Prefabricated Houses are Affordable Houses

A joint article by CNN/Money gives some history of the pre-fabricated housing market and notes that pre-fabricated homes don’t have to be ugly or cheaply built; they can be more stylish than site-built homes while costing half as much. The article suggests that they have never caught on because they were perceived as poor-quality.

In a free market, products of the highest quality at the lowest cost quickly become the standard. There has long been a need for more affordable housing in this country, so the pre-fabricated solution should have caught on a long time ago. Even Frank Lloyd Wright created designs that he called Usonian houses that were highly functional, stylish, low-cost houses (though not pre-fabricated) that working class people could afford. In an article in CounterPunch Jeffrey St. Clair says that:

The Usonian homes inspired great loyalty in their original owners. In 1975, John Sergeant did an inventory of the homes and found that over 50 percent were still owned by the original families, more than 35 years after construction. The same thing can’t be said for his larger projects. The beautiful Robey House, near the University of Chicago, was inhabited for less than a full year, while Fallingwater served as little more than a weekend retreat.

So what happened? Why didn’t the Usonian design take off? Why are we left only with the barest elements of the design, the cookie-cutter ranch houses that came to dominate the lots of suburban America?

There’s no simple explanation. But one thing is clear. Wright’s plans to revolutionize the American residential living space ran afoul of interests of the federal government. Think about this: in his 70-year career Wright didn’t win one contract for a federal building. Not even during the heyday of the New Deal.

It all came down to politics. Wright’s politics were vastly more complicated and honorable than that embodied by Howard Roark, Ayn Rand’s self-serving portrait of Wright in her novel The Fountainhead. Sure there was a libertarian strain to Wright, which Rand seized on and distorted to her own perverse ends. But he also was drawn to the prairie populism espoused by the likes of the great Ignatius Donnelly. It’s this version of Wright that makes an appearance in John dos Passos’ USA trilogy.

Wright was a pacifist and his outright opposition to war cost him government commissions, the great lifeline of the professional architect, especially during the Depression and World War II. Thus it’s no accident that Wright was down and out most of his career.

St. Clair also details how the FBI kept Wright under surveillance because of his political views.

The government exerts enormous control over the housing market either directly or indirectly. Unions have control over who works, how much work individuals can do and how much they will be paid. Banks and other lending institutions, which are also regulated by the government have control of the financing of the housing market. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac subsidize the housing market by buying and/or guaranteeing mortgage loans from lenders.  They set standards for which loans they will buy and by doing so can determine what types of housing get government support.

When inefficient, costly solutions become the standard as opposed to efficient, low-cost solutions, you can be sure that coercive forces, government and/or private, are at work in the market place.

Jeffrey St. Clair addresses the issue of government control over loans and financing with regard to Wright’s projects:

The FBI wasn’t the only federal agency giving Wright a hard time. Indeed, Hoover’s snoops were only a minor irritant compared to the real damage that was done by the Federal Housing Authority, which routinely denied financing to Wright’s projects. There’s no surer way to crush the career of an architect, particularly one trying to revolutionize the housing of working class people, than to cut off his clients’ access to mortgages.

The Federal Home Loan Association also refused to underwrite mortgages for Wright’s houses, often citing Wright’s signature flat roofs as a lending code violation. Here’s a paragraph from one of the rejection letters: “The walls will not support the roof; floor heating is impractical; the unusual design makes subsequent sales a hazard.” All bullshit, of course. But if there’s anyway to kill architecture for working class people, it’s to deny them loans.

Get the government out of the housing market and high-quality affordable housing will become the norm, rather than a nonexistent fantasy.

Update 11/10/2003: You can also find many books related to prefabricated houses on Amazon.com.

Solutions to the problems we face in life begin with rational thinking. Rational thought begins by understanding the binary nature of existence.