Bill Levitt, the American Dream Maker

If owning your own home is the American Dream, then the man born this week (Feb. 11) in 1907 probably did more than anyone to make that dream come true.  Bill Levitt was to home construction what Henry Ford was to automobile manufacturing.  Ford had created a business model in which stationary workers, repeating the same function over and over, assembled cars going by on a “moving assembly line,” using interchangeable parts. The resulting increase in efficiency and productivity meant huge cost savings, which made cars affordable to the masses.

Levitt had the same goal for houses, and in the mid-1940s, when he began building his homes, the masses were certainly receptive.  The Great Depression and World War II had seriously depressed housing construction, while returning WWII vets were eager to marry and start families (resulting in the famous “Baby Boom”), meaning demand for housing far exceeded supply.

Still, the key was to produce affordable housing — the returning vets weren’t rich — and here Levitt, as he freely admitted, borrowed liberally from Henry Ford’s business model, but with one difference.  Cars could be moved along an assembly line.  Homes could not be, so Levitt reversed Ford’s concept by making the workers, not the product, moveable.

Levitt analyzed all the steps necessary to build mass-produced homes, paring the process down to 27 separate tasks, and so 27 separate teams of workers were trained to perform those tasks, each team moving from house to house in a staggered order, completing its task and moving on. So, for example, the first team would lay a house’s foundation, and move to the next house, followed by teams of carpenters, welders, roofers, and electricians, with the team of house painters last in line.

Levitt first put his concept into practice on a piece of land he bought near Hempstead, Long Island.  Building two-bedroom, one-bath homes with a small living room, an attic, and a kitchen that looked out over the back yard (so moms could watch their kids play), he sold them for $8,000, including appliances, which Levitt bought wholesale from his own subsidiaries, thereby eliminating the middle man (a high Levitt priority).  At one point Levitt was building 40 houses a day, and he still scrambled to keep up with demand.  In fact, when he opened his first sales office in 1949, nearly 1,500 buyers signed contracts on the first day.

This first development earned the nickname “Levittown,” and it made Bill Levitt rich and famous.  It also changed America forever because an entire infrastructure — churches, shops, restaurants, dry cleaners, gas stations and more — was built to service the Levittown community and, later, its thousands of imitators across the country.

They became known as suburbs.