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It Started With Levittown in 1947 : Nation's 1st Planned Community Transformed Suburbia

June 21, 1988|JAMES F. PELTZ | Times Staff Writer

It was 1947. The GIs were home from World War II, and housing was in short supply. Many veterans and their young families were forced to live with relatives, often in cramped city apartments. The suburbs? They were mostly for the rich and upper-middle class.

But that year, a construction firm named Levitt & Sons, led by William J. Levitt, changed suburbia forever. About 10 miles east of New York, on a potato field in Long Island, Levitt began building rows of relatively inexpensive two-bedroom houses at breakneck speed.

Available only to World War II veterans and their families--and only white veterans at that--the first Levittown house cost $6,990 with nearly no money down. Levitt built 17,447 houses in the next four years. On average, Levitt's builders finished 12 houses per day , and the tract house was here to stay.

The houses' low cost prompted some planners and sociologists to warn that Levittown was a suburban slum in the making. But the community prospered. Levitt also added schools and shopping centers based on a central plan, and families had to abide by certain rules, such as mowing their lawns every week. All of this formed the foundation for today's "master-planned communities" such as Valencia, 35 miles north of Los Angeles.

"Here were a bunch of people that, all of a sudden, were starting new families, and they wanted their own home and here was a place where you could go buy it," said Thomas L. Lee, president and chief executive of Newhall Land & Farming Co.

Newhall is developing Valencia, which, in some ways, is a descendant of Levittown. Like the New York community, Valencia is being built according to a master plan complete with schools, hospitals and parks.

Assembly Line Methods

But, unlike Levittown, Valencia offers a variety of housing, from $70,000 condominiums to $600,000 deluxe single-family houses, as well as nearby industrial and commercial centers.

Levitt used assembly line methods and prefabricated parts to speed production and, despite some minor differences in facades, the homes were nearly identical. In the intervening decades, however, homeowners have made additions and added landscaping that dulled the cookie-cutter look of the area. Levittown also was unusual because it was not centered around a particular industry or company that provided most of the community's employment.

Levittown hasn't been free of problems, however. Recently, individual property taxes there have soared because there is almost no commercial tax base. All Levittown can tax is its own houses. And the minimum price of a house there was closing in on $200,000, making Levittown--once the answer to affordable housing--too exclusive for many would-be homeowners.

The story of Levitt himself, now 81, is even more poignant. The man who became a millionaire by building low-cost housing has found himself strapped for cash in recent years. Beginning in the late 1970s, Levitt thought he could duplicate his magic, this time in the area of Orlando, Fla. He planned three major developments to build a total of 40,000 homes. But construction delays, the bankruptcy of one of his financial partners and other problems have left Levitt with massive debts.

So, too, did Levitt's settlement of three cases filed against him by the New York state attorney general, one for his alleged misuse of customer funds (using down payments for his own use), and two cases involving alleged misuse of his own charitable trust. Last year, the state ordered Levitt to repay his customers and his trust $11 million.

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