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When a Tract House Is Not a Family Home

November 22, 1987|Dolores Hayden | Dolores Hayden is professor of urban planning at UCLA and the author of "Redesigning the American Dream: The Future of Housing, Work, and Family Life" (Norton).

Tracts of three bedroom houses are booming on the periphery of the Los Angeles metropolitan area, where prices are lower than city-wide or state-wide averages. Recent news stories have detailed the demanding schedules of a few families in Palmdale and the Moreno Valley, where both husbands and wives may begin their days driving 60 miles or more from home to job. They commute another 1 1/2 or two hours in the evening. The same patterns prevail at the edge of New York and other American cities with high housing costs. The national average for a new house reached $111,800 last year, but prices in Los Angeles and New York are among the highest in the nation.

What happens to the human being who spends 15 or 20 hours each week in the car as well as 40 or more hours on the job? Husband and wife put in a total 40-hour week of commuting on top of separate 40-hour work weeks. What happens to family life when both partners are gone 12 hours a day? What about the laundry, the cooking, the cleaning, the maintenance tasks that require attention in the hours left over? Is there any time for raising children? Can the proud boast, "We own our own home," make such strenuous schedules bearable?

The few families who have chosen to purchase houses in remote locations at a price they can afford demonstrates the enduring economic attraction of homeowner tax deductions for mortgage interest. These families have refused to be renters, refused to suffer the inequities tenants endure under an American system that subsidizes the homeowner more generously than the low- or moderate-income tenant. (Federal income-tax deductions are the largest housing subsidy in the nation and, perversely, these deductions increase as the owner gets richer, rather than poorer.) But remote tract houses may carry hidden costs. The cheapest tracts are often built in places that have little zoning protection against future development, places where new taxes and special assessments may be necessary to provide basic services such as schools, sewers or storm drains. Child-care and after-school programs may be nonexistent just when the parents' commuting mean they are most needed.

Today, when it usually takes two earners to support the purchase of a new house, and when the majority of the mothers of young children are in the paid labor force, it is important that both husbands and wives are sure they are getting the best housing possible for their investments. To many people, a new tract house is the physical expression of a successful American family. Yet the suburban house design many families purchase is still the War Hero Special, the ideal home of the World War I veteran translated into post-World War II production techniques. In the late 1940s, veterans' families were thought to include a male breadwinner, a stay-at-home wife and several children. New demographic and economic patterns today suggest the houses designed for the war heroes are as dated as matching avocado appliances but we still build them.

The tracts of the '40s and '50s were constructed without child care and without public transportation because they were based on the design premise that homebound women would provide child care and chauffeur service for each family. These women were also expected to provide volunteer social services for the community. The physical reality of such suburban neighborhoods reinforced gender stereotypes of "woman's place" and created an architecture of gender so extreme that even Victorian moralists like Catherine E. Beecher would have found it hard to believe the spatial distance created between "woman's sphere" and the world of paid work for men.

Fringe areas of inexpensive tract houses will need jobs nearby and community services before they can become viable family neighborhoods. Incentive programs designed to enable young families to become homeowners--such as the first-time home-buyers' IRA recently proposed by Sen. Dennis DeConcini (D-Ariz.)--only perpetuate an outdated model. They do nothing to provide the economic development and social planning needed to replace the care and community-building service of the traditional homebound housewife.

A contemporary approach to affordable housing needs to recognize the diversity of contemporary household types and their much greater dependence on services outside the house. The two-earner family is the predominant unit in the United States today but the single-parent family--nearly always headed by the mother--is the fastest growing. Neither has the leisure to sustain the traditional pattern of suburban life, and every mile driven to work is time subtracted from caring for children, making a home or earning a wage.

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