This post is the first in a series: Lessons from a Pandemic.

The COVID-19 pandemic represents, in the words of a California legislator, “a whole new [housing] crisis on top of the one we were already experiencing.” The pandemic has made it harder for many residents to afford their rents. It has further exposed an already dire homelessness crisis. It has blown holes in local and state budgets, potentially reducing funding for affordable housing. And the pandemic is suppressing already-low housing construction. While housing advocates have rightly focused on these immediate challenges, it is also worth thinking through potential longer-term ramifications for housing in the Los Angeles region. 

Some commenters assume that the current focus on physical/social distancing will permanently transform how and where we live. Apologists for sprawl have argued that people will want to avoid urban living after the pandemic, because “dispersion may well seem a safer bet than densification.” The fact is that deaths from COVID-19 have more to do with competent response than urban density.  Dense cities like Hong Kong and Seoul, South Korea with comparatively few COVID-19 fatalities show that cities can be safe if effective public health measures are adopted. 

But peoples’ psychology and living preferences aren’t influenced primarily by evidence. Fear of contagion and habits of distancing could persist. Will there be less of a need for homes in urban areas in the wake of the pandemic? Will there be an aversion to multi-family homes like apartments and condos? Will the design of homes change? What will happen to proposals to allow more density?