WASHINGTON – A record number of Marylanders achieved the American dream during the 20th century, as post-war growth spurts, government support and general economic prosperity pushed homeownership to 65 percent.
The percentage of Marylanders who owned their homes grew steadily from 40 percent in 1900, dipping only during the Great Depression and the mortgage crisis of the 1970s, before bouncing back up again.
“What really matters in the United States is owning a house,” said James Gilmore, an American history professor at the University of Maryland College Park. “It becomes the major symbol of success and status. Apartments were associated with the working class.”
While land was the major status symbol during the 1800s, homes became the hallmark by which a person was judged in the 1900s, he said.
The century has brought not only a change in homeownership but also a change in homes. The emergence of suburbia resulted in new housing options in a state that was largely divided between city and farm dwellers at the start of the century.
“There have been great, great changes in Maryland housing,” said Jim O’Conor, a real estate agent who has been working in the state for nearly 50 years. “The housing stock has certainly improved. You have a great deal of variety in both styles and prices…. You have a diversity now that you didn’t have before.”
Gilmore said the strong housing market in Maryland and across the country was partly inspired by a middle class dislike of cities, which were “magnets for immigration” during the early 1900s. But wanting to buy a home and escape from the city, and being able to afford to do so, are two different things.
“In the 1930s, after the market went belly-up, people wanted homes, but they didn’t have the money,” said Jay Weiss, incoming president of the Home Builders Association of Maryland. “They tried to get into the row houses, and when they couldn’t, they got into apartments.”
But the economic boom of World War II and the post-war years gave the middle class the ability to finally buy a home and escape the city. That demand reshaped the state’s housing market, and housing options increased which, in turn, gave people more incentive to buy.
Weiss said the once-rural counties surrounding Baltimore began to grow as people fled the cities: Glen Burnie, Dundalk and Essex all got a boost from workers who were employed at war industry jobs in the city. The same thing began to happen in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, as the economic influence of Washington, D.C., increased.
Homeownership boomed in the 1940s, as veterans began to return from the war and incomes increased. The Maryland homeownership rate made its biggest leap in that decade, jumping 8.9 percent to top the pre-Depression rate of 55.2 percent.
Pre-fabricated homes that could be shipped in pieces and assembled quickly began to appear. O’Conor said builders could hardly get those homes put together before they were sold.
“What you were still having at that time was a catch-up,” said O’Connor, who worked for building supply companies before entering real estate. “We had to catch up with the demand from new families and returning veterans. It was a real, real strong market.”
The strong market attracted William Levitt to Bowie in the late 1950s for one of the first tract projects he undertook after Levittown, N.Y. His Bowie project was the first such development in Maryland and eventually grew to more than 9,000 homes.
“You got the most for your money,” said Julie H. Ernstein, a graduate student in landscape archeology who is working on an oral history of Bowie. “People really, really appreciated that. These people had young kids and not a lot of discretionary income.”
She said the success of the Levitt community signaled “a transition from rural to suburban Maryland.”
Analysts said that transition continued through the 1950s and 1960s, as improved transportation, including construction of the beltways and other federally funded road projects, made it easier for people to get out of the cities and into suburban homes.
“What began to happen in the 50s was … the build-up of infrastructure,” said Jim Fox, a lawyer with the Chicago firm of Holleb & Coff who specializes in housing. “Not only could people see what they wanted, they could get there.”
And what they wanted — and got — were new houses in open areas.
Gilmore said the boom in homeownership was also due to low-interest loans from the Federal Housing Administration. He said the loans, which became available after World War II, sparked private development and offered those headed to the suburbs more financing options.
“Up until 1970, the communities that were close to and convenient to the city were the ones that were popular,” O’Conor said. “Then a mass move to outlying places took over.”
Mortgage rate increases in the 1970s drove homebuilders and buyers even farther out. As cheaper single-family homes got smaller and farther away from the cities, many Marylanders moved to apartment complexes, driving the homeownership rate down for only the second time this century.
Weiss said those economics spawned the town house industry, with new developments going up in urban and suburban areas by the early 1980s.
By the 1990s, the economy was booming and more young people had more wealth, O’Conor said, which pushed homeownership rates to their high of 65 percent. The decade has also seen a move back toward the cities and close-in suburbs “and it’s more than just a trickle,” O’Conor said.
Gilmore agreed that a “reverse migration” is taking place in many cities, in part because the commute from the suburbs has gotten so bad and in part because cities do not inspire the fears they used to.
“The cities are no longer these huge havens of immigrants … (besides) we’re used to dealing with that,” he said. “I think the decline in crime has really helped a lot and so has the reappearance of entertainment.”
While the last few years have seen “unprecedented” growth, O’Conor predicted that the market would remain positive into the next century.
“The demand for houses has been so strong, but things are now returning to normalcy,” he said. “I think it’s going to continue to be a good market, a steady market, but not the hectic market we’ve seen recently.”