Confronting COVID-19: The Effects of COVID-19 on Multifamily and Affordable Housing

Originally published on Urban Land.

The health and economic effects of COVID-19 on the multifamily industry, in terms of exacerbating existing problems related to the nation’s affordable housing shortage, were discussed by housing experts and advocates convened April 7 for a ULI webinar on the impacts of the coronavirus outbreak on lower-income renters. “Confronting COVID-19: Considerations for Multifamily and Affordable Housing,” hosted jointly by ULI’s Terwilliger Center for Housing and the Institute’s Responsible Property Investment Council, was the third in a series of ULI webinars exploring how the virus is affecting the real estate industry, along with the industry’s response.

The webinar is free to access at the ULI Knowledge Finder, knowledge.uli.org.

Megan Sandel, codirector of the GROW clinic at the Boston Medical Center, co-lead principal investigator at Children’s HealthWatch, and associate professor of pediatrics at Boston University, discussed the relationship between housing and physical and mental health. The coronavirus pandemic has spotlighted how housing can serve much like a “vaccine” that helps foster greater social equity and promote overall well-being, Sandel said. Four factors that define place—quality, stability, affordability, and location—have been elevated in importance by the outbreak, demonstrating that “you cannot separate your health from where you live,” she said.

Social factors—both positive and negative—affect health outcomes, Sandel said, noting that the pandemic has underscored the interrelation of social factors such as access to food and stable housing as health determinants. “Social factors should not be thought of as individual factors, but thought of collectively,” she said, pointing to housing quality as a predictor of children’s development and behavior in school.

In addition, factors that contribute to housing quality and health quality, such as ventilation, plumbing, air quality, and water quality, have become even more significant with people sheltering in place during the outbreak, Sandel noted. “Our homes are not necessarily designed to be occupied 24 hours a day [in terms of infrastructure stresses], so we need to be thoughtful about designing housing in the future that will be more resilient,” she said.

Sandel noted that while the homeless population is the most visible evidence of the nation’s affordable housing shortage, a less visible segment, the “housing insecure” population—associated with multiple moves, living in overcrowded conditions, and falling behind on rent payments—is also attributable to unaffordable housing. Research prepared by Children’s HealthWatch shows that factors associated with housing insecurity, including falling behind on rent, can be as detrimental to children’s health as having no housing, she said. “In the COVID era, millions more families will be behind on rent, and they could suffer from the same adverse health outcomes that we typically associate with homelessness.”

She noted that the virus pandemic has undermined the factors that comprise well-being, which include having social connections, feeling safe, feeling stable, feeling in control of one’s environment, and having meaningful access to resources. Housing stability, a powerful contributor to well-being, must become more broadly accessible to increase social equity in urban areas, Sandel said. “Housing acts as a vaccine to provide equity, and it is only through equity that we all get the same fair shot [at well-being].”