Levitt’s Legacy (Part 1)

William Levitt, his unfair housing practices hurt African Americans

William Levitt, his unfair housing practices hurt African Americans

About a year before World War II ended, the federal government passed the 1944 Serviceman’s Readjustment Act. Most people at the time called it the GI Bill. The purpose of the bill was to help veterans acclimate to society by making it easy for them to go to college, attend a technical school or get the training they needed to get ahead. There was only one problem; the GI Bill was only extended to white males. As a result, Black men who fought in the World War II did not receive the educational, economic and social support they were entitled to when they returned home. As Brodkin (2005) rightly points out, “Educational and occupational GI benefits really constituted affirmative action programs for white males because they were decidedly not extended to African Americans or women of any race.”

After the war ended the demand for houses skyrocketed. A man by the name of William Levitt, with the help of the Federal Housing Association (FHA) developed a plan to meet the need; they would make it as easy as possible for returning vets to purchase a home.  Levitt and his sons had previously created Levittwon, NY in 1941 and he immediately turned his attention to a sprawling expanse of land in Pennsylvania. Located just 30 miles north of Philadelphia and roughly seven miles south of Trenton, NJ, Levitt found an area ripe for home construction and community development. The builder faced some challenges when he erected homes in New York, but by the time he got to Levittown, PA he had the process down to a science (Jackson, 1985). At one point a home was being completed every 16 minutes. This was an incredible feat by any measure considering the fact that the workers did not have the modern cordless power tools and other equipment that we have today. Levittown houses were built on concrete slabs and came in various shapes and styles; there was the 3 bedroom rancher, the country clubber, and the 4 bedroom Jubilee which had an unfinished second floor. All the homes came with the most modern amenities of the day; a washing machine, a refrigerator and a range. While these items might seem like normal household appliances today, not all homes at the time had such niceties. The homes cost roughly $7500 in 1953 and only a $100 down payment was all that was required. This money was returned to the buyer at settlement.

Once again there was only one caveat; the homes were not to be sold to blacks under any circumstances. In fact, there was even a clause in the deed that made it just about illegal to sell a home to an African American. As Levitt explained, “But, by various means, I have come to know that if we sell one house to a Negro family, then 90 to 95 percent of our white customers will not buy into the community. That is their attitude, not ours.” Additionally he argued “The plain fact is that most whites prefer not to live in mixed communities. This attitude may be wrong morally, and some day it may change. I hope it will. But as matters now stand, it is unfair to charge an individual with the blame for creating this attitude or saddle him with the sole responsibility for correcting it.” The ironic thing about such comments is that Levitt himself was Jewish, therefore it is possible that he experienced racism in his lifetime.  Yet the builder, in his own words was more interested in selling homes than solving American’s racial problems.

It would seem Levitt was correct in some of his assumptions about white home buyers. As the clip below reveals, there were some whites at the time who did not want blacks to move in for fear that their property values would decrease or that some social or sexual intermingling might take place.

In next blog entry, I will discuss the challenges the first black family faced when they moved into Levittown, PA in 1957. Additionally, I will elucidate how the discriminatory housing practices of the federal government and William Levitt can still be felt today. In my third and final blog entry on this subject, I will briefly discuss some of my experiences growing up in Levittown, PA.

References

Jackson, K. T. (1985). Crabgrass frontier: The suburbanization of the United States. New York: Oxford University Press.

Brodkin, K. (2005). How Jews became white. In P. Rothenberg (Ed.), White privilege: Essential readings from the other side of racism. (pp. 42-54). New York: Worth Publishers.

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