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Todd: Overcrowding, aggravated by housing crisis, spreads disease

Opinion: Viruses transmit in kitchens and bathrooms, which are becoming increasingly over-shared as the gap widens between incomes and housing costs, says UBC prof

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As if there are not enough problems with the exorbitant cost of housing, now we must face up to how it contributes to poor health.

Overcrowding within houses and apartments helps spread disease, according to studies in the U.S., Britain and Australia.

Overcrowding, which is calculated on the number of people living together per square foot, could be at its worst in almost a century in English-speaking countries.

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This disturbing reality has come to light from the COVID-19 pandemic. It pushed researchers to consider how much the virus was spread by a host of variables, such as transit travel, elevator use, poor hygiene, working in the service sector, and going to parties and conferences.

Now, however, it’s becoming clearer that overcrowding is one of the most significant factors in spreading disease, even while no single thing can explain it all. And today, alas, we’re seeing more people forced to share a dwelling because of the rising cost of owning and renting.

People don’t generally live in crowded quarters because it’s cosy or entertaining. Given the main reason they do so is lack of income, vulnerability to disease is another offshoot of the affordability crisis that is especially plaguing cities like Toronto and Vancouver.

This particular health worry is spelled out as a unique theme in a new book, Broken City: Land Speculation, Inequality and Urban Crisis, by a University of B.C. professor, Patrick Condon of the school of architecture.

Last month, I offered an overall review of Broken City, but Condon’s secondary topic, outlined in a chapter titled Inequality, Disease and Urban Land, calls for special attention. Condon’s research into the spread of disease aligns with a report from Statistics Canada, which explores how overcrowding is playing out in Canada.

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It’s not only immigrants who are living in crowded conditions. Many in the generation of wage-earning young adults are forced to live in increasingly cramped residences.

Condon connects a lot of dots. In most major cities, he maintains, the value of land now far exceeds the value of the buildings on it. The price of dirt has inflated so drastically that buying or renting a home has jumped out of reach of ordinary wage earners, creating severe inequality.

“It is the price of the land under the building that is far more important than any other single factor in determining who gets sick, who struggles to keep a roof over their heads and who lives paycheque to paycheque,” he writes, summing up his main argument.

In Canada about one in 10 people live in overcrowded conditions, Condon says. In Greater Toronto that’s the case for one in five renters, in Vancouver it’s one in eight. In expensive parts of the U.S., congestion in dwellings is worse.

As the gap between incomes and housing costs widens, Condon says, “The result is an unhealthy crowding in the homes of immigrants, people of colour and the wage-earning class more generally — a crowding not seen since the 1930s.”

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The data, Condon says, now clearly shows “it is not residential density that is the vector for disease (that is, the number of units per acre) but the number of people per square foot in the housing units themselves. Disease passes in shared kitchens and bathrooms, not in the elevators and lobbies of expensive high rises.”

Across the U.S. the rate of overcrowding (defined as more than one occupant per room) is relatively low, at five per cent. But it moves up to eight per cent in places like California, which has severe housing costs, says Broken City, and to 24 to 40 per cent in many low-income California neighbourhoods, which endured the highest COVID death rates.

In Britain, overcrowding in apartments was found to be the most glaring way to transmit disease. Death rates from COVID were six times higher in districts in which over 20 per cent of housing was overcrowded compared to those in which only five per cent was overcrowded.

New immigrants are among the most susceptible to overfilled dwellings, given the high cost of land and rents, Condon maintains. “As a consequence, immigrant families are increasingly forced to crowd a dozen people into apartments suitable for four, creating a rich environment for the transfer of disease.”

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While Condon’s book makes broad generalizations about housing conditions for immigrants and people of colour, particularly in regard to the U.S., a Statistics Canada database allows us to be more precise about which groups are actually ending up in substandard housing in this country.

Taking Metro Vancouver, for instance, one clear trend from a housing census report last year is that people of Filipino and Arab backgrounds face among the most crowded conditions, while people with Chinese and Latin American origins tend to live in the most spacious dwellings.

Housing suitability
Filipino and Arab recent immigrants live in the most crowded (“not suitable”) housing in Metro Vancouver.

The census data show that 48 per cent of Filipinos and Arabs in Metro Vancouver who immigrated recently were living in housing that StatCan tagged as not suitable. (In Canada, “not suitable” is defined as a shortfall of one, two or three bedrooms, based on a maximum of two people per bedroom.)

People of Chinese ancestry, the second-largest ethnic group in Metro, are perched at the other end of the spectrum. The census data shows 90 per cent of recent Chinese immigrants in Metro are in roomy dwellings, in part because many brought enough money to buy homes immediately upon arrival.

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In Canada, in other words, the proportion of immigrants who end up in residences more prone to the spread of disease varies widely by group.

In general, housing expansiveness improves for second and third generations, regardless of ethnicity. The trouble is that is less the case in these times of severe unaffordability.

In the end, Condon doesn’t want the public to forget that the spread of disease through overcrowding is an offshoot of a larger economic crisis.

“Overcrowding is not done for fun, but out of financial necessity. Thus the singular vector for disease is not crowded housing by itself but the high cost of adequate housing, which is at the root of the unequal danger from pandemics.”

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