Black History in Real Estate:

Segregated Levittown, NY

Aerial view of Levittown, NY circa 1948 // photo courtesy Levittown Public Library


By Marjorie Rogers 

The hamlet of Levittown, located in Nassau County, Long Island, is often regarded as America’s first suburb. Developed between 1947 and 1951, Levittown’s mass-produced homes served as a more affordable option than renting for returning World War II veterans, many of whom returned from the war with little to no savings. 

Levitt and Sons, a construction firm, spent the earlier half of the twentieth century building luxury homes on Long Island’s north shore. World War II diverted construction resources for wartime efforts, slowing business for the company, but the end of the war gave the company a new opportunity for business. William Levitt, one of the Levitt sons, returned from the navy at the end of World War II and applied his experience mass-producing military shelters to construct Levittown. 

The events of both world wars and the Great Depression challenged the concept of normalcy for many Americans. At the end of World War II, many women left their jobs and returned to traditional homemaker roles as men returned from the war and entered the workforce. At the same time, the U.S. experienced a cultural shift toward conformity and uniformity.  


“No man who owns his own house and lot can be a communist. He has too much to do.” – William Levitt 


The development of suburban communities such as Levittown not only fostered this trend, but also solved a housing shortage during an influx of returning veterans, many of whom sought to settle down and start families. The U.S. government backed 30-year mortgages with the 1948 housing bill, offering 0% down payments to veterans. 

At its peak, a home was built every 16 minutes in Levittown. Thousands of families waited in line for hours to tour Levittown homes, hoping to get their hands on a piece of suburbia. However, not all hands had an equal opportunity at the grab. Discriminatory housing covenants and federal lending practices at the time prevented veterans of color and their families from buying into Levittown. 

Clause 25 in the original Levittown housing agreement prevented Black people from owning or occupying Levittown homes. The clause stated in bold typeface and capital letters that Levittown homes could not "be used or occupied by any person other than members of the Caucasian race." Levitt defended this clause, citing property value retention and denying bigoted implications. He said white homebuyers would turn away from Levittown if faced with the possibility of having Black neighbors. 

The Federal Housing Authority (FHA) not only allowed such racially discriminatory practices at the time, but encouraged them. The FHA only offered mortgages for homes in non-racially integrated subdevelopments, making racial segregation a lucrative practice for the realtors and developers of twentieth century suburbs such as Levittown. 

The 1948 landmark supreme court case Shelley v. Kraemer put an end to the judicial enforcement of racially restrictive housing clauses, but racial segregation remained a characteristic of Levittown throughout the twentieth century. The community continues to have a disproportionately small Black population in comparison to nearby New York City’s overall Black population of roughly one in four residents. The 2000 census reported 0.5% of Levittown residents then were Black, and according to U.S. Census estimates, this number grew to just 1.2% of the population by 2021.  

A 2019 Newsday investigation discovered widespread, covert racial discrimination in real estate practices on Long Island, such as ethnic steering. The investigation found that realtors were more likely to show properties in minority communities such as Elmont, Freeport or Baldwin to Black and Latinx homebuyers. Likewise, realtors were more likely to show properties in majority-white communities, including Levittown, to white prospective homebuyers. 

Discrimination in housing based on race is illegal under the 1968 Fair Housing Act. For more information, call The Law Offices of Andrea Gross at (718) 341-2618.


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