The future of urban housing after COVID-19

LUIS TRIVENO and OLIVIA NIELSEN

THE COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted housing inequities and put the global housing crisis back on the radar. With a spotlight on housing’s role in public health – particularly in urban areas – predictions abound in the media about the future of housing and cities.   

Yet, these predictions are usually written by financially secure individuals and tend to ignore the plight of the world’s poor, for whom housing progress has been notoriously slow.

In the COVID era, it’s time to look at housing from a different angle so we can help shape a better future for all. Here are four housing facts that the poor have learned – the hard way:

1. In poorer communities, staying home can increase rather than lower contagion risks.

“Stay home – Save lives!” was the order, as countries around the globe scrambled to block the spread of the COVID-19 virus. Businesses responded by permitting employees to work from home.  And, by and large, the strategy has worked – in wealthy countries, at least.  In the developing world and poorer neighbourhoods, however, it poses a greater risk of illness and death, for low-income families living in crowded conditions.  Research has indicated that 90% of households in the developing world cannot fully comply with one or several of the WHO recommendations for defending against the virus – due to inadequate space, poor ventilation, and poor access to water and sanitation. In response, from Singapore to Chile, housing authorities are designing emergency programs to eradicate overcrowding and improve sanitary conditions.

2. The lack of clean water and toilet facilities is also a deadly – and persistent – problem for the urban poor.

According to UN Water, 700 million urbanites live without proper sanitation, while 156 million live without adequate access to water. A recent study conducted by the World Bank’s Global Program for Resilient Housing found that in three capital cities in Latin America, almost as many households could not access clean water and sanitation (15.1%) as suffered from overcrowding (17.3%). Simple, concrete actions could save lives—such as granting subsidies, prepaid facilities for connecting homes to these services, or emergency guarantees to avoid disconnections when families lose their jobs and fail to pay their utility bills.

3. Stay-at-home orders only work if families can earn from home.

Predictions have proliferated in architectural publications about housing designs that will accommodate our new need to work remotely from home – moving walls, adding more balconies, improving sound insulation. U.S. developers have already started to think about how to implement these changes in new buildings in cost-effective ways. Yet, even in a pandemic, poor families most often have to leave their homes to make money. These new designs don’t target the poor, but wealthier households who may continue to work from home in the long term. In fact, most households around the world could benefit from simpler, affordable upgrades that would make their homes function as workplaces as well as safe shelters: water connections, an additional room, better ventilation, internet access, and maybe a small shop where they can sell their goods or services.

4. Relocation is harder for the poor.

From the United States to Russia and Bangladesh, the media has focused on the “exodus” from cities to the suburbs, as urban living became more dangerous and work-from-home policies more widespread. A big question mark hangs over the future of commercial real estate in cities all over the world, as it seems doubtful whether workers will ever return to offices full-time. But writing the obituary for densely populated cities is premature. In fact, urban life has survived deadly viruses since the birth of large cities in the ancient world; and data in the United States also seems hopeful. Though research confirms that housing prices have risen in the New York suburbs while decreasing in Manhattan, according to the real estate site Zillow, this trend has not occurred in most U.S. urban areas, where home sales remain strong due to historically low-interest rates. In India, migrant workers are already returning to cities from villages despite the continued thread of the virus.

The global trend towards urbanization is likely to survive the pandemic. Cities are likely to remain the engines of economic growth and innovation. Yes, our cities are now struggling to tackle unforeseen challenges; but in the process, they’re also reinventing themselves on the fly.  Greater access to green spaces, more cafes in the streets instead of cars, improvements in public health, and new protections against evictions and utility cut-offs – these are among a plethora of urban interventions appearing around the world.

Housing policies, too, will have to change. Now is a good time for governments to redouble their attention on the future of cities and resilient housing, and to commit to making the lives of urban dwellers healthier and more equitable.  

Luis Triveño is a Senior Urban Development Specialist at the World Bank where he leads the Global Program for Resilient Housing.

Olivia Nielsen is an Associate Principal at Miyamoto International where she focuses on resilient housing solutions.

Thomson Reuters Foundation