Little boxes on the hillside, little boxes made of ticky tacky, little boxes on the hillside, little boxes all the same. There’s a green one and a pink one and a blue one and a yellow one, and they’re all made out of ticky tacky, and they all look just the same.
This song, written by folk singer-songwriter and political activist Malvina Reynolds in 1962, was a political satire about the development of suburbia and, from her and many other’s perspective, the associated conformist middle-class attitudes, the ticky-tacky referring to the often shoddy — dull and unimaginative, and frequently inferior — materials used in the design and construction of tract houses.
Her daughter Nancy, and by the way a member of the Unitarian congregation I later attended in Berkeley, California, recalls that Malvina came up with the song when she and her husband were driving South from San Francisco to a legislative meeting of the American Friends Service Committee. She made him pull over and take the wheel while she scribbled the draft.
When a national weekly magazine later on wanted a photo of her pointing to the very place she had glimpsed from the car, she could not find those houses because by that time so many more had been built around them that the hillside was totally covered.
The song became a hit for Malvina’s friend Pete Seeger — in fact many of us associate it completely with him — and its cultural impact was nothing short of astounding. It was reported a couple of years later in an article in Time that upon its popular release, a university professor who heard the song realized that he had been lecturing his classes about middle-class conformity for a whole semester. And suddenly there was a song which said it all in one and a half minutes.
What Malvina glimpsed from the road was the Westlake District of Daly City, one of the first post-World War II suburbs in the United States, frequently compared to Levittown, New York, which was the prototype for all those large-scale middle-class housing developments and even the smaller subdivisions that mushroomed in response to the pent-up desire for single-family home ownership for the couples who were the parents of the Boomer generation.
What Malvina saw was this (what Architectural Forum magazine went so far as calling “an unchecked desecration of the landscape”): 6,500 detached color-coded stucco houses (laid out on a grid to insure some variety in floor plans and that none of the pastel houses clashed), each sitting behind a neatly-kept lawn required by community codes to be meticulously maintained.
In fairness, the paint and the landscaping helped, and still helps, to brighten up and add color to what is almost a perpetually bone-chilling and dreary fog belt, and a stark, wind-swept topography that, where still undeveloped, can look like the other side of the moon.
What Malvina Reynolds got right was the aesthetic of that Westlake development, the cookie-cutter blocks, the way the houses popped up in astonishing numbers and seemed to keep on popping up. What she didn’t get right at all was who was actually living in them.
They were not, by and large, martini-drinking, golf-course-frequenting adults with summer-camp-going and university-bound children. The folks who bought those houses made on average $8,000 a year, middling wages. They were almost all white, over half of them with children under 18, who drove a car to their clerical or skilled-labor jobs, only a third of them having graduated from high school, and a very small percentage from college.
For many of its residents left bleak, crowded neighborhoods in the nearby city hoping, even expecting, to be part of building a better way of life, people like original owner James Grealish, for whom moving there and into and owning (or actually owing a mortgage) on one of those “little boxes” was a tremendous feeling, because you felt rich, really. It was ridiculous perhaps, he admits, but that was actually a kind of feeling of “boy, we’re really lucky to be here.”
Living out and living in the American Dream.
Our houses have changed over the centuries, in style of architecture and interior design, but the through line, according to architectural historian Gwendolyn Wright, who has written a social history of building the American dream, is that we have seen our homes as foundations for social order. As a consequence, she believes, we have been quite self-conscious about where we live and where our fellow citizens live.
Thomas Sugrue, a professor of history and sociology who has looked extensively at housing in this country, has observed that every generation of Americans has offered its own version of the claim that owner-occupied homes are this nation’s saving grace.
He points to Walt Whitman who wrote that “a man is not a complete man unless he owns a house and the ground it stands on.” Others sang of My Old Kentucky Home and Home Sweet Home. Quite simply, he says, that the myth (and not the reality) is to own a home is to be an American — whether a modest bungalow or the Biltmore Estate.
At least that’s what Herbert Hoover asserted in the forward to a pamphlet produced by the U.S. Department of Commerce in 1923 on How to Own Your Own Home, declaring that maintaining a high percentage of individual home owners is one of the searching tests that (now) challenges the people of the United States. He was also known to have said that ballads were not written about tenements and apartments… they never sing about a pile of rent receipts.
This, at a time that while residential construction had increased dramatically since the first World War, volatile booms and collapses plagued the real estate market, mortgage debt had tripled in one decade, and foreclosures (by no means a new phenomenon) were rising precipitously. Small-scale programs providing federally financed homes to returning World War I workers through local realtors, and glossy publicity brochures on homemaking and home improvement aside, in places like Atlanta, only a quarter of families were home-owners, despite Hoover’s optimistic wish otherwise.
Historians remind us that until the recent past, home ownership — that loaded manifestation of the American dream — was just that, a dream, and rent checks the reality for most people.
Rather than being a sign of American prosperity and moral supremacy, until the early 1900s, holding a mortgage came with stigma. In an article in the Wall Street Journal, Thomas Sugrue wrote that before that time, by taking out a loan for a home, you were considered a debtor and chronic indebtedness was a problem to be avoided like too much drinking and gambling. In any case, mortgages were hard to come by and lenders typically required 50 percent or more of the purchase price as down payment. Interest rates were high and terms were short, usually only three to five years. For most people, it was too burdensome, even financially dangerous, an option.
As a result, he tells us, for the most part, there were only two kinds of new homeowners; working-class people who could build their own houses on low-cost pieces of land, perhaps handed down; or the very wealthy who could pay for their places outright.
From 1900, when the census first started gathering data on home ownership, up until 1940, fewer than half of all Americans owned their own homes, with ownership rates actually falling for three out of four decades of the 20th century.
By 1933, at the height of the Great Depression, even so, there were a thousand foreclosures a week, almost half of all mortgages and new construction almost exclusively limited to homes and apartments for the well-to-do. It was that massive crash that convinced American house builders and mortgage bankers who had opposed what they called socialistic public housing, to not only accept, but lobby for, government involvement in the private housing field.
Under the New Deal, the landmark National Housing Act of 1934 set up the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) to stimulate the moderate-cost housing market by insuring low-interest, long-term mortgages for up to 80 percent of the appraised value, with guarantees to banks for the first time that banks would recover a certain sum from the government in case there was a default.
The FHA was not only sold as a way to increase home ownership (and promote this American Dream) but also as a way to provide thousands of construction- and renovation-related jobs and endow financial institutions with more capital to invest in other sectors of a seriously wounded economy.
The first FHA so-called modernization loan was given in the summer of 1934 to a John P. Powers in Minnesota for $125 for paint, roof repair, and a new water tank. The first FHA-insured mortgage for a house in Pompton Plains, New Jersey, was issued a few months later.
No sooner had housing construction begun to rally, buoyed by federally backed financing, than World War II broke out; the only new starts, government built units for defense workers and their families in places with war materials factories, including Atlanta. When 10 million men and women were discharged from the armed forces in 1945 and 1946, even with the promise of generous mortgage assistance to veterans, millions of families found themselves without housing: doubling up with relatives, living in Quonset huts, trailers, garages, barns, and even chicken coops.
Perhaps you were among them, or your parents, or grandparents. My parents, who married in 1946 in Washington, D.C., lived for the first two plus years renting and even grateful for a hard-to-get walk-up attic apartment, equipped for the sweltering summers with portable fans.
My father’s parents had never owned a home of any sort in Boston, moving during the Depression from one apartment to another, each one with lower rent and smaller, shabbier quarters than the last, in dingier buildings in worse neighborhoods, so home buying was not the norm for him. My mother had had a more economically fortunate and housing-wise more stable childhood, growing up in a wood frame house her father, a shopkeeper, had purchased with cash and managed to hold on to in a small mill town, cramming six children into a few tiny bedrooms, but there was a pocket-sized back yard and a lawn glider.
The years following the war left my parents anxiously waiting, like so many others, for even a chance to be homeowners themselves. For the two of them, but my father especially, following the birth of their twin son and daughter (me) the availability of a VA loan approved, compact brick rambler in Silver Spring, Maryland, made them feel like a dream at least modestly come true.
Several years later they moved again, this time to a slightly larger but similar “custom” home one town over and further out, which gave them a couple of more bedrooms to bunk their brood of now four children, a full basement, a built-in wall oven, an extra bath, and enough room in the backyard to build a flagstone patio, the biggest do-it-themselves project they ever managed.
In exchange for no sidewalks, no nearby shopping, no public transportation, and still no air conditioning.
And more disturbingly in retrospect, no blacks or other non-whites, given the lingering informal and mostly underground real estate and FHA loaning practices of equating neighborhood planning — “stability” and “harmony” — with homogeneity. This family-focused “policy” didn’t just mean a lack of racial or ethnic diversity. It also meant an absence of childless, single, widowed, or divorced adults, and few elderly ones. It meant giving preference, more than that, almost exclusively using federal housing funds and loans to pay for outer-ring white suburbs, in the process gutting the inner cities and shutting non-whites out of home ownership at favorable rates by excluding them from crucial federally-backed mortgage programs.
While owning a house was a lifestyle must for my middle-income, up-and-coming, postwar parents, this didn’t mean any one of them was a forever home, or even for more than a few years. While there may be a handful of families that have stayed put on our block to this day, quite a few of them had already packed up and moved on by the time we crossed the country twice using the new interstate highway system, following my dad’s nomadic public health career and the lure of the Pacific Ocean.
They sold and bought, or rented out and bought, five houses over the course of my childhood, sometimes for a small profit, most of the time at a loss, so it was good that they didn’t look at home ownership as a way to save or a way toward financial gain.
We didn’t stay around to see trees grow — or even hedges — or, in truth, get to know most of our neighbors well enough to follow the trajectory of their lives. It was an incongruous but not untypical American cultural mixture of seeking stability and assuming impermanence at the same time.
Perhaps that was one reason why my first husband and I, in the early 1970s, just in our twenties with two small children and with precarious, mostly free-lance and often free-falling employment, were so determined to stop being renters, beholden to cranky landlords who did not like the way we waxed their floors or the fact that we had cats, and become mortgage holders ourselves. For us this signaled that we were living an entitled grown-up life, even while we were so unstable, so unprepared, and so clueless as homeowners.
At a time when many of our same-age friends were still hanging loose and living lightly, with one-year leases being considered a maximum commitment to housing monogamy, we convinced his parents to put down the down payment on our unlikely and out of character American Dream dwelling, a house we had designed for us and then built on a precarious, earthquake fault-laced lot on a steep hill, a home we ran out of money to really complete: with no rails on the steps, temporary linoleum in the entry hall, and a sliding glass dining-area door that opened onto a pile of dirt that never did become a deck.
That young marriage began unraveling almost as soon as the ink dried on our blueprints, and within a few years, divorce forced the quick and reduced-price sale of that house to a family who had the income (and probably the maturity) to complete the work and stay long enough to actually make it a more permanent home.
Despite the fact I never really loved this imposing house, where it was located or the stress it had caused us, I felt shame, mourned its loss, and the fact that besides a few bushes our landscaper added for privacy, I had never even planted a perennial, only a few hardy geraniums in pots that managed to at least stay alive, if not exactly thrive. Wasn’t this literal planting of roots part of the dream we had bought into?
Recapturing the dream of owning a home turned out to be a slim prospect for a single parent like myself, especially in California, especially in the early 1980s. While a decade earlier easy credit had boosted high rates of home ownership to over sixty percent and had made it cheaper in most cases to buy than rent, once again there was a severe housing crisis. Prices were rising as were interest rates. Only eight percent of all potential buyers had sufficient funds to buy a home. In the space of ten years, there had been a one hundred percent upswing in the tag for a house, add to that inflated energy costs, and, as one Realtor put it — we were selling 90 percent of the houses to 15 percent of the people, not new people wanting in, but established owners buying up.
Shut out of buying another home for sure, I basically crashed in a couple of rooms in a friend’s house for a while, sharing her kitchen. I sent my children to Oregon to stay with their father for a school year so I could move to one bedroom in another’s. I found a house to rent, which I co-leased with my mother, who, herself, was in-between owned homes. The couple who had agreed to rent it to us for two years while they were in Africa decided to return after one. And abruptly gave us our notice.
When I remarried, still at a time of high prices and high interest, we moved to another cramped rental house, where my husband set up a makeshift home office in the chilly garage and our baby son slept for several years behind a screen in our bedroom.
In the fall of 1989, our hot-tempered landlord (who had frequently told us we needed to use more elbow grease in maintaining his house and that we didn’t know how to properly prune his fruit trees) informed us he was getting a divorce and that we would have to leave. Once again feeling rootless and I will admit shamed for being perennial tenants, despite the steep increase in monthly payments we would face, we found a way to buy a house by equity sharing and purchased a house on a street so thick with traffic day and night that we had to install soundproof windows.
Once again, house-poor, in fact overwhelmed by double the costs of renting, we let improvements go: living with only one actual bathroom for five people, including two teenagers, while the free-standing toilet that had been installed downstairs remained that way until the next owners put in a sink and a privacy wall around it. Once again, even three years later, still feeling quite temporary, when we decided to move to Atlanta for the green, the opportunities, and, frankly, the lower housing prices, I still had never dug a hole for a plant that would live to bloom more than one time.
While we were desperately trying to make home ownership work for us, there were already pundits disconnected from real estate profiteering warning that, more than ever, American housing, like American society and American families, must be characterized by diversity. The vision of universal home ownership in the suburbs, we were warned, the promise of unlimited bounty, the assurance of government agencies and private builders, now seemed false.
If the American dream was, at least in part, a large, single-family suburban home (or a similar one in an intown subdivision), then it was over, they informed us.
More people had to be willing to rent rather than own. More people had to want to live in townhouses and apartments, co-house, to live in truly mixed neighborhoods.
That was the warning more than thirty years ago, three more decades of private housing booms and busts, promises of easy credit, no down payments, interest bubbles — coupled with patriotic messages about National Home Ownership Day — have continued to sell and Americans have continued to buy into the gauzy platitudes about the character-building qualities of home ownership and the prestige of property.
Truth be told, my husband and I bought right back into it when we moved here. Instead of renting for a while and testing the waters to see whether this would even come close to being our forever home, we again opted in to the assumption that two forty-something professionals with children needed to buy a house, have a mortgage. Only this time around, the housing prices were, for us, reasonable, even low, and our salaries finally good enough to manage it well.
We found a bungalow in a transitional neighborhood, whose original owner had actually paid for it in cash and built it himself in what was once a segregated enclave, then nearly deserted by white flight. We’ve stuck around long enough to see it go from one riddled with rundown and abandoned homes, some so neglected that they’ve had to be razed, to one mined by house flippers, to a more stabilized community, though not without house repossession signs and unnerving turnover.
It’s taken 19 years, but we have indeed made this house our own: painted the interior in bold colors that another buyer would most likely hate; taken up carpets, redone floors, replaced sinks and tubs, planted a 100-year oak tree, and, at this very moment, my three encore azalea bushes are filled with red and pink blossoms, the first time since I planted them, perennial and glorious.
But we still haven’t installed a dog door since I worry the next owner — whenever that might be — won’t want or need one.
For right now we are living what is still considered part of the American Dream. Not in a McMansion, and by and large most people don’t want those anymore, but a solid, livable dwelling that no one can tell us we are not taking care of properly or threaten to break our lease or raise our rent, just because.
Like nine out of 10 homeowners recently surveyed, if asked, we would say that our home is a comfort in our lives — at last. Like two-thirds of all Americans across age ranges, and even higher among blacks and Hispanics, by and large we still consider owning a home central to our sense of positive identity. Although younger adults these days are more willing to wait.
For now, and I know how easily it could and is happening, we are not among those millions of Americans whose homes and lives are in foreclosure, another five million in the next several years. People who stand in lines outside the World Congress Center in the hot sun right here in Atlanta, one of the hardest hit places in the housing bust, hoping to find a way to Save their Dream through mortgage renegotiation. People in this congregation who are facing the same prospect, who are feeling helpless and desperate and very much alone.
What they deserve in exchange for having, in many cases, been given mortgages they were never really equipped to pay — one or two missing paychecks away from default with loans at outrageous rates on murky and shifting terms — is the chance to refinance at lower terms or walk away with dignity, their credit intact. To not be punished for believing in the American Dream while we truly commit to downsizing it, to make it at least a little more realistic.
As Thomas Argue has written: home should be a place to build a household and a life, a respite from a sometimes heartless world, not a pot of gold.
May it be so.