Deaths and COVID-19 by groups, communities in Cook County

COVID-19 is big in its effects but I am surprised we have not seen more coverage all over the place about who specifically is affected more within regions and big cities. WBEZ looks at recent data in Cook County, Illinois:

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In the earliest weeks of the pandemic, Chicago’s Black residents were dying of COVID-19 at alarming rates. More recently, in the few weeks since the arrival of the omicron variant, Black Chicagoans are again dying at much higher rates than their Asian, Latino and white counterparts, shows a WBEZ analysis of data on COVID-19 related deaths from the Cook County Medical Examiner’s Office.

Since Dec. 7, 2021, the date when the state’s first omicron case was found in Chicago, the city’s Black residents are dying at rates four times higher than Asians, three times higher than Latinos and nearly two times higher than white residents, according to WBEZ’s analysis. A total of 97 Black Chicagoans died of COVID-19 during the seven-day period ending Jan. 9, 2022 — more than at any point since May 11, 2020.

Black Chicagoans aren’t the only demographic that has been particularly vulnerable since the arrival of omicron. Older suburban Cook County residents have also seen their seven-day COVID-19 death totals reach levels not witnessed in more than a year. According to WBEZ’s analysis, a total of 181 suburban Cook County residents 60 years and older died from COVID-19 during the week ending Jan. 9, 2022. That’s the highest seven-day total for that group since Dec. 24, 2020…

While several communities on Chicago’s South and West sides have been hit hard by COVID-19, the pandemic’s death toll has also weighed heavily in various parts of suburban Cook County. WBEZ’s analysis finds some of the county’s highest COVID-19 death rates in parts of northwest suburban Niles, Norridge and Lincolnwood, southwest suburban Palos Heights, Chicago Ridge, Oak Lawn and Bridgeview; and south suburban Hazel Crest, Markham, Harvey, Robbins and Country Club Hills.

I am sure there are already and will continue to be many academic studies that examine these differences. Even as COVID-19 has impacted many, the impacts of COVID-19 are not distributed evenly. It arrived at a time of inequality, including in health outcomes and experiences, and it exacerbated issues.

At least in the Chicago area, data on this topic is available online. For example, I have tried to keep track of the disparate effects of COVID-19 in DuPage County where there are significant differences across racial and ethnic groups, age groups, and communities (earlier post here).

Who should be able to live on or near the coast?

A new federal government flood insurance plan highlights an ongoing question: should living near the ocean coast be available to many?

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At the center of the fight are the questions of who gets to live by the water, and who should shoulder the burden of costs that rise with the sea level. The estimated 13 million people who reside in the officially designated floodplain are divided between those who can buy pricey waterfront homes and those consigned to live in less desirable, low-lying areas because that’s all they can afford. Some of the people hardest-hit by major recent storms have been vulnerable communities in New Orleans; Port Arthur, Texas, outside Houston; and poor neighborhoods in the farthest reaches of New York City. The updated flood-insurance system is designed to help those populations, but in coastal communities across the country, uncertainty about the new prices is spreading fear that however well intentioned, the administration’s policy will exacerbate the inequality of beachfront living, pushing out homeowners most sensitive to climbing insurance rates.

Real estate is famously about location, location, location with recent examples – COVID-19 migration and opportunities in the metaverse – illustrating this maxim. The coast may be one of the most desirable locations as there is only so much of it and people like the views and access to the water and beaches. Even though not all coastal properties are really expensive, such land near big cities and destinations can be very pricey with high demand.

Even as the insurance program is updated, perhaps the real long term question is just how many people should be able to live on the coast at all given climate change, environmental concerns including erosion and habitat degradation, and an interest in keeping shoreline available for public use. Is there any chance more coastline in popular areas is protected fifty or one hundred years from now or are the market pressures just too strong?

Uneven development by neighborhood continues in Chicago

Examining both population change and development activity across Chicago neighborhoods between 2010 and 2020 reveals stark differences:

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Overall, the city’s population increased by about 50,000 during that decade. But aside from those top 10 communities — which are found mostly on the North Side or near downtown — the rest of the city actually declined in population by more than 40,000 people.

WBEZ conducted an analysis of growth in Chicago community areas within the past decade, examining growth in population, new construction permits, jobs, and licenses issued to new businesses. The analysis showed that majority-white communities, collectively, experienced high growth in all areas: population, jobs, new construction and new businesses. The same was true for areas experiencing significant growth in white population, like the Near West Side and the Near South Side…

When compared with majority-Black and majority-Latino communities, and communities with no majority racial or ethnic group, majority-white communities also had higher rates of job growth, new construction and new businesses…

“Race is a big factor in the growth and development and revitalization in Chicago communities,” said Saunders, who studies Rust Belt cities and urban dynamics. “It’s a big factor that many people do not want to acknowledge.”

Such disparities across Chicago neighborhoods and the role of race are not new. The 77 community areas and how many neighborhoods have had different reputations and resources available. For decades, Chicagoans have celebrated how these different communities can have a common identity while knowing that this did not mean they were treated the same.

What may be newer is that this issue has received more attention in recent years. Former Mayor Rahm Emanuel was criticized for efforts directed at downtown and wealthier areas. He was Chicago’s leader for a good portion of the decade. Chicago remained an important global city, but those benefits did not reach all residents or neighborhoods. Many called for this to change.

And this is not an issue limited to Chicago or just big cities. Uneven or unequal development is a prominent feature of communities in our current system. Within metropolitan regions, some suburbs are wealthy and continue to accrue residents and businesses (see the example of Arlington Heights in the Chicago news) while others struggle. These patterns often follow race-based settlement patterns and residential segregation.

This could be a critically important issue for the twenty-first century: how to encourage development and growth within places that historically have not attracted residents or capital. Without significant interventions, these patterns do not easily change.

Facebook and powerful actors

The Wall Street Journal reports on the ways powerful people interact with the platform differently compared to regular users:

The program, known as “cross check” or “XCheck,” was initially intended as a quality-control measure for actions taken against high-profile accounts, including celebrities, politicians and journalists. Today, it shields millions of VIP users from the company’s normal enforcement process, the documents show. Some users are “whitelisted”—rendered immune from enforcement actions—while others are allowed to post rule-violating material pending Facebook employee reviews that often never come.

At times, the documents show, XCheck has protected public figures whose posts contain harassment or incitement to violence, violations that would typically lead to sanctions for regular users. In 2019, it allowed international soccer star Neymar to show nude photos of a woman, who had accused him of rape, to tens of millions of his fans before the content was removed by Facebook. Whitelisted accounts shared inflammatory claims that Facebook’s fact checkers deemed false, including that vaccines are deadly, that Hillary Clinton had covered up “pedophile rings,” and that then-President Donald Trump had called all refugees seeking asylum “animals,” according to the documents.

A 2019 internal review of Facebook’s whitelisting practices, marked attorney-client privileged, found favoritism to those users to be both widespread and “not publicly defensible.”

“We are not actually doing what we say we do publicly,” said the confidential review. It called the company’s actions “a breach of trust” and added: “Unlike the rest of our community, these people can violate our standards without any consequences.”

This will likely get a lot of attention for the different approach to different kinds of users. That elite members are treated differently could get interesting in an era with an increased focus on inequality and the influence of social media.

I am also interested in hearing more about how much Facebook and other social media platforms rely on powerful and influential people. Celebrities, whether in politics, entertainment, sports, the arts, or other spheres, are important figures in society. Elite figures may not be like regular users in that they attract a lot of views and promote engagement among other users. Social media platforms want users to engage with content and elites may provide just that.

Going further, social media platforms have power users. For example, a small percent of Twitter users are highly engaged. Social media use and content generation is even across different users. Should those who generate more content and engagement operate under a different set of rules? Is having provocative users or people who push the boundaries (or even get away with breaking the rules) good for business?

This makes me wonder if there would be a market for a social media platform that puts users on a more level playing field. If we know that certain resources, statuses, and social markers lead to differential treatment, might an online platform be able to even things out?

Asset income across American counties, from Teton County to South Dakota

A new report finds gaps in asset income across locations in the United States:

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Wyoming’s Teton County, home to Jackson Hole, has the nation’s highest per-capita income from assets, according to a study by the Economic Innovation Group. The analysis found a sharp increase in geographic concentration of asset ownership over the past decades…

It’s soared in places like New York City and the San Francisco Bay Area. Meanwhile, across Appalachia, the Deep South and much of the Midwest, it stagnated, representing a negligible source of income…

Nationwide, the county with the lowest asset income per capita is in South Dakota, home to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. At $2,800 per person, it’s one-third of the national average. Among the largest U.S. counties, the ones with the five lowest incomes from assets per capita are all mostly Hispanic or Black.

Only a minority of Americans holds assets beyond homes, cars and retirement savings. About 15% of households own stocks and 13% hold business equity or other residential property, according to Fed data.

First, the emphasis here on asset income is helpful compared to the more common analysis of incomes. While income may be related to assets, assets gets more at wealth or how income is converted into more long-lasting economic resources.

Second, that assets are concentrated in particular locations is not surprising but with the relatively limited number of Americans who have certain assets, this concentration is even more notable. The truly wealthy Americans have assets and utilize them in certain places, like New York City, San Francisco/Silicon Valley, and Jackson Hole, Wyoming.

With this said, how much does increasing incomes reduce the gap in wealth and assets? Or, how might efforts at local and national levels affect this gap both locally and nationally? The most exclusive locations are going to be difficult for many Americans to afford at any point, regardless of their income. While much sociological research has studied the concentration of poverty, wealth also concentrates with positive feedback loops for those who can participate.

Chicago to test ADUs: coach houses, attic and basement apartments

With housing issues in the city and region, Chicago is testing out several ways property owners can convert parts of their property into residences:

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Coach houses – stand-alone housing structures sometimes built above garages and sometimes referred to as “granny flats” – were once prevalent in Chicago, but changes in zoning and parking requirements caused their construction to be banned in 1957. In December, the Chicago City Council re-legalized coach houses and apartment units in basements and attics, passing the Affordable Dwelling Units Ordinance. The ordinance took effect May 1, and the city is now accepting applications.

The five pilot areas cover much of the city, with zones in the north, northwest, west, south, and southeast areas of Chicago. After a three-year evaluation period in these pilot zones, the city will decide whether to make the ordinance citywide policy…

For properties planning to construct two or more additional dwelling units, every other unit must be affordable housing.

This opens up new opportunities both for property owners and those searching for housing. For landlords, they can gain more income, house family members, or create new space on their property that people could live in later. For those needing housing, these are likely smaller spaces that could provide dwellings in residential neighborhoods and possibly help keep such housing more affordable with more units available.

But, how many of these units will be created? Property owners might not like the idea of someone living so close to them. It takes money to create these units. The density of residential neighborhoods is important to many single-family home owners; they often want more space. Does this create more demand for parking and vehicles? Could this lead to tension on a block if some want to add units and neighbors are not as bullish on the prospects?

Furthermore, do these efforts continue to concentrate wealth and opportunities in the hands of particular land owners who can afford to create and rent units? Will this truly lead to more cheap housing or will certain neighborhoods have more of these units at higher prices?

Could housing bounce back even more unequally after COVID-19?

Even as rents dropped in some major cities during COVID-19, might increased interest now reinforce existing issues in the housing market where those with resources have options and those with fewer resources cannot easily get a foot in the door? From Chicago:

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Trisler is among the buyers showing renewed interest in the downtown housing market after attention waned during the past year, as the lure of amenities and access to offices, restaurants and bars took a back seat in many cases to space and relative quiet…

In March, more homes were sold in the Loop and the surrounding neighborhoods than during any other month in at least a year, according to data from the Chicago Association of Realtors. A total of 531 homes were sold across those neighborhoods in March, compared with 418 in March 2020…

Low mortgage interest rates are making downtown condos more affordable to first-time buyers, such as those renting in luxury apartment buildings and looking to buy in similar buildings, he said. Homeowner’s association fees tend to be higher in buildings in dense neighborhoods, but the lower monthly mortgage payments can offset that. And buyers can negotiate good deals on homes in some parts of downtown, he said…

Despite the uptick in sales, lower-priced, one-bedroom condos have been slower to sell than bigger spaces, said @properties real estate agent Chris McComas. He speculated the smaller spaces appeal more to first-time homebuyers, who might have been furloughed earlier in the pandemic.

Some people did just fine during COVID-19. They had good jobs in particular fields that weathered the storm or even thrived during the pandemic. They may have been able to work from home. They already had homes, whether they owned or had rents they could afford.

Others had a tougher time. They have been laid off or furloughed. It could have been hard to find work. They might have become sick. Their housing situation might have been more precarious going in.

Now, as COVID-19 and its effects look like they are winding down, people can think about real estate again. Those who came out relatively unscathed will be able to more easily buy and sell. Those who did not will have a tougher time. This is not solely the fault of COVID-19; this bifurcated housing market has existed for some time. Starter homes are limited in number, somebody is buying the luxury condos that have continued to go up in the biggest cities, and younger adults have several obstacles that could limit their entrance into the housing market. At the same time, this could become another legacy of COVID-19: the ongoing splitting of the housing market.

Reminder: only about one-third of American adults have a college degree

Coverage of a recent study about life expectancy and education provided this reminder about education levels in the United States:

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About one-third of Americans have a four-year college degree, and they are living longer and more prosperous lives while the rest face rising death rates and declining prospects, said researcher Angus Deaton, a professor at the University of Southern California’s Center for Health Policy and Economics.

According to QuickFacts from the Census with July 1, 2019 estimates, 32.1% of American adults have a bachelor’s degree or higher.

For a good segment of Americans, college is the expected path that follows after high school and also leads to future opportunities, particularly regarding jobs. But, many American adults did not or do not follow that path and this has all kinds of consequences. At the least, it can provide a reminder to current college students and instructors that college is an opportunity and/or blessing, not just something to be endured for later outcomes. More broadly, that degree can separate workers in the job market, lead to subsequent educational opportunities, and, as this study suggests, interact with health.

In a land of driving, both a bifurcated housing market and car buying market

Americans like to drive and have structured much of daily life around driving. This means many people need a reliable car to get to a decent job, which then enables them to buy a decent home in a place they want to live. But, what if both the house and car buying markets do not provide a lot of good options at lower prices? From the auto industry:

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Yet that increase was nothing next to what happened in the used market. The average price of a used vehicle surged nearly 14% — roughly 10 times the rate of inflation — to over $23,000. It was among the fastest such increases in decades, said Ivan Drury, a senior manager of insights for Edmunds.com.

The main reason for the exploding prices is a simple one of economics: Too few vehicles available for sale during the pandemic and too many buyers. The price hikes come at a terrible time for buyers, many of whom are struggling financially or looking for vehicles to avoid public transit or ride hailing because the virus. And dealers and analysts say the elevated prices could endure or rise even further for months or years, with new vehicle inventories tight and fewer trade-ins coming onto dealers’ lots…

Charlie Chesbrough, senior economist for Cox Automotive, predicted a tight used-vehicle market with high prices for several more years…

In recent years, automakers had set the stage for higher prices by scrubbing many lower-priced new vehicles that had only thin profit margins. Starting five years ago, Ford, GM and Fiat Chrysler (now Stellantis) stopped selling many sedans and hatchbacks in the United States. Likewise, Honda and Toyota have canceled U.S. sales of lower-priced subcompacts. Their SUV replacements have higher sticker prices.

On the housing side, builders and developers have devoted less attention to starter homes. It can be difficult for some workers to find housing near where they work. The ideal of the suburban single-family home is not attainable for all.

On the driving side, cars are not cheap to operate and maintain. Moving to the suburbs and many American communities requires a commitment to driving to work. A reliable car at a reasonable price could go a long ways to keeping transportation costs down and freeing up household money for other items.

These issues require longer-term planning and attention: how can people with fewer resources still obtain decent housing and decent transportation options? COVID-19 may have exacerbated these issues but the article about the auto industry suggests these trends were already underway; car prices were on the upswing. Trying to tackle density issues or providing more mass transit are difficult to address in many communities and regions. A conversion to electric cars in the next decade or two sounds good but imposes new costs on drivers.

In the meantime, those with resources can likely pick up better options for both cars and homes. These choices can then have positive cascading effects on future spending and outcomes.

To get richer, get the right job and then “buy a home in a neighborhood with a lot of zoning restrictions”

David Brooks looks at which professions provide a higher likelihood of getting into the 1% and then how to get even richer once you are there:

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Once you’ve made some money, there’s one more way to get richer. Buy a home in a neighborhood with a lot of zoning restrictions. For example, 84 percent of the land in Charlotte, N.C., and 94 percent of the land in San Jose, Calif., is zoned for detached single- family homes. These restrictions keep the supply of housing low and jack up the value of homes for people wealthy enough to already own one.

My main message is that if you want to get rich, don’t invent a new and useful product, start a company and try to sell it. That seems risky. Put the effort into entering a clubby line of work in which legislators and professional associations are working to make you rich. It’s easier!

While the majority of the argument is about particular professions, I think the connection between jobs and exclusive homes is this: in both cases, the structures are set up to enrich those that can participate. Just as regulations and structures may privilege particular careers, zoning in the United States is often meant to protect single-family homes. If a homeowner can purchase a residence with particular features and in a specific setting, the zoning helps ensure that the property will be worth more in the future. The homeowner is responsible for some upkeep and updating – and may even go so far as to pursue a teardown – but the protections for the property are almost enough in themselves to let the investment grow in worth just be sitting there.

Connected to this, the zoning for single-family homes restricts the number of residences in that immediate area. More density does not necessarily mean lower property values; numerous urban centers – such as Chicago and New York – are home to new tall buildings whose units are only available to the super-wealthy. At the same time, proximity to amenities and particular neighborhoods are desirable and fewer residences there can help drive up the value of existing properties.

To some degree, many Americans are hoping for this to work for them. Go to college and get a good degree from a good school to gain the right skills, qualifications, and access to social networks. This leads to a better job with higher pay. Then, purchase a home in a reputable community where prices will continue to rise. Wait a few decades and let the pay, home investment, and other benefits accrue. This may not lead to being rich but it reduces anxiety about later decades in life.

Of course, the system could be set up in other ways. Do Americans want homes to be investment vehicles? Should there be such differences in pay and compensation across fields or job positions? Is zoning about the good of the community as a whole or about particular land owners? Combating existing patterns is no easy task, particularly in times when any discussion of inequality can quickly get heated.