In 1929, the stock market crash set into motion a series of economic crises known as the Great Depression. Bank closures, skyrocketing inflation, sweeping unemployment, and mortgage foreclosures left millions desperate, hungry, and homeless. Vast segments of the American population were unable to make mortgage payments (let alone purchase groceries) and sought shelter wherever and however they could—in barns, train cars, chicken coops, packing crates, and grain silos.
Many found it difficult to comprehend the magnitude of the problem. The nation's leaders, on a quest to stabilize the economy during hard times and to ensure the future of the country, sought to remedy the country's housing needs. They often disagreed on the best way to achieve this goal, but all agreed that decent, affordable housing and better access to homeownership would provide the foundation for a stable society. Through his New Deal programs, President Franklin D. Roosevelt created a number of government agencies aimed at helping citizens find employment, easing the strain of inflation, and assisting property holders and prospective homebuyers in obtaining manageable loans. Though the New Deal did not end the Great Depression and did not alleviate unemployment or homelessness, Roosevelt's administration did set a significant precedent for the future of real estate development, and—perhaps more importantly—made the "American Dream" of homeownership accessible to many more average citizens than ever before.
After World War II, the American economic landscape changed dramatically. Manufacturing and employment demands created by war mobilization transformed the Depression into an economic boom. With rising birthrates and falling unemployment during the war, the average American family grew along with its coffers. By 1945, the nation had recovered from the Great Depression and millions of Americans—upper-, middle-, and working-class—were in a position, at last, to purchase two items that seemed crucial for achieving the "American Dream": a car and a home. While automakers furnished plenty of new vehicles to satisfy the desires of postwar Americans, the demand for housing in the mid-1940s greatly outstripped the supply. With the economic boom created by wartime manufacturing, the federal government and American entrepreneurs were in a position (and under pressure) to meet that tremendous demand; and they did so rapidly and efficiently, though not always equitably.
Perhaps the most successful—and most iconic—of all those involved in the development of postwar housing was the Levitt & Sons enterprise. In the late 1940s, Abraham Levitt and his two sons bought 4,000 acres of farmland, built the largest tract of private houses the nation had ever seen, and changed the American landscape forever. Levittown in Long Island, New York, became a model of suburban building in both form and function. With staggering speed and efficiency, the Levitts produced affordable homes that not only helped grow the nation's housing supply, but also satisfied the American masses who sought both comfort and style, practicality and luxury.
Many followed the Levitts's lead and began fabricating and selling entire plots of single-family homes outside the borders of cities—often in agricultural regions. These "suburbs," sprinkled throughout the country, would have been undesirable to the average American consumer without efficient highways and byways connecting them to places of employment and commerce. The creation of a Federal Highway System allowed for easy travel between urban centers and suburban neighborhoods, and made it possible to separate economic growth from residential sprawl. The federal and state governments financed the building and maintenance of roads, automobile industry produced and sold the cars, and Americans learned to appreciate the convenience afforded by both.
But homeownership, luxury, and convenience were not available to all Americans. Many of the government agencies established before World War II, including the Homeowners Loan Corporation (HOLC) and the Federal Housing Administration (FHA), practiced race and ethnic discrimination. By devaluing homes and neighborhoods inhabited by ethnic and racial minorities, particularly African-Americans, Mexican-Americans, and Italian-Americans, these agencies made it more difficult--and sometimes impossible—for many people to obtain the same types of manageable home loans offered to others. In this way, federal housing policies justified the segregation of neighborhoods by color and kept many from owning property. Thus, federal housing policies also decreased minorities' chances of earning greater social and economic status. Inequity in homeownership opportunities and loan distribution would ultimately contribute to racial and class tensions that marked the late twentieth century and are still prevalent in American society today.
So, while the story of the rise of the suburbs and the growth of the interstate highway system is for many a tale of the achievement of the "American Dream," for many more it is a story of exclusion and isolation.