Can Innovations Save Us?

My last post dwelt, a bit gloomily, on the decline in the U.S. middle class compared to other countries around the world. But the U.S. has always pulled itself up by innovations, and people continue to come up with good ideas. While many of these ideas have a whiz-bang new technology approach (the internet of things, 3-D printing for self-manufacturing), some are just good common sense.

One of the great advances that fueled the middle-class boom in the U.S. in the 1950s and 1960s was the development of mass-produced housing tracts in the suburbs to provide affordable, quality, middle-class housing for the masses. From Levittown in Pennsylvania, the trend spread across the nation, giving Americans indoor plumbing, well heated homes, and an alternative to tenement flats.

Today, however, accessible affordable housing seems like a dream to many. Even in 2013, the number of families on food stamps and who are homeless continues to increase. Meanwhile, the trend in American home-building during the boom of the 1980s and 1990s was to build ever bigger homes, and to demolish low-cost public housing (which had become rundown and crime-ridden) and to gentrify decayed inner-city regions. While this process greatly increased the quality of housing and the value of urban real-estate, it also pushed up the cost of that housing, making it harder for those who are out of work or low-income to find places to live. And for those who lost their homes during the great real estate collapse of 2007-2011, the loss of homes did not mean a great increase in affordable housing — those devalued homes were snapped up by speculators who have repurposed them as rental properties, at steadily rising prices.

So what can be done to restore housing options that are cheap and accessible for low-income Americans? Emily Maynard has submitted this post with ideas for low-cost “mini-homes” made of cheap, environmentally friendly materials. These would be alternatives to the trailer-parks of manufactured homes going up across America today.   With community gardens, solar heating and cooling (which is rapidly becoming more affordable) and recycled materials, communities of min-homes could become attractive alternatives to the McMansion mentality and restore the Levittown ideal of close-nit communities with both space and privacy.

Of course, it is vital that these developments be privately owned and economically feasible; with homes attractive enough that they will appreciate in value over time.  Creating more “dumping grounds” for the poor in substandard housing will only recreate the disasters of urban public housing and tenement slums that we want to avoid.   Still, the creative use of new materials, eco-efficient designs, and available space (think of all the now unused space in places like Detroit or Cleveland waiting to be restored to attractive use) could help revive our cities.

Check out Maynard’s infographic for more details.  Whether or not you agree, it’s important to start rethinking how we build our societies to cope with a challenging future.  Keeping after the goals of the 1980s and 1990s won’t work anymore; we need fresh approaches taking advantage of what we know now to do better for our society.

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About jackgoldstone

Hazel Professor of Public Policy at George Mason University
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2 Responses to Can Innovations Save Us?

  1. John Plant says:

    Sweat-equity, one of the founding concepts behind the charity “Habitat for Humanity.” Is an idea that could complement a revived Levittown concept. Down-payments for those with limited resources could be reduced by enabling those who are physically able to apply their labor as part of their down-payment for more effective low cost housing. Habitat has been hugely successful globally with this concept, and the effort expended leads greater personal ownership by participating individuals, not to mention better maintained properties. The details of a government supported variant would be difficult, but certainly not impossible,

  2. maronchese says:

    Dear Jack, you are the Master of “understatement”.
    In this article you hit the nail on the head and teach the developers the most important basics of good land utilization.
    My prayer is that your words and wisdom will finally reach the ears of an industry that has consistently got the real needs of the market completely wrong for the last century.
    The thing I loved most about Texas is the family home (homestead) approach to the law.
    Unfortunately greed and crooked dealing by the powerful lenders messed up the law with continuing fallout to the unfortunate consumers.

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