Constructing needed housing and other housing during COVID-19

Even during COVID-19, construction goes on in the Bay Area amidst a need for housing:

California’s shelter-in-place order has forced millions of people to stay home and businesses to close to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus. Some construction workers, however, are still reporting for work to build and renovate Silicon Valley mansions and San Francisco luxury condos because of carve-outs in shelter-in-place orders that exempt any housing construction as “essential” business.

Local officials say residential construction of all kinds is necessary to address the region’s housing crisis. The exemption means affordable housing projects are moving forward, too…

In Palo Alto, where the median property value is $3 million, according to Zillow, residential construction has been so ubiquitous that the city’s new coronavirus support line was inundated with calls about what kind of construction was permitted under shelter-in-place, according to the city’s daily coronavirus newsletter Monday. This past week, crews showed up to work on single-family homes valued on Zillow at $7.3 million for an eight-bedroom house and $9.6 million for a five-bedroom house…

Backlash from concerned neighbors is predictable, said Laura Foote, executive director of YIMBY Action, a Bay Area network of advocates for increased housing supply at all economic levels. “People find new reasons to believe what they have always believed,” she said. “We have a housing shortage and that is what’s driving up cost. More housing also helps bring down the overall cost.”

The article goes into more detail about the debates over the continued housing. There appear to be multiple issues: whether any construction should go on, whether construction should go on for building luxury or expensive housing, and if construction goes on, whether workers and developers should follow rules about social distancing.

This is both a reminder of the lingering issues in a world very focused on COVID-19 as well as the complications of housing questions in the Bay Area and California more broadly. Fiinding solutions has proven difficult; building more affordable housing in many regions depends on local actions which wealthier communities tend to avoid.

Perhaps the question coming out of the pandemic will be this: will the Bay Area, the Seattle area, New York City, and other tight housing markets be more open to affordable housing conversations and action after everyone had to unite (or at least agree to stay away from each other) for a common cause? Crises tend to reveal inequalities but they do not always lead to efforts to address and rectify the problems.

Designing homes to be “everything all at once” for times when everyone is home all the time

Americans generally like private single-family homes but are the homes Americans have now designed well for confinement and sheltering in place?

Homes, whatever their size or their layout, are constructed to be part of an ecosystem. They make assumptions about the way their eventual residents will interact with the affordances, and the economies, of the outside world. They assume, generally speaking, that people will commute to work (hence, in suburbs and rural areas, the abundance of driveways and garages). They assume that people will live much of their life outside the home. And they assume that the home’s residents will, as a consequence, have access to goods produced elsewhere: groceries, games, cleaning supplies. (American refrigerators are the size they are because their designers made informed bets about how often their owners would visit a grocery store.)

Apartments in cities make similar assumptions, but in reverse: They assume that the city itself is a meaningful extension of whatever square footage a dwelling might offer. They treat the home as what it often will be, for the resident: one place among many in the rhythms of a day…

Neither scenario accounts for what many Americans are experiencing right now: home as the only place. Home as the everything. The confinement can pose, for some, a direct danger. Jacoba Urist, writing about the “tiny apartment” trend in 2013, noted that large amounts of time spent in enclosed spaces, particularly if those spaces have several occupants, can be a source of stress—especially for kids. A child-protective-services worker recently sent ProPublica a list of worries she has about the people in her care: “that my families will literally run out of food, formula, diapers. That some of them may die for lack of treatment. That some children may be injured or harmed through inadequate supervision as their desperate parents try to work. That stress may lead to more child abuse.” Gwyn Kaitis, the policy coordinator for the New Mexico Coalition Against Domestic Violence, noted in the same piece that “violence increases when you have circumstances such as unemployment and isolation.”…

“In general, it’s wonderful,” Susanka said of the open-concept approach to living spaces. “But when it’s done to an extreme, it makes it very difficult to live in the house, because your noise, whatever you’re doing, goes everywhere.” When the home involves kids, that borderlessness becomes even more acute. A child might need to be entertained or fed while her mom is on a conference call. An older sibling might be playing video games or watching a movie while her dad is trying to cook dinner. Another sibling might need a retreat from his co-quarantiners, and have no place to go. In an open space, one person’s activity becomes every person’s activity. Alone together, all the time: For many, that is the current state of things. The “See Also” section of Wikipedia’s “open plan” article cites only one related page: “panopticon.”

There is a lot to think through here. A few thoughts on what this might mean for homes in the future:

  1. I have seen the suggestion from a few places that more Americans will seek out homes in the future that have dedicated office spaces at home. Without a room that can be closed off and relatively quiet, it can be hard to work from home when everyone else is also home.
  2. Will this push more Americans to seek out more square footage in their dwellings? The argument can go like this: you never know when you might need that extra space (such as during a pandemic). An extra room or two could be converted to office space or classroom space or food/toilet paper storage when residents need to stock up. Additionally, does this experience limit how many people will be willing to bet on a tiny house?
  3. A push toward further integration of technology into houses. If people are working from home and spending all of their time there, imagine dwellings with screens and speakers in every space, effective wi-fi everywhere, and both ample space for sitting and standing (with the need to stand and work to vary it up and move around). Carrying a laptop, a tablet, or a phone around to every interior space may not cut it.
  4. Earlier evidence suggested people congregate around the kitchen while other parts of the house go relatively unused. The kitchen might still be a gathering space but perhaps more attention and innovation will come to other spaces that in earlier times would be relatively ignored. When a bedroom has to serve more purposes, perhaps this means there will be different furniture or amenities there.

New York City, Los Angeles on different COVID-19 trajectories

To this point, COVID-19 has had different effects in the two most populous cities in the United States:

Public health officials are keeping a wary eye and warning that LA could end up being as hard hit as New York in coming weeks, in part because a planned increase in testing may uncover a dramatic surge in cases. Testing in Los Angeles County is expected to increase from 500 per day to 5,000 by the end of the week…

In both cities, schools have been canceled, many businesses shuttered and employees who can have been ordered to work from home. New York City, with roughly 8.5 million residents, had nearly 45,000 cases and at least 366 deaths as of Friday, according to a tally by Johns Hopkins University. Los Angeles County, which contains its namesake city of 4 million people plus an additional 6 million residents, had nearly 1,500 cases and 26 deaths.

Health experts don’t know why there is such a big difference in the number of cases, but believe several things could be at play, such as urban density, differences in the use of mass transportation and slightly earlier moves by authorities to enact social distancing policies. A difference in the speed and amount of tests could also be factors, as officials warn that many people who get COVID-19 don’t necessarily have symptoms…

While a shortage of tests in California during the early weeks of the crisis is one reason for a much lower number of cases, it doesn’t alone explain the difference. New York has tested about three times as many patients, but it has 10 times as many cases as all of California.

There are a lot of possible moving parts (and combinations of these) that could explain the differences. I’m guessing there will be a lot of interesting research that comes out eventually that examines the interaction between place (and all the factors associated with that) and both the spread and consequences of COVID-19. The virus may spread to all areas eventually but the early stages suggest some differences across places.

Let’s say future research finds some differences between locations not just related to policies but to fundamental features of physical space such as density, mass transit use, and levels of social interaction. Will places be willing to change their behavior for the potential of a pandemic? In a world where locations brand themselves and look to attract residents and businesses (recent example), could traits that mean less exposure to infectious diseases represent a selling point?

One factor that I do not see mentioned in this article is the rate of travel in and out of each of these cities. Both are very important places located on coasts that experience a lot of travel in and out as well as much mobility across the region. But, does New York’s location in the the Northeast corridor matter and does New York City have significantly higher rates of global interaction and trade?

When communities resist and protest COVID-19 testing and treatment sites

NIMBY attitudes can be present even – or maybe especially – during pandemics:

Last week, residents in Darien, Connecticut, a tony exurb of New York City, successfully lobbied to shut down plans for a coronavirus testing site, despite surging demand. The reason? Complaints from neighbors. As it turns out, the “Not In My Backyard” impulse to block new development — which has been implicated in the severe affordability crisis affecting cities from coast to coast — translates far too neatly into blocking certain measures needed to stop the spread of the virus.

In a similar case in Ewing, New Jersey, a local landlord issued a cease-and-desist letter to the operator of a coronavirus testing center amid complaints about congestion in the parking lot. As The Trentonian reported, one resident who wanted to be tested in order to protect his three-year-old child wasn’t subtle about how he felt about the decision: “It blows my f**king mind.”

Community resistance from neighbors of testing sites is a rerun of the fierce NIMBY reaction to potential coronavirus quarantine sites. Back in February, California began looking for a place to shelter Americans returning from abroad with the virus and settled on an isolated medical campus in Costa Mesa. But after local residents complained, city officials sought and received a court injunction to stop the project.

As the need for quarantine sites expanded, so did the NIMBY backlash. Finding sites that won’t suffer the same fate has proven to be a major hurdle as the federal government attempts to manage the crisis. Back when the focus was still on returning cruise ship passengers, officials in Alabama went to the mat to keep passengers of the Diamond Princess cruise ship out of a local FEMA facility, eventually forcing the federal government to scrap the plan altogether. Similar fights have played out from Seattle to San Antonio, potentially undercutting the response to the coronavirus at key early stages. As a result, the federal government largely shifted quarantining efforts to military bases, where complaining neighbors hold less sway…

At first glance, it might seem like efforts to block potentially life-saving public health screenings and complaints about community character have little in common. But in both cases, the formula is the same: Whether out of an understandable fear of the unknown or a selfish desire to shift the burden elsewhere, local impulses are given veto power over broader social needs. Under normal conditions, the inability to constructively manage this means higher rents. In a public health emergency, it could be lethal.

In addition to what is in the last paragraph quoted above, I am struck by the resistance to facilities and sites that would be home to temporary concerns. It is one thing to object to a long-term health facility (see recent posts about a drug treatment facility in the western suburbs of the Chicago area here and here) but another to resist something that is needed now and presumably not permanent. Of course, this could be part of the fear: if a site treats COVID-19, could it then later be turned into a more permanent fixture in the community?

The logical extension of the NIMBY claims would be to push COVID-19 treatment sites or testing facilities to communities that could not resist it. When this plays out in areas like housing or unwanted land uses, this means that communities with less wealth and political power tend to become home to land uses that wealthier communities refuse. If such a pattern occurs here (and there is evidence that health differs dramatically by location in the United States), it could be evidence that pandemics further locational and health inequalities.

The backup offices for businesses and organizations to weather crises, disasters

Maintaining essential operations for a business or organization might be easier if they have a “ghost office” available:

Terrorist attacks. Natural disasters. And yes, pandemics. These are just a few of the events that might cause a company to abruptly ditch their usual building and relocate staff to a backup office – also known as a “disaster recovery” or “business continuity” site…

Not all businesses can afford to have these dedicated facilities at their disposal, but backup offices can prove crucial to the survival and safety of certain companies whenever crisis hits. Often, disruptive situations only last a few days or weeks. But with coronavirus potentially lasting well into 2021, firms may find themselves relying on backup offices much longer than ever before…

By spreading workforces across a greater number of sites, businesses are clearly hoping that they can mitigate some of the risk presented by Covid-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus. But some observers say working from home is better than opening up more offices, since any shared workplace could become a hotbed for virus transmission. Morley says Sungard’s clients are indeed thinking about hygiene. “Customers have actually said, ‘Look, before we come in can you do a deep clean?’” he explains…

Such backup offices are termed “hot sites” in the industry because they can be used immediately and don’t need to be kitted out or “warmed up” first. “Cold” sites, by contrast, could be as simple as an empty warehouse to which equipment can be shipped during a crisis.

Even if the majority of the workforce could work from home, how many organizations can move everything out of the office or online? The article presents such locations as a luxury – maintaining sites for long periods without using them could be very costly – but it is hard to imagine that many organizations or businesses can work fully off-site. There might be access to vital equipment (servers? files? machines?) as well as a desire for important personnel to gather and make decisions. At the least, I imagine many organizations have and/or will reconsider disaster/crisis plans.

The article hints at this and I am not sure how physical spaces could help much here: a pandemic crisis is much different than a natural disaster. With nature interfering with business, the needs might be to have electricity, Internet, access to workers and clients spread out over distances. Putting people in a centralized backup office makes a lot of sense for this. On the other hand, a pandemic means that a centralized location might be even worse for maintaining operations. The actual physical office space becomes less valuable or helpful in some disasters compared to others. Will some companies move to having separate safe offices for pandemics and natural disasters? Or, will the popularity of these sites decrease as organizations focus more on equipping individual employees and arms of the organizations to work from remote locations if needed?

My suburban neighborhood had the most pedestrians out that I have ever seen

We moved to a single-family home neighborhood nearly three years ago. Our street has a unique location; we have a mix of housing types within half a mile including single-family homes at several price ranges, condos, townhomes, and apartments and there is a good-sized city park around the corner. For a suburbanite, I am outside walking around pretty often and fairly observant.

Yesterday, I was outside for an hour in the afternoon. The weather was okay by Chicago-area spring standards: near 50, mostly sunny, no breeze. But, there was a big difference in the number of people walking and biking. A steady stream of people came by as couples, in family units, teenagers with friends, and single pedestrians out to walk the dog. From my front yard, I can see our street, a perpendicular arterial street, and a pathway through the park – all had a consistent set of people.

This was unusual. I am not usually out on a Tuesday afternoon but neither are all of these people. Living in a state with a shelter in place requirement, more people are home. Perhaps by the early afternoon, they want to get outside. Even though the weather was not great, it was warmer than the last few days and the snow had melted the day morning before. There is only so much Netflix someone can watch before needing a little break.

I am not sure this increased pedestrian behavior leads to more neighborliness or social interaction. We all are supposed to be six-plus feet apart. Some people wore headphones. Some of the people knew each other but others came from different micro-neighborhoods in the area. At the least, those outside saw more people than they typically would.

Will this last? Maybe as long as the shelter in place is required. A few people might turn these behaviors in uncertain times into more regular patterns in normal times. I would expect that pedestrian life will decrease significantly once work and school go back to more normal levels. And my suburban neighborhood will go back to relatively small numbers of people walking around on a regular basis.

 

Suburban municipalities to take own actions regarding COVID-19?

As different government bodies look to act in response to the spread of COVID-19, I was struck by the number of large cities and states that are acting (including the state in which I live). At the same time, I wonder: how are suburban communities responding?

A few thoughts:

-Many suburban communities have limited capabilities and cannot do a whole lot. They may have limited budgets, a relatively small number of employees, and not much power to compel action. Still, decisions to close public spaces – such as libraries, city/village/town halls, community centers – matter to the everyday lives of lots of people.

-Yet, some bigger suburbs in the United States are as large as small big cities. Their actions can be very consequential and they have more budget room to address issues. At this point, the news has primarily focused on the biggest cities in the United States but this matters for numerous other communities over 100,000 people (to use an arbitrary cut-off point for a larger community).

Americans tend to like local control and government but at the speed that a virus can spread and across political boundaries, individual actions across hundreds of American suburbs might not add up to much. Hence, people look to the state and federal level to mobilize resources and direct action.

-What is the role of metropolitan regions in all of this? The City of Chicago can act and affect millions of residents and workers but there are roughly seven million more people in the region. Counties can act and affect more residents. But, then the next level of action regarding COVID-19 seems to be at the state level. Are metropolitan regions working together or is the general lack of metropolitan cooperation revealed again in a time of crisis?