The Link Between COVID-19 Deaths and Overcrowded Housing

Overcrowding and housing insecurity among Black and Brown communities led to disproportionately high COVID-19 fatalities, research shows.

July 8, 2021, 5:00 AM PDT

By Diana Ionescu @aworkoffiction


Suburban Home

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Data from the Kinder Institute for Urban Research's 2021 State of Housing report "suggest a reason for the racial/ethnic differences in who COVID-19 killed," reports Stephen Averill Sherman. That reason: overcrowded housing. "[A]s scientists built knowledge of COVID-19’s spread, they learned that one needed more than a quick on-the-sidewalk encounter with an infected person to catch the disease. One needed to spend extended periods of time indoors with someone harboring the virus."  

According to research from New York University's Furman Center, "it wasn’t necessarily population density but housing crowding that accelerated the virus’s contagion." Housing insecurity exacerbated by the pandemic increased overcrowding at the worst possible time. "[I]n Harris County, Hispanic-headed households are about 10 times more likely to be overcrowded than white non-Hispanic-headed households (10.9% vs. 1.2%). Black- and Asian-headed households are in the middle (4.3% and 4.9%, respectively). Hispanic Houstonians were also the ethnic/racial group with the most outsized death share from COVID-19."

Additionally,

[t]he types of jobs with high COVID-19 fatalities—construction, food preparation, health care support—are often done by Black and Brown Houstonians. The most recent ACS data show that working-age Black Harris County residents fill 48% of health care support positions despite being 20% of the population. Per 2018 Census department data quoted in a Houston Chronicle story, Hispanic Harris County residents represent 50% of its food service workers and 81% of its construction workers.

Sherman argues that the disproportionate rate of COVID-19 deaths in Houston's low-income households could have been reduced by more effective use of resources such as expanded unemployment benefits, more robust rental assistance, and hotel rooms where those diagnosed with COVID-19 could safely quarantine. "[O]ne lesson learned," Sherman writes, "is that while we share a lot of air with our coworkers and housemates, we are not all in this together."

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