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Todd: Overcrowding, aggravated by housing crisis, spreads disease

Opinion: Viruses are transmitted in kitchens and bathrooms, which are increasingly shared as the gap between income and housing costs widens, says UBC professor.

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As if there weren’t enough problems with the exorbitant cost of housing, we must now confront how it contributes to poor health.

Overcrowding in houses and apartments helps spread disease, according to studies in the United States, Great Britain and Australia.

Overpopulation, which is calculated by the number of people living together per square foot, could reach its worst level in almost a century in English-speaking countries.

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This disturbing reality has come to light since the COVID-19 pandemic. This pushed researchers to consider the extent to which the virus was spread through a number of variables, such as transit travel, use of elevators, poor hygiene, working in the service sector, and attending parties and conferences.

Now, however, it is increasingly clear that overcrowding is one of the most important factors in the spread of disease, although nothing alone can explain everything. And today, sadly, we see more people forced to share housing due to the rising cost of ownership and rent.

People generally don’t live in crowded places because they are cozy or entertaining. Since the main reason they do so is lack of income, vulnerability to disease is another consequence of the affordability crisis that is especially plaguing cities like Toronto and Vancouver.

This particular health concern is explained as a single topic in a new book, Broken City: Land Specification, Inequality and Urban Crisis, written by a University of BC professor, Patrick Condon, of the school of architecture.

Last month I offered a general review of Broken City, but Condon’s secondary theme, outlined in a chapter titled Inequality, Disease, and Urban Land, requires special attention. Condon’s research into the spread of disease aligns with a Statistics Canada report, which explores how overcrowding is developing in Canada.

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It is not just immigrants who live in overcrowded conditions. Many members of the generation of salaried young adults are forced to live in increasingly cramped residences.

Condon connects many dots. In most major cities, he maintains, the value of the land far exceeds the value of the buildings that comprise it. The price of land has inflated so drastically that buying or renting a home has become out of reach for ordinary earners, creating serious inequality.

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

In Canada, about one in ten people live in overcrowded conditions, Condon says. In Greater Toronto that is the case for one in five renters, in Vancouver it is the case for one in eight. In expensive parts of the United States, housing congestion is worse.

As the gap between incomes and housing costs widens, Condon says, “the result is unhealthy overcrowding in the homes of immigrants, people of color, and the wage-earning class in general, overcrowding that has not been seen before.” since the 1930s.”

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The data, Condon says, now clearly show that “it is not residential density that is the vector of disease (i.e., the number of units per acre), but the number of people per square foot in the housing units themselves. “Diseases are transmitted in shared kitchens and bathrooms, not in the elevators and lobbies of expensive skyscrapers.”

Across the United States, the rate of overcrowding (defined as more than one occupant per room) is relatively low, at five percent. But it rises to eight percent in places like California, which has severe housing costs, Broken City says, and between 24 and 40 percent in many low-income California neighborhoods, which bore the highest COVID death rates. high.

In Britain, overcrowding in apartments was found to be the most obvious way to transmit disease. COVID death rates were six times higher in districts where more than 20 percent of households were overcrowded compared to those where only five percent were overcrowded.

New immigrants are among those most susceptible to overcrowded housing, 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 that can accommodate four, creating an environment conducive to disease transfer.”

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While Condon’s book makes broad generalizations about housing conditions for immigrants and people of color, particularly as they relate to the United States, a Statistics Canada database allows us to be more precise about which groups actually end up in substandard housing. in this country.

Taking Metro Vancouver, for example, a clear trend from a housing census report from last year is that people of Filipino and Arab origin face the most crowded conditions, while people of Chinese and Latin American origin tend to live in the most crowded housing. more spacious.

Housing suitability
Recent Filipino and Arab immigrants live in the most overcrowded (“unsuitable”) housing in Metro Vancouver.

Census data shows that 48 per cent of Filipinos and Arabs in Metro Vancouver who recently immigrated lived in housing that StatCan rated as unsuitable. (In Canada, “not adequate” is defined as a deficit of one, two or three rooms, based on a maximum of two people per room.)

People of Chinese descent, the second-largest ethnic group in Metro, are at the other end of the spectrum. Census data show that 90 percent of recent Chinese immigrants in Metro live in spacious housing, in part because many brought enough money to buy homes immediately after arriving.

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

In general, housing expansion improves for the second and third generations, regardless of ethnicity. The problem is that this is less true 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 a consequence of a larger economic crisis.

“Crowding is not done for fun, but out of financial necessity. Therefore, the singular vector of disease is not overcrowded housing itself, but the high cost of adequate housing, which is the root of the unequal danger of pandemics.”

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