The Birth of Sprawl: How Ending the Great Depression Meant Inventing the Suburbs

Posted Mondays, Jeremy Rosenberg's (@losjeremy) Laws That Shaped LA column spotlights regulations that have played a significant role in the development of contemporary Los Angeles. These laws - as nominated and explained each week by a locally-based expert - may be civil or criminal, and they may have been put into practice by city, county, state, federal or even international authority

This Week's Law That Shaped L.A.

Law: National Housing Act
Year: 1934
Jurisdiction: Federal
Nominated by: H. Pike Oliver

The Great Depression (1929-1939) was a desperate time.

And, like that phrase says, desperate times call for desperate measures.

One of those New Deal solutions crafted by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his administration and congressional allies was the Federal Housing Administration, or FHA.

The FHA was born from the National Housing Act of 1934, also known as the Capehart Act. Under any name, this legislation played a significant slow-burn role in easing the housing and mortgage crisis -- sound familiar, recent years? -- of the Great Depression.

"The Federal Housing Administration was established to restructure the collapsed private house-financing system through government mortgage insurance plans," reads text in the excellent 1995 APA Journal article, "Street Standards and the Shaping of Suburbia," by Michael Southworth and Eran Ben-Joseph.

But, as H. Pike Oliver explains, purposefully or not, that's not all the FHA accomplished.

Oliver is a longtime Southland resident and leading real estate development expert who is now a senior lecturer and director of undergraduate studies at Cornell University's College of Architecture, Art & Planning. Oliver nominated the FHA as a Law That Shaped LA; he also kindly passed along the "Street Standards" article and other supporting material.

Oliver says the FHA did play its intended mortgage relief role. "But," Oliver says, "through design guidelines adopted by the FHA that were used to qualify subdivisions for financing, it also played a dramatic role in shaping the design of residential communities."

Since states began following the FHA's design guidelines when crafting their own mortgage-support programs, and since commercial lenders tended to keep the same guidelines once private dollars started flowing again, post Great Depression, what began as voluntary aims became the defacto nationwide design standard.

And that standard, that shaping, resulted in nothing less than the nationwide rise of suburbs, subdivisions, single-family homes, cul-de-sacs, curvilinear streets, homes set far back from streets, grass lawns in lieu of other planting, the decline of pedestrianism and just about every other archetypical suburban hallmark.

In short, the FHA led to sprawl. Which means, more to the point, that the FHA led to modern Los Angeles.

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The economic, social, shelter, public health and other woes of the Great Depression have been well-chronicled. This period chart, for instance, is titled, Los Angeles County Total Relief Load. Image courtesy Los Angeles Public Library

"The FHA guidance on subdivision design affect any project that sought eligibility for their mortgage insurance no matter where it was located," Oliver says.

"The effect in Los Angeles was simply due to the massive amount of development that occurred in the greater Los Angeles area following World War II," Oliver continues. "The pace of activity was simply unparalleled in the history of the nation to that point."

By way of example, Oliver cites KCET.org columnist DJ Waldie's deservedly beloved book, "Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir." Oliver has Waldie noting that 17,500 residences were constructed in Lakewood during a scant three years.

During a recent email exchange, Oliver also brings up Westchester and Panorama City as among many other locally realized, FHA-backed creations. The former was the brainchild of developer Fritz Burns; the latter of Burns and another familiar name, Henry J. Kaiser.

Those are just a couple of examples. When I ask Oliver to send me a specific example of what's likely an FHA house, he passes along a Trulia link to an approximately 1,500-or-so-square-foot Westchester home.

Whether that specific place was spawned by the New Deal doesn't particularly matter, of course. What does is that the FHA was such a behemoth that today it takes the work of two contemporary siblings, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to more or less match the footprint of the original.

"In 1934 more than 70 percent of the nation's commercial banks had FHA insurance plans," Southworth and Ben-Joseph write in "Street Standards." "By 1959, FHA mortgage insurance had helped three out of every five American families to purchase a home and helped to repair or improve 22 million properties."

In Los Angeles, Oliver points out that the postwar population skyrocketed -- growing by more than 50% from 1950 to 1960. "It seems clear," Oliver says, "that postwar prosperity and these programs had a major impact on the proportion of Americans living in single family homes."

When the FHA became law, the professor says, 44% of Americans owned their homes. By 1960, that number was 62%.

In this previous Law That Shaped LA column, author, lecturer and policy director Mark Vallianatos discussed The Roots of Sprawl: Why We Don't Live Where We Work.

Oliver shares similar thoughts about the legitimate reasons why early twentieth century zoning laws were so welcome. The Southern Californian gone east is asked, then, if the FHA's crafters might perhaps have intentionally sought a similar separation between commerce -- if not quite industry like the previous zoning laws -- and residential areas.

Oliver doesn't think so. He cites this post that makes it clear, as he summarizes, that "strip malls, extreme separation of commercial areas and cinder block walls along the edge of major streets next to neighborhoods were never part of the FHA subdivision guidelines."

Adds Oliver: "I doubt that anyone intended to consciously preclude pedestrian connections to commercial areas. In my view, it was simply the unintended consequences of trying to keep through traffic out of residential areas that had this effect."

Come to think of it, the Unintended Consequences Act has a nice ring to it. For better -- helping revive an economically failing nation -- and for worse -- for many urbanists, almost everything described earlier in this column -- calling the Act either "Capehart" (after a Senator) or "National Housing" doesn't come close to doing full justice to the ongoing and exceptional importance of a piece of legislation that may have, all at once, saved America while turning it suburban.


Top Photo: Lakewood. Photo by Howard D. Kelly from the Kelly-Holiday Collection of Negatives and Photographs. Photo courtesy the Los Angeles Public Library

To suggest a "Law That Shaped L.A." or otherwise contact the columnist via: arrivalstory [at] gmail [dot] com, or leave a comment at the bottom of this page. Follow Rosenberg on Twitter @losjeremy

About the Author

Jeremy Rosenberg is a Los Angeles-based writer, editor, and consultant whose work has appeared in various books, magazines, newspapers, and online.
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