There has been much discussion and commentary concerning the presumed, hoped for, and anticipated days when we are in post-pandemic times. Questions abound, such as: When will life be back to normal? Will the rebound from the economic downturn caused by COVID-19 be a V-shaped recovery? U-shaped? Or any other shaped recovery?
Not surprisingly, the post-COVID-19 society may be unlike anything that has come before. Economic circumstances for 2020 are likely to be more dire than in any prior recent downturn.
According to the Bureau of Economic Analysis, the U.S. real gross domestic product (GDP) decreased at an annual rate of 32.9 percent in the second quarter of 2020, a decline not seen since the Great Recession.[i]Meanwhile, weekly jobless claims have exceeded one million for the 20th week in a row.[ii]
As housing is the largest asset and/or expense of any individual household, the affordability challenges for millions of how to pay for where they live will escalate to levels unprecedented post COVID-19. While it is too early to tell how the pandemic and economic environment will ultimately evolve, it is nevertheless appropriate to address the impacts of COVID-19 on the socio-economic aspects of housing.
For some, earnings and spending patterns have not been compromised by COVID-19; but this does not apply to the majority of people. Indeed, more than 40 million individuals in the U.S. have lost their jobs, and many who still have jobs have had their earnings reduced.
This financial hardship has not been uniform throughout society and places, but rather has remained highly variable by place, socio-economic class, industry, and job category. For example, nearly 68% of greater Los Angeles households experienced an earnings drop over the past two months, compared with 43% in Washington D.C. and more than 50% in New York City.[iii]
Insufficiently considered are people’s changing mentality regarding the density of urban living, the consequences of fundamental shifts in housing consumption, lower government tax revenues, and higher social service bailout costs that are causing severe public sector fiscal distress, to name a few.
I. COVID-19 IMPACT ON HOUSING ECONOMICS AND EXPERIENCE
- Low Urban Density Confronts the Economics of Land
With social distancing, the coronavirus outbreak has led to the confinement of place-based individual experiences, which has fundamentally and profoundly altered societal spatial patterns. Activities that previously occurred in public realms have been restricted or redirected to private and personal spaces.
Urban residences — historically part of a network of connections including workplaces, coffee shops, bars, restaurants, gyms, parks, entertainment venues, hospitals, libraries, museums, etc. — have been transformed into private living places that must now fulfill many activities that previously took place outside the home. The significance of home – a shelter – has been elevated to a panoramic need that accommodates many functions at once and expanded into a spatial medium for life, compared to the previous times when work and play used to take place in collective spaces.
At the city scale, the new normal is forcing us to be against the very ethos of dense urban centers. Considering that large cities with high densities across the globe have been vulnerable to and suffered significantly from COVID-19, many have blamed high-density living for exacerbating disease transmission. This has led some to predict the decline of cities, where people are close to each other and rely on public spaces and shared transit systems.
For collective public spaces, many cities are either closing original vehicular roads to convert them into pedestrian paths or widening the sidewalks to accommodate distance among people who walk and ride bikes. Parking lots and road spaces are also being converted to become extensions of retail or al frescofood and beverage spaces that provide more distance among consumers. The debate is still ongoing about how much public space should be reapportioned to protect Americans from the coronavirus and challenges conventional norms and our perceptions of the urban environment.
For residential quarters, it seems that the once dubbed “American dream” of a suburban lifestyle with low density and a large distance among individual houses — whose appeal in recent years faded as urban areas flourished — is regaining traction and increasingly becoming a desired practical solution in consideration of current public health imperatives.