Column: Coronavirus may be a new factor when California’s housing debate reignites

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People fleeing cities in an attempt to outrun the coronavirus have caused consternation in rural hinterlands and warm-weather refuges.

But the COVID-19 crisis has triggered a longer-term discussion about the health risks in densely packed cities and whether the crisis will lead to living quarters being more spread out in the future.

In the heat of the moment, it’s important to keep perspective. It’s worth noting that over history, cities have suffered great population declines because of plague and attack, but often eventually experienced a resurgence.

Flu pandemics haven’t always changed the course of history. The 1957-58 pandemic — which was different in many respects from the current one — resulted in 1.1 million deaths worldwide and 116,000 in the United States, but didn’t seem to alter the trajectory of cities.

When the coronavirus runs its course, hopefully in the not too distant future, the crisis likely will find its way into the debate over housing construction.

The term “suburban sprawl” has become something of a pejorative to urbanists, climate-change activists and many mass-transit promoters who say new housing should be densely built along transit lines. But the single-family home life has had great appeal for post-World War II generations seeking to flee the hustle and bustle of urban areas that others find attractive.

Suburbs also have the image of being a relatively safe haven from the crime, grime and real or perceived racial and ethnic tensions in the cities.

Now add the notion that urban areas facilitate the spread of the disease simply because people are living, working and commuting in such close quarters. Will that raise arguments for different kinds of housing, even more suburbs?

Suburbanites have long been a potent political force as residents there tend to turn out to vote in substantial numbers. In more recent times, they have become a more powerful lobbying force, albeit a fragmented one, but often with a common goal: to protect their relatively quiet neighborhoods from encroachment of new housing, particularly the multi-unit, lower-income variety.

More housing should go elsewhere, such as closer to urban areas, they often argue.

That’s been a key component in the battle against legislation in California to vastly increase housing construction, which supporters say will boost the supply and ease the high cost of housing. Opposition to those bills also has come from some inner-city residents and renters-rights groups contending gentrification will do away with existing affordable housing.

What lingering societal impact and fears remain after the COVID-19 crisis has passed is anybody’s guess. But more than a few analysts believe the widespread trend of telecommuting has the potential to change how a lot of people work, and from where, in the future.

While it seems most folks eventually will return to their offices, enough employees and employers may well continue the work-at-home mode to make a difference in traffic congestion and combating climate change.

Virus aside, a lot of people may gladly forego a long, slow commute to a centrally located office if they and their bosses have become comfortable with remote working.

As the build-or-not-to-build housing argument commences, it will be interesting to see what effect, if any, the crisis may have had on home availability and affordability. If, as this theory goes, people move out of urban areas, that could free up units and, potentially, make them less expensive.

However, those moving out have to end up living somewhere, which could mean more pressure to build farther from urban cores.

It’s hard for experts to predict the near-future impacts of the growing COVID-19 crisis, let alone whether it will have much long-term impact on where people live.

Last week, The Associated Press compared how the spread of the virus was unfolding in Los Angeles and New York City, and noted that it hadn’t escalated as badly in spread-out L.A. as it has in more densely packed NYC.

Experts who commented for the story cautioned against drawing hard conclusions at this stage because so much is still unknown and there have been differences in the rate of testing and timing of social-distancing rules. A Los Angeles Times story put more stock in the early social distancing in West Coast cities such as L.A., San Francisco and Seattle as a key factor.

Still, both articles noted that New York City is more jammed with people.

“New York City is a more densely packed community than what we see in California, even in Los Angeles, which is much more spread out,” said Robert Kim-Farley, a professor at UCLA’s Fielding School of Public Medicine. “The mixing, if you will, of population is much greater there.”

Joel Kotkin, a fellow in urban studies at Chapman University, has been predicting the “end of the megacity era” for some time, in part because of high housing prices, “social disorder” in urban areas and the advent of online commerce and working remotely from home.

In his article “The Coming Age of Dispersion,” Kotkin suggests this will be accelerated because the coronavirus is hitting a lot of cities hard, as plagues have historically.

That’s certainly a “time will tell” notion — a lot of time.

Perhaps a bit sooner, we’ll see whether the coronavirus outbreak affects the debate over where to build more housing in California.



Michael Smolens is a columnist for The San Diego Union-Tribune.


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