California saw dense housing near transit as its future. What now?
SAN FRANCISCO — As Californians grow accustomed to 6-foot social distancing, the coronavirus could have a chilling effect on the state’s efforts to build more apartments near public transportation to solve its housing crisis.
Gov. Gavin Newsom and Democratic leaders have championed urban housing as a way to address the ever-rising cost of living in California. They prefer that approach over continuing the state’s legacy of expanding freeways and suburbs that take advantage of California’s vast geography — which has led to emissions pollution and neighborhoods in wildfire zones.
The Democrats’ argument had been gaining traction, especially among younger residents desperate for cheaper housing and less inured to car ownership. It was also a weapon in Newsom’s fight against homelessness, a sore subject that for months incurred the wrath of President Donald Trump.
But the coronavirus will likely stand in the way of that momentum. Opponents of infill and transit-oriented development are blaming population density as a primary factor behind the pandemic’s spread in urban areas, largely based on New York City’s exponential increase in coronavirus cases and deaths. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo conceded as much this week when explaining why the virus has been found in 15 times as many New Yorkers as Californians so far.
“We have one of the most dense, close environments in the country,” he said Wednesday. “And that’s why the virus communicated the way it did. Our closeness makes us vulnerable.”
Americans on social media are expressing a newfound appreciation for suburban homes and cars. Buses and trains are empty as residents stay home and work remotely.
“I think it’s absolutely going to impact people’s appetite for housing density,” said Susan Kirsch, founder of the group Livable California, which has led the Capitol fight against building high-density projects. Kirsch is skeptical of the Newsom-embraced estimate that California needs 3.5 million additional housing units by 2025.
Even in a pre-coronavirus world, California’s housing shift faced challenges. Cities and counties used to controlling their growth plans resented the state telling them to build upward instead of outward. Low-income residents feared a wave of condo gentrification that would force them to the outermost suburbs with long commutes.
For two years, battle lines have been drawn over bills by Sen. Scott Wiener, a San Francisco Democrat. His proposals would have forced local governments to allow more housing near transit stations and office buildings, but they died under intense opposition.
California still has 30-odd bills attempting to boost housing production, including a new one by Wiener that would allow more duplexes, triplexes and fourplexes based on the size of a city. Newsom declared in his State of the State address last month he wants more housing construction “especially near transit and downtowns.”
The landscape changed overnight, however. Wiener said he fully expects opponents to invoke the coronavirus.
“Of course people will abuse the coronavirus pandemic for other political goals,” Wiener said. “Some of the anti-housing activists, there’s an undertone that it’s somehow unhealthy to live in a dense urban environment. I’m confident they’ll latch onto this.”
While the outbreak in New York City has grabbed headlines and generated articles pinning the blame on urban density and predicting population shifts to the suburbs and exurbs, Wiener points to the relative success of crowded cities like Singapore and Hong Kong in curbing the virus’ spread.
“This contagion is not about whether you live in a densely populated area or a less densely populated area; it’s about whether you have a good public health response to a pandemic, and Hong Kong and Singapore had a fantastic response,” Wiener said. “The U.S. did not. It’s not because of density or lack of density, it’s because they did a good job and we did a bad job.”
Experts say viruses unquestionably spread more easily in denser areas, but it’s too simplistic to draw a direct correlation between population density and the likelihood of contracting the coronavirus. The largely suburban Santa Clara County and New Rochelle, N.Y., have also been among the nation’s hardest-hit regions.
“Density is a really important factor, but it needs to be unpacked,” said Benjamin Dalziel, a biology and math professor at Oregon State University who authored a study in 2018 that found large cities sustain seasonal flu pandemics for longer amounts of time and with a steadier rate of spread, while less dense cities see spikier rates of transmission that can strain health care systems’ capacity.
“I don’t think density is either bad or good; I can’t wrap my head around that notion of things,” he said.
While New York has been the epicenter of the outbreak so far, the patchy testing there and nationwide makes it much harder to tell whether New York has more cases than it should be expected to have for its size and how much worse it’s doing than other areas.
“Because we don’t have widespread testing, we can’t truly know what those case rates are and we can’t truly compare urban centers to urban centers, what might be happening in New York compared to San Francisco,” said Kathryn Conlon, an environmental epidemiologist at University of California, Davis. “Their testing capabilities might be different, so it’s challenging to really compare apples to apples there.”
Housing density advocates also have New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s relatively slow response to the pandemic as ammunition.
“Two weeks ago, the mayor of New York City was insisting people still go to restaurants, still go to clubs, still go to the gym,” said Matt Lewis, spokesperson for California YIMBY, which is backing Wiener’s bill and a host of others that would encourage more affordable housing. “That’s a failure of governance.”
Epidemiologists agree New York shouldn’t be taken as a referendum on urban centers’ vulnerability to the virus. The early spread of the disease in New York City “says little about the effectiveness of strong public health interventions of the kind that were imposed in Wuhan, Korea, Taiwan and Singapore,” said Stanford University epidemiologist Steven Goodman. “These show that social distancing can indeed be effective, along with other epidemic suppression measures, even in crowded urban centers.”
Building industry advocates in California say viral pandemics will take their place among the state’s other multifarious threats, including wildfire and the ever-present risk of earthquakes.
“California’s set up so every single potential risk under the sun exists somewhere in the state,” said Dan Dunmoyer, president and CEO of the California Building Industry Association. “You push people out of the wildland into the urban lands, you have the biggest seismic risk possible. … You go back to the urban areas, you’ve got Covid. The way we look at it is, you just have to build smart.”
Adapting to the coronavirus could include new plumbing and HVAC designs that minimize the transfer of disease, said Scott Wetch, a lobbyist who represents building trades unions. He pointed out that one phase of the 2003 SARS coronavirus epidemic was traced to a Hong Kong apartment complex where plumbing allowed virus-laden droplets in bathroom drains to recirculate through apartments.
“We can build denser housing and should, and do it in a safe way as long as we don’t denigrate the building standards,” he said. “Denser living conditions are going to present a better opportunity for spread and that’s what we’ve seen in New York City and that’s why New York City’s numbers are 10 times the numbers of the country as a whole, but I don’t think you can just turn a blind eye to the impact of climate change.”