worry less about attack from without and develop machines for labor and transport. Then the rich could disperse.

    DS

  4. Jardinero1

    In much of latin America urban development patterns are the reverse of the pattern in the US. The elite and/or the rich choose to live in the urban core in walled and gated homes or better still in highrises and the poor are forced to squat on the periphery. As the core inches outward, squatters are ejected and their tenements raised for new walled homes or high rises.

  5. Sandy Teal

    A few paradoxes:

    1. In the sunbelt, “sprawl” is the development that happens AFTER your house in a brand new development is completed.

    2. Most “aesthetic” preferences in houses are just proxies for higher costs, and thus higher income residents, which raises property values.

    3. The same large house is considered a beautiful landmark if it is in the expensive property urban core, but derided as a “McMansion” if it is built on the inexpensive property suburbs.

    4. Brownstone houses that look exactly alike are considered very beautiful in the inner city, but houses that look alike in the suburbs are derided as unaesthetic.

    You could write a whole book about this stuff.

  6. Dan

    Stapleton has about 5-6 separate designs of row houses. I ride my bike past them about once a month. The townhouses down the street not only have maybe R-7 insulation in the walls, but have less thought and care in the design. Same with single-fam.

    DS

  7. the highwayman

    Sandy Teal said:
    A few paradoxes:

    1. In the sunbelt, “sprawl” is the development that happens AFTER your house in a brand new development is completed.

    2. Most “aesthetic” preferences in houses are just proxies for higher costs, and thus higher income residents, which raises property values.

    3. The same large house is considered a beautiful landmark if it is in the expensive property urban core, but derided as a “McMansion” if it is built on the inexpensive property suburbs.

    4. Brownstone houses that look exactly alike are considered very beautiful in the inner city, but houses that look alike in the suburbs are derided as unaesthetic.

    You could write a whole book about this stuff.

    THWM: Though that has more to do with context.

    If you put 4 inch whitewall tires on a Lamborghini Gallardo, it would kind of look out of place too.

  8. C. P. Zilliacus

    The Antiplanner wrote:

    The War on Sprawl is, above all, an aesthetic war. It isn’t about land, which is superabundant in this country; nor is it about driving, the environmental effects of which can be reduced through improved technology to near-negligible levels. Instead, it is about supposedly ugly strip developments and so-called ticky-tacky homes, problems that can theoretically be prevented with land-use planning and architectural design codes that make housing so expensive that only people with salaried jobs can afford to buy homes.

    I strongly agree with the above.

    But the very same type of objection to single-family detached homes and land use patterns is also to be found in objection to new highways like Maryland’s Route 200 (ICC).

  9. sprawl

    I grew up in a sprawling neighborhood and later bought a house close in to downtown. I loved the houses that were built in the 1920’s. Great style and great construction. But I hated the tiny lots, small garages, lack of connection with my neighbors and all the on street parking, because of the shortage of off street parking. And you could not leave anything unlocked, unintended or you would lose it.

    I got married and moved back to my childhood home (after 6 years) in a area that was full of track homes and pretty much the same neighbors that were there when I left. I’m sure the houses would be described lacking design and ugly ranch houses. Most of my neighbors were the first time owners of the houses and many of them lived there until they died many years later. Maybe because a ranch house is easy to work on yourself, because they are only one story. Many of my neighbors were still painting their own houses in their 70’s and older.

    I get so tired of planners telling us what we should like or not. Everyone has different tastes, needs and budgets, we need to allow them to choose what they are and not allow the planners to decide for us, they don’t know what we want.

    Now the same neighborhood is losing it’s appeal because of all the density mandates, infill, apartments and crime that is increasing because of the population density. Thanks to the planners.

    Oh! And the light rail line that is nearby that is intensifying the density mandates!

  10. C. P. Zilliacus

    sprawl wrote:

    Oh! And the light rail line that is nearby that is intensifying the density mandates!

    You can pass this news flash along to the people promoting density around rail stations:

    Densities do not take mass transit.

  11. the highwayman

    Sprawl said; I get so tired of planners telling us what we should like or not. Everyone has different tastes, needs and budgets, we need to allow them to choose what they are and not allow the planners to decide for us, they don’t know what we want.

    THWM: Though you & O’Toole don’t mind telling other people how to live their lives.

  12. Dan

    Densities do not take mass transit.

    You should publish this finding. It would be of interest to several professions, the researchers for which have found somewhat different conditions on the ground. They should have their assumptions checked by a new paper!

    DS

  13. LazyReader

    Ranch style houses need not be ugly. Many of the ones your thinking of we’re built in the post-war years to accommodate the returning G.I.’s and the Baby Boomers but some were rather attractive. Combined with the fact of being one-story made the well built ones very resistant to storms and Hurricanes and Tornadoes with minimal damage as opposed to the much bigger 2 story houses that often suffer catastrophic damage. The simple open floor plan makes them perfect for disabled people, an their simplicity allows for ease of maintenance and near infinite ways of refurbishing. Now a new entry level market involves refurbishing these houses. The television series “King of the Hill” exemplified the ranch house as less hicktown than one would believe. Garage’s don’t dominate the front of the house as they do with today’s homes. An entire host of builders is modifying these houses refitting them for the 21st century by adding decorative elements that fit with architectural themes particularly Western states that aren’t absurd or silly. Just like the Shotgun houses built in the South; some of them allowed for mass production of cheap but beautiful architectural decorations for the outdoors.

    http://www.thisoldhouse.com/toh/tv/house-project/overview/0,,198695,00.html

  14. sprawl

    I don’t see ranch homes as ugly, but I often go to meetings and am told by planners that they are. I’m often told how the burbs are not people friendly and go away scratching my head wondering why they are oppose to choice and more options to live in. Especially sense they choose the ranch houses in the burbs. And as I described above, live there for decades.

    The only way a 1, 2 or 3 car garage can dominate, is when you build it on a tiny lot.

    I use to manage some 4 plex’s and the one car garage was rarely was used for a car. Most people need the garage for storage of boats, stuff, bikes and toys and a 2nd garage maybe for a car.

  15. Dan

    I’m often told how the burbs are not people friendly and go away scratching my head wondering why they are oppose [sic] to choice and more options to live in.

    They’re not, and they’re not.

    Ranch style houses need not be ugly.

    Agreed. Many are, though. There are places that have many decent-looking ranch homes.

    DS

  16. the highwayman

    CPZ wrote; The very same type of objection to single-family detached homes and land use patterns is also to be found in objection to new highways like Maryland’s Route 200 (ICC).

    THWM: Those are different things, also the objection to the ICC is over money that should have been spent existing roads, even the tolls on the ICC are only going cover 20% of the ICC’s expenses.

  17. T. Caine

    Interesting thesis, Randal. I look forward to perusing through a copy. I’m curious to see what combination of facets of home ownership you chose to include and assess. There are a couple of points in particular that I am wondering how they would integrate into your analysis:

    You’ve certainly done more research on this than I have, but I have to believe that part of this evolution is not wealthier people trying to keep the poor out, but the American notion that the acquisition of square footage is a reflection of success and social standing. This hollow, superficial assumption leads to the cyclical “bigger-is-better” mentality that caused the average size home in America to continue to grow up to its height around 2008 (I believe it was +/-2,500 square feet). Costs of buying or building a home rose because the size of homes rose in needless ways, being filled with spaces that are either part of an antiquated living model that we no longer use or include extra spaces tacked on for the sake of having more area to call your own. Building smaller, more efficient homes would lead to more people being able to afford them.

    I see in the title “How government undermines…” but I would think that in at least some ways the government has been a proponent of homeownership to a fault. There is plenty of data showing that the rise in ultimately uncreditworthy mortgages from Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were the result of rising government quotas for loans so that more people were placed in houses (even if they had no way to support such a lifestyle or the means to justify it). The government’s eagerness in trying to promote the dated notion of the American Dream is exactly part of the problem (or at least what lead up to our current dilemma).

    “The War on Sprawl is, above all, an aesthetic war. It isn’t about land, which is superabundant in this country; nor is it about driving, the environmental effects of which can be reduced through improved technology to near-negligible levels.”

    I don’t think so. Any aesthetic issue can always be addressed (for as much as aesthetics can ever be “solved” given it is a subjective designation). The war on sprawl is about efficiency. Suburbs are inefficient. You and I read the same DOE Building Energy Data Book and we see the same numbers. A single family detached home will use 44% more energy per occupant than their multifamily counterparts and they account for 80% of our country’s residential energy use. This doesn’t even touch on the energy it takes to go anywhere or complete the simplest of tasks outside of the home… or the amount of infrastructure that it takes to connect these homes to the grid. When it comes to per-mile-per-capita, we most likely spend the most on portions of the grid that serve the fewest amount of people in the least efficient way.

    Does all that mean suburbs are the enemy? I’m not going as far to say that, but our suburban model is outdated and needs to evolve. As an architect, I would say that too much of suburban homes and their development patterns resemble exactly what they were 50 years ago. Their quality of construction continually decreases in attempts to sell more of them, which only means they don’t last as long and cost more to maintain. Homes should be smaller and suited to fit modern needs of how we live. Their envelopes should be well sealed and highly insulated (R-40 walls) so that they are easily tempered. The means of heating and cooling should migrate away from furnaces and condensing units towards solar thermal or, better yet, geothermal heating and cooling. Those things alone would slash the energy (and associated cost) of a home. Heating, cooling and hot water make up 72% of the average home’s energy consumption according to the DOE.

    Just some food for thought. Let me know when the book hits the racks.

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