In early twenty first century America, wealth inequality is primarily driven by the value of real estate assets. Housing and urban development is dominated by real estate professionals. Recent trends in multifamily development have produced private, exclusive, and inaccessible residential amenities spaces in rental apartment complexes where the value generated by the project is extracted out of the local community and concentrated into the hands of a few owners, lenders, and investors. This has not always been the case.
This thesis suggests that widespread popular sector participation in real estate development may distribute real estate wealth more equitably and produce more inclusive, accessible, and open neighborhood amenities spaces. As late as the mid-twentieth century, a substantial portion of urban housing development was undertaken by homeowners. A case study analysis of a World War II housing program in a typical American city reveals that approximately half of all new housing units built in the early 1940s were completed through professional real estate development networks like private homebuilders and public housing authorities. The other half of new housing accommodations were created through home conversion projects by individual residential property owners, many of whom were owner-occupants. Marketing campaigns, design services, and low-interest loans helped encourage a wide swath of urban homeowners to participate in wartime housing programs.
Local land use planning and development policies aimed at encouraging homeowners to participate in real estate development exist today in cities like Seattle, Portland, Denver, and Austin. Through programs meant to encourage homeowners to build small secondary dwelling units, these American cities are helping city residents participate in the real estate investment market. This thesis suggests that a compelling marketing campaign combined with other support services may be able to encourage widespread participation in housing and urban development by residents of America’s cities. By democratizing development, it may be possible to reduce wealth inequality and encourage more inclusive, accessible, and open urban spaces.