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Building Home: The Politics of The American Dream & Howard F. Ahmanson

[ 0 ] Apr. 22, 2013 | SBO Editor

From the Great Depression to the Great Society…
A look at the rise and fall of American Dream Home Ownership–
— New biography chronicles the life of post-WWII, California Businessman Howard F. Ahmanson

With the consequences of the 2008 mortgage crisis still rippling through the American economy, a new book explores the biography of one of the most successful entrepreneurs of an earlier era in the history of the American Dream. Building Home: Howard F. Ahmanson and the Politics of the American Dream by economic historian Eric John Abrahamson Ph.D. provides important context to the mortgage crisis as well as fascinating insight into the politics of homeownership in the postwar era.

During the Great Depression and World War II, the U.S. economy shifted to one highly managed by government. In this managed economy, the government expected the banking system to provide a stable supply of credit and an efficient system to channel the nation’s savings into investments, including residential mortgages. With this shift came a boom in home construction and homeownership. By the end of the 1950s, a quarter of the nation’s single-family homes were less than 10 years old, and the rate of homeownership had increased by nearly 42 percent. By 1960, six out of ten American households owned their own home. This dramatic realization of the American Dream shaped the nation’s postwar vision of community and prosperity, but it also set the stage for and provided a sharp backdrop to the collapse of the housing bubble in 2007.
Southern California’s population exploded during the postwar years. Demand for homes and mortgages surged. The savings and loans industry grew more than in any other region in the country and, at the heart of it all was one man who helped change the face of Los Angeles’ economic and cultural history: Howard F. Ahmanson.
In Building Home, published by University of California Press, Abrahamson presents an innovative biography that weaves together three engrossing stories. It is one part corporate and industrial history, using the evolution of mortgage finance as a way to understand larger dynamics in the nation’s political economy. It is another part urban history, since the extraordinary success of this financial business in Los Angeles reflects much of the cultural and economic history of Southern California. And finally, it is the personal story of one of the nation’s most successful entrepreneurs of the managed economy.
“As a historian, I focus on conflict and cooperation between the public and private sector in business and philanthropy so I’m interested in the positive and negative effects of regulation on economic development and social well-being,” says Abrahamson. “Ahmanson made his fortune in the context of the mortgage industry and in the process helped make Los Angeles the quintessential postindustrial city.”
Connecting the three stories as he chronicles Ahmanson’s rise against the backdrop of the post-World War II housing boom and the growth of Los Angeles, Abrahamson addresses themes including:

  • The politics of the American dream. A look at the role of government in promoting homeownership in the United States
  • Howard F. Ahmanson: a successful businessman, financier, political influence, and cultural patron of 1950s and 60s Los Angeles
  • The role of mortgage finance in postwar development
  • Los Angeles as the quintessential postmodern city after World War II
  • How the end of the managed economy coincided with the breakdown of consensus in America

Eric John Abrahamson, Ph.D. is an economic historian who has researched and written about various regulated industries, as well as business and philanthropy in California, the U.S. and Canada. He is the president of Vantage Point Historical Service, Inc. and is a fellow with the Institute of Applied Economics, Global Health and Study of Business Enterprise at Johns Hopkins University.

Abrahamson received his Ph.D. in American History from Johns Hopkins University and is the author or co-author of a number of books including Building Home: Howard F. Ahmanson and the Politics of the American Dream (University of California Press). He has also been active as a civic entrepreneur.

For more information, please visit www.buildinghome.com or www.vantagepointhistory.com.

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Category: Features