COVID-19 is talked about as if it’s the new black plague. Businesses have shut down, traffic lanes that once seemed perpetually clogged are silent, and people of all backgrounds are being forced to stay home. This is especially true in large urban centers such as New York City and Los Angeles, which have some of the highest rates in the Nation and California respectively. Much of the blame in popular media has been laid on the density of these cities. According to many, the closer the proximity that people live, work and play together in such areas increase the chance that they may contract the disease. Although intuitive, nothing could be further from the truth. Research has shown that while density may be a factor, it is probably not the most pertinent or even a great influence. Research showed that in New York City, the densest and hard-hit city in the U.S, that neighborhoods with some of the higher densities had the lowest COVID infection rates. In fact, a much more influential metric may be overcrowding.
Overcrowding in housing occurs when there is a greater number of people living in a household than rooms available. People are usually forced into this due to a combination of poverty and high living costs. This is especially acute in our city of Los Angeles, which has the highest rate of overcrowding in the nation. As seen in the figure below, 13.2% of Los Angeles city residents and 7.5% of Los Angeles Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA) residents live in overcrowded conditions, far above San José and New York City. Furthermore, the city and MSA of Los Angeles lead in severe-overcrowding, which is defined as a housing situation where there is an average greater than 1.5 people per room.
People in overcrowded living situations are more likely to be critical workers and interact with other individuals in person, greatly increasing their exposure rate. Add in the fact that living in overcrowded conditions means that such containment from a potentially infected household member is not possible, then it is only logical that people in these situations are much more likely to contract COVID. A study from the NYU Furman Center showed that neighborhoods in New York City with a larger overcrowding rate tended to also have higher rates of COVID infections. Given Los Angeles’s extreme position in this issue, it’s no wonder why the county accounts for nearly half of all COVID cases in California despite just having a quarter of the population!
So how exactly did things get this way in our area? Much of this can be due to the large number of individuals in poverty in Los Angeles and the dearth of housing. According to The Public Policy Institute of California, in 2017 the County of Los Angeles had the highest percentage of individuals under the official poverty line at 23 percent of the entire population. Keep in mind that the official poverty line does not take into account regional cost of living, so the actual poverty rate is likely to be much higher. In addition, Los Angeles County has a large number of undocumented immigrants, 814,000, according to the latest estimates. Since undocumented immigrants are often forced to work for extremely low wages due to employers threatening to report them, they are more likely to pack-in together in overcrowded conditions.
Although these statistics are quite gruesome, policy action can be taken to ameliorate this. For the short-term, one action would be to allow for families in overcrowded housing to move into vacated units. In New York City, thousands of wealthier residents escaped when COVID hit, opening up the supply of housing. Some of these vacated units may be larger and more suitable for families in need. A temporary housing swap could be arranged for people, alleviating this public health crisis. Keep in mind that there is probably only a paltry amount of housing spaces that would be appropriate for large families to move into. Los Angeles was actually suffering from a record low housing vacancy rate before this. Even then, unhoused individuals should receive first priority.
That being said, this is a systematic issue that can only be solved with long-term solutions. The reason why families and individuals are forced into overcrowded housing is due to a lack of supply of appropriate housing. Constructing more spacious, high-unit housing in systematically privileged neighborhoods would allow for lower-income families to move out of these compressed situations and breathe freely. Research from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government has shown that one possible tool would be to synthesize empirical data on housing prices, education, incomes, and local climate to pinpoint where demand for more housing is likely to occur. This along with creating policies to allow for upzoning and development streamlining would fashion Los Angeles to be the equitable and resilient city that it should be.
If the city and county of Los Angeles are serious about making the area safe for lower-income communities of color, the need to deeply consider making housing conditions suitable. Los Angeles has a well-documented lack of units available, and its effect on overcrowding is pure torture for many. This only exacerbates the penetration of contagious diseases and further perpetuates inequity. A commitment to a pro-housing future is the start of the solution to this intertwined problem.