Expensive, Overcrowded Housing Is Deadly

Making cities more resilient against coronavirus pandemics will require taking on the landlords, real estate developers, and elected officials who prop them up. We need safe, affordable housing.

People line up at the Community Kitchen and Food Pantry on May 8, 2020 in the Harlem neighborhood of New York City. Stephanie Keith / Getty

Wealthy urbanites from New York to Paris hightailed it out of city centers during the coronavirus outbreak, ensconcing themselves in second homes in the Hamptons and the French countryside.

Who can blame them? The virus has hit urban areas hardest, especially neighborhoods whose poor residents have no greener pastures to escape to.

Queens and the Bronx — where New York City’s construction workers, taxi drivers, dishwashers, nannies, and cleaners live — have more cases than all of Manhattan. Elsewhere, in Chelsea, an immigrant enclave located across the Mystic River from Boston and the second most densely populated city in Massachusetts, there’s a COVID infection rate six times higher than the statewide average.

Poor urban dwellers have proven to be more vulnerable to the virus in part because they are more likely to suffer from diabetes and cardiovascular and respiratory disorders. Many also lack health insurance and are afraid to seek medical help. In Chelsea, two-thirds of residents are Latino, and nearly half were born outside the United States; undocumented residents fear that a trip to the doctor or hospital will bring questions about immigration status and possibly deportation for themselves or a family member.

But city infrastructure is also to blame. Poor people, particularly in immigrant clusters, often live in jam-packed, substandard housing and breathe polluted air, which aggravates underlying health conditions. Many are frontline workers who rely on crowded public transportation to reach workplaces that don’t provide proper protective equipment.

Of course, all but the wealthiest city residents use public transportation, and everyone living in urban areas, rich and poor, suffers from air pollution. In Italy, for example, scientists believe that Milan’s high death toll relative to the rest of Italy (people with the virus were twice as likely to die) is linked to the city’s poor air quality.

As elected officials and business leaders ponder the return to normal life — or whatever the new normal will look like — conversations are taking place about how to make cities safer places to live and work.

Corporate executives are rethinking their attachment to high-rise office buildings. The success of remote working, combined with the difficulty of maintaining social distancing in skyscrapers that rely on shared elevators, may lead to a geographical reorganization of office work away from city centers whose primary appeal — face-to-face networking — has been eliminated by the virus.

As Jes Staley, CEO of Barclays, told the Financial Times, “the notion of putting 7,000 people in a building may be a thing of the past.” Office workers who do return are likely to witness the rebirth of the cubicle as the fabled hot desk is banished in the name of safety.

Getting to work and school may look different as well. Washington, DC’s Metro service has announced that it will extend its reduced schedule and social-distancing measures until spring 2021. Train cars built to hold one hundred people will be limited to around twenty to encourage six feet between passengers; to make up the difference, trains will run more frequently from fewer stations. To protect drivers from having to collect fares, Metrobus rides will be free, and passengers will only enter through the rear of the bus.

While social distancing in public transportation could make riding the bus and train less convenient — a step backward environmentally if people switch to cars — some cities are taking proactive measures to encourage greener social distancing, such as widening sidewalks by requisitioning parking spaces and creating more bike lanes.

Paris has embarked on a program of “tactical urbanism,” which aims to reclaim space for pedestrians and cyclists by transforming roads into bike highways, allowing cafés and restaurants to take up more space on sidewalks, and restricting streets around schools to pedestrian traffic.

City officials in Paris hope to make these temporary changes permanent. Seattle already has; Mayor Jenny Durkan recently announced that the city will permanently close nearly twenty miles of Seattle streets to most vehicle traffic and may close more in the future. Transportation officials in the city hope that preventing through traffic, along with extended, automated walk signals at traffic lights, will encourage walking and cycling.

Greening cities through adaptations that making cycling and walking easier is essential, and it’s great that city officials are moving in this direction. But making cities more livable as well as more resilient in the face of the next coronavirus surge — or whatever pestilence strikes next — will also require taking on the landlords, real estate developers, and elected officials who prop them up.

According to a report by the Pew Charitable Trusts, nearly 40 percent of all “renter households” were rent burdened in 2015, while the share of renter households classified as “severely rent burdened” — spending at least half their monthly income on rent — increased 42 percent between 2001 and 2015 to 17 percent. African American and senior-headed renter households are the most likely to be rent burdened.

The skyrocketing cost of living in cities like New York and Boston fosters overcrowding. Poor families on the waiting list for affordable housing units, or who don’t qualify for housing assistance, cope by doubling and tripling up, by converting basements and covered porches into living areas that often lack heat and running water.

Many of these overcrowded living spaces are unsafe and unhealthy, aggravating tenants’ underlying health conditions, making them more vulnerable to illness and disease. In urban neighborhoods across the country, a toxic cocktail of greedy landlords, overworked housing inspectors, and fearful tenants sustain a decrepit housing stock, riddled with lead paint, mold, fire hazards, and rodent and insect infestation.

The recent rent strikes show that people are increasingly less willing to put up with unaffordable housing. However, the death and sickness visited disproportionately on poor urban communities during the coronavirus pandemic is a stark demonstration of the need to take on not only sky-high rents, but also the severe shortage of safe, affordable housing.

Healthy cities are simply not possible without healthy homes.