Argument: COVID-19 cases not necessarily because of density but denser housing and work arrangements

Cities may not be the issue when it comes to COVID-19; rather, the larger issue might be density of homes, work, and travel experienced by some.

The inequalities of cities intersect in the rooms where people live and work. “The densest blocks in New York are in Manhattan, and that is not where cases of coronavirus are most frequent. They’re most frequent in Brooklyn and Queens, and in poorer neighborhoods,” says McDonald, lead scientist at the Nature Conservancy and author of the Nature of Cities analysis. “In Manhattan you might have only two people in a studio apartment, and in parts of Brooklyn or Queens you might have a family of five or six people in a room that size.”

An analysis from the housing-focused Furman Center at New York University lays out this answer more starkly: Mortality rates were higher in neighborhoods with lower incomes and less density across the geographic space but more density in a given home. That is, more people sharing a room or an apartment. Parts of the city with more renters living in overcrowded conditions had higher levels of infection, even though they had lower population density. And where more people had college degrees, fewer people got sick—possibly because people without college degrees are less likely to be able to work from home, and more likely to be riding public transit and working with other people, all potential points of exposure to the disease.

Class and race differences manifest in differing risk. “For some people who have been exposed, or are experiencing symptoms, staying home is not always the obvious course of action,” says Molly Franke, an epidemiologist at Harvard Medical School. People who don’t have sick leave, who might lose their wages or jobs if they don’t show up, don’t have the option of sheltering in place. They’re out in the world, with more chances to encounter the disease and bring it home to the people they live with. And then, Franke says, things get even worse: “For a patient with Covid-19 to successfully isolate, there must be a separate bedroom and at least two weeks worth of supplies.” Who can afford all that?

On May 18, statistics finally confirmed what the Furman Center analysis had implied. The New York City Department of Health released numbers on deaths from Covid-19 by zip code, and the accompanying map is clarifying: The death rate has been higher in poorer neighborhoods where more people of color live. When Covid-19 came to New York City, rich people threw their Rimowa rolling bags into their Audi Q8s and decamped. But people who are less likely to have access to health care, less likely to have jobs they can do from home, more likely to share housing—as usual, they’re the ones who bear the brunt of the disease. Population density hasn’t been the issue, except on the spatial scale where it’s a proxy for inequality.

The logical next question to me is whether these patterns hold across other cities and communities. Are the unequal outcomes among blacks in Chicago and Latinos in the Chicago suburbs due to the same factors? Do the same patterns hold in Los Angeles where car travel is more common? Would the spread of cases in food processing plants also fit within this explanation (denser working conditions, lower-wage workers living in different conditions)? And if people have resources, they have more space and ability to avoid other people. It would be worth seeing if this applies across the board as well or if working in certain jobs or settings would limit the advantages.

Thinking long-term, I am sure there is more to come on the differential effects of COVID-19.

The budget gap facing Chicago area suburbs due to COVID-19

An online forum with House leaders provided details on how suburban budgets in the Chicago area are affected by COVID-19:

Not only are sales taxes plunging but costs of preventing the respiratory disease are mounting, suburban leaders explained to House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer at an online forum hosted by U.S. Rep. Sean Casten Monday.

Glen Ellyn expects a 20% to 25% reduction in revenue over the next three to six months in the general fund, half of which goes to the police department, Village President Diane McGinley said…

Algonquin Village President John Schmitt said not only is the village shelling out for items like face masks but so far there’s been a 26% reduction in sales taxes revenues…

He noted Hanover Park is facing about $242,000 in COVID-19 expenses and a drop of almost $5.6 million in taxes.

If a retailer or business cannot open or sell at the same level as prior to the pandemic, this affects all sorts of outcomes. As noted above, communities have limited numbers of ways to fill this budget gap. They can look to governments above them – states, the federal government – but that puts their fate in the hands of others and that money may not come quickly or in sufficient amounts. In the short-term, this likely means putting off projects. Longer-term, it could mean some hard decisions about services and local amenities that suburbanites enjoy or think are essential.

The tax revenues might just be the tip of the iceberg; if retailers have to close (already an issue from urban shopping districts to shopping malls), this puts pressure on landlords as well as on communities to fill vacant space (already an issue in suburban communities whether filling big box locations or office parks) both to generate revenue and avoid the appearance of economic loss or blight. Local jobs are affected.

It will be interesting to see if these budget issues widen the gap between suburbs with a lot and those with less. There is already a bifurcated suburban landscape: some communities really struggling and some with a lot of resources, amenities, and status (and many somewhere in between). Those who have more can likely weather this storm better than the suburbs already struggling.

College students see inequalities while doing classes from home

Video conferencing software allows colleges classes to go on during COVID-19 but they can reveal differences between lives at home:

But as each logged in, not everyone’s new reality looked the same.

One student sat at a vacation home on the coast of Maine. Another struggled to keep her mother’s Puerto Rican food truck running while meat vanished from Florida grocery shelves. As one young woman’s father, a private equity executive, urged the family to decamp to a country where infections were falling, another student’s mother in Russia couldn’t afford the plane ticket to bring her daughter home…

She added: “It’s possible to believe that we can bridge inequalities by coming together on the Haverford campus, or that we can at least soften the edges — and then there is this incredible rupture. I’m very worried about what comes next for them.”

I suppose there is an optimistic and pessimistic way to look at this. For the first, perhaps college campuses truly do offer opportunities for students to have a somewhat level playing field. At the least, they have similar accommodations on campus and face similar day-to-day pressures regarding school. For the pessimistic side, on-campus college experiences may simply gloss over stark differences and access to resources while in school (as well as before and after). The campus experience might even make the problem worse by suggesting everyone has similar resources and opportunities.

Going further, there is a possible research study here looking at how students – and others using conferencing software for a variety of groups and organizations – display their surroundings. What are markers in a Zoom tableau or background that indicate relative advantage or disadvantage? How aware are users that they are doing this? Does it get discussed in the class/meeting/session or is it talked about later off-screen? What are the accepted norms in these areas?

From my own areas of research, I wonder what could be found regarding homes and interior spaces. Particularly for college students, where are the best or most common spaces for them to participate? American home activity can tend to center around the kitchen but I assume this is not the optimal space for video conferencing. This creates an interesting contrast: there are parts of homes that are meant to be showpieces for visitors – updated kitchens, big open concept spaces, entryways, the front exterior – but these would rarely show up on video conferences. If extended isolation becomes more common, would this change how people design homes and interior spaces?

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.

Studying elite/townspeople relations in wealthy Teton County, Wyoming

Elites have made Teton County, Wyoming a home and they have complicated relationships with local residents:

When he visits the downtown bars, “I don’t tell people that I live in a gated community. They accept me as a local,” he tells author Justin Farrell in his new book, “Billionaire Wilderness: The Ultra-Wealthy and the Remaking of the American West” (Princeton University Press), out now…

According to a 2018 report from the Economic Policy Institute, the wealthiest 1 percent in Teton County bring in an annual income that’s approximately 142 times more than the other 99 percent of families in the county. The “average” per-capita income in Teton County is just over $251,000, the highest in the country, according to the US Department of Commerce, and the rest of Wyoming doesn’t even come close, with most counties ranging between $40,000 and $50,000 per year, and none going above $70,000. Coming second to Teton is Manhattan, where the average income is $194,000…

But it goes deeper than taxes. Over the last few decades, the wealthy “feel like they’ve been unfairly criticized and targeted,” Farrell says. “Because of the Occupy Wall Street movement and politicians like Bernie Sanders, attacking the rich has become part of the dominant discourse. I actually had a few people tell me that they’ve come to Teton County to escape the socialist revolution. Wyoming feels like a safe haven for them.”…

Stewart considered this relationship, and others he had with lower-income locals, to be authentic and equitable, but as Farrell points out, “his friendships are often based on economic exchange and uneven power dynamics.”…

Claire Drury, who lives in Teton County but is far from rich, has a thinly veiled disgust for her wealthy neighbors. “Yeah, yeah, yeah, the ultra-wealthy are befriending us savages while drinking a really nice 1976 Bordeaux,” she told Farrell. “It is reminiscent of all the Buffalo Bill Wild West shows, [with] the noble savages sitting there stiff as a board while their photos are being taken in some sort of sepia-toned thing.”

It is rare to find studies of the elite that includes more direct data including interviews. For a variety of reasons, sociologists tend to focus with elites in an aggregate or from a distance. And one advantage of having money and/or power is that people can exert some control of who has access to them.

And yet, this also sounds like a neighborhood or community study (albeit in a more rural area), a common feature of American sociology for over one hundred years. Even the wealthiest members of Chicago’s Gold Coast could not easily ignore the more difficult conditions just down the street from them (from the classic study The Gold Coast and the Slum). Elites do not exist outside of communities and interactions with people around them. How they get along with others – or not – is worth considering as is how these interactions affect broader communities and could affect the influential ways that elites can act.

 

 

A (real) pie chart to effectively illustrate wealth inequality

Pie graphs can be great at showing relative differences between a small number of categories. A recent example of this comes from CBS:

CBS This Morning co-host Tony Dokoupil set up a table at a mall in West Nyack, New York, with a pie that represented $98 trillion of household wealth in the United States. The pie was sliced into 10 pieces and Dokoupil asked people to divide up those pieces onto five plates representing the poorest, the lower middle class, middle class, upper middle class, and wealthiest Americans. No one got it right. And, in fact, no one was even kind of close to estimating the real ratio, which involves giving nine pieces to the top 20 percent of Americans while the upper middle class and the middle class share one piece between the two of them. The lower middle class would effectively get crumbs considering they only have 0.3 percent of the pie. What about the poorest Americans? They wouldn’t get any pie at all, and in fact would get a bill, considering they are, on average, around $6,000 in debt…

To illustrate just how concentrated wealth is in the country, Dokoupil went on to note that if just the top 1 percent are taken into account, they would get four of the nine pieces of pie that go to the wealthiest Americans.

A pie chart sounds like a great device for this situation because of several features of the data and the presentation:

1. There are five categories of social class. Not too many for a pie chart.

2. One of those categories, the top 20 of Americans, clearly has a bigger portion of the pie than the other groups. A pie chart is well-suited to show one dominant category compared to the others.

3. Visitors to a shopping mall can easily understand a pie chart. They understand how it works and what it says (particularly with #1 and #2 above).

Together, a pie chart works in ways that other graphs and charts would not.

(Side note: it is hard to know whether the use of food in the pie chart helped or hurt the presentation. Do people work better with data when feeling hungry?)

Black homeownership rates similar to before 1968 Fair Housing Act

An article about homeownership among black millennials includes this statistic:

Homeownership levels for blacks reached 42.7% in the third quarter of 2019 (compared with 64.8% for the overall population), a near-record low that has virtually erased all of the gains made since the passage of the Fair Housing ACt in 1968, landmark legislation outlawing housing discrimination, census data show.

“African Americans are already being left out of the housing market and that’s exacerbating levels of inequality in this country,” says Lawrence Yun, chief economist and senior vice president of research at the National Association of Realtors. “There’s a kind of urgency now within the housing community to bring younger African American buyers into real estate.”

Despite a decade of economic growth in the United States, including record low unemployment and higher wages for black workers, millennials of color make up only a small portion of the overall market for real estate, data show.

This cannot be good. Even as other economic figures might be good, owning a home offers a key way for Americans to build wealth over time. Going further, not having a home means being at the whim of landlords, perhaps more instability regarding having housing, and limited access to wealthier communities where a majority of residents own homes. Furthermore, this data suggests not much has changed in 50 years; does this hint that the gap between groups in the United States remains relatively unchanged?

If the next generation of young adults is struggling to purchase homes, that suggests the problem will continue for at least another 10-20 years. If there are politicians serious about fighting inequality, wouldn’t this be a good issue to take up, particularly given the persistent gaps between black and Latino homeownership and white homeownership?