On March 1, 2020, New York State officials confirmed the first case of the coronavirus within their borders. According to the Wall Street Journal, Covid-19’s Empire State debut arrived with a woman from Manhattan, who had previously traveled in Central Asia. Officials swiftly cautioned against panic. Governor Andrew Cuomo dismissed the risks, suggesting that “the seasonal flu was a graver worry,” even criticizing Mayor Bill de Blasio’s move to shutter New York City’s public schools. Fast-forward to January 1, 2021, and an estimated 35,000 state residents had died from the coronavirus, including 25,000 city residents.
A prosaic summary of the pandemic in New York might focus on government mismanagement—including the bizarre state decision to continue sending sick patients to nursing homes—or New York City’s global orientation. But the blame quickly fell on the least subtle fact about the city: its density. Across the country, opinion columns chastised New York for its original sin, followed by an equally forceful opinion-column pro-density counteroffensive. Cuomo waded into the spat, declaring that New York City “must develop an immediate plan to reduce density.”
For all the sound and the fury, it turned out that the density argument was overstated. As early as April 2020, the pandemic was worse in low-density suburbs like Westchester and Nassau County on a per-capita basis. With the benefit of time, researchers at Johns Hopkins University failed to prove a relationship between density and higher infection rates. In fact, the authors found that density was associated with lower death rates, which they hypothesized to be a function of the wealth and health-care access that comes with density. Density—often measured in the number of residents per acre, and long presented by economist and City Journal contributing editor Edward Glaeser as one of New York City’s greatest assets—was not the simplistic culprit that many assumed. This wasn’t to say that the living conditions of U.S. cities had nothing to do with it. Indeed, researchers quickly identified overcrowding—defined as having more than one resident per room in a given household, usually excluding bathrooms and kitchens—as a major factor in the virus’s spread. It is overcrowding, not density, that better explains why the virus took hold in urban areas.
The difference is subtle but important: while an affluent neighborhood like Yorkville might have a sky-high density at 244 residents per acre, 96 percent of Yorkville households enjoy at least one room per resident. On the flip side, while a neighborhood like East Elmhurst might have a modest density of 52 residents per acre, 17 percent of its households must double or triple up in at least one of their bedrooms just to make rent.
Unlike with density, the infection risk associated with overcrowding is unambiguous. One early analysis conducted by ProPublica Illinois associated overcrowding with much higher infection rates in Chicago, a connection absent with density. A similar study of London found a tight link between overcrowding and death rates.
It makes sense: for all the bad guidance put out early on, we now understand that the coronavirus proliferates when people are crowded indoors, breathing in recycled air for hours. An overcrowded apartment with several essential workers—as delivery drivers and hospital custodial staff have come to be regarded—coming in and out all day is thus perfectly calibrated to foster the disease’s spread. Unfortunately, those conditions describe life for many New Yorkers.
According to a 2015 report by Comptroller Scott Stringer, a startling 272,000 New York City homes were overcrowded as of 2013, with more than one resident per room. This constituted a nearly 16 percent increase over 2005, with growth in the number of overcrowded homes concentrated in Brooklyn. Worse yet, the number of severely overcrowded homes, or households with 1.5 residents per room, rose by nearly 45 percent, meaning that more and more New Yorkers must triple up.
This phenomenon has been especially pronounced in New York’s working-class immigrant communities. In Jackson Heights, a rich melting pot of newly minted Americans of Hispanic and South Asian descent, about 13 percent of households are overcrowded, while nearly 5 percent of households were severely overcrowded. In Sunset Park, home to a burgeoning Chinese-American community, roughly one in four households is overcrowded, with nearly one in ten severely so.
The human cost of these living conditions can be bleak: in some cases, families have doubled up, with three generations—from grandmother to grandson—splitting the same room. In other cases, renters have installed informal partitions to take on additional boarders and defray the cost of rent. Strapped homeowners have also joined in, subdividing units and turning unused basements, attics, and spare bedrooms into new apartments, often in defiance of zoning.
This undocumented housing market has slowly emerged as New York City’s premier source of affordable housing. While numbers are limited—informal landlords and tenants aren’t clamoring to share data—one 2008 estimate puts the number of informal apartments created in the 1990s alone at about 114,000, or roughly 4 percent of the city’s housing stock. If the explosion of 311 complaints about illegal conversions over the past decade is any indication, this trend has escalated.
The city’s main response to this trend—often an act of desperation—has been to expand building and zoning enforcement. In 2019 alone, the Department of Buildings inspectors issued 5,151 violations for illegal apartment conversions, a 10 percent increase over 2018. Characterizing the residents of informal units as pests, more than a few outer-borough representatives have made political hay calling for even stricter enforcement, without any concrete plan for where the displaced tenants should go.
New York City hasn’t entirely ignored the issue. The city council adopted a program in early 2019 that would pilot basement legalization exclusively in East New York, with loans on offer to let homeowners bring the units up to code. But under the current program’s Rube Goldbergian eligibility standards, there’s little chance that it could ever scale to cover even a tiny fraction of New York City’s hundreds of thousands of informal units. In February 2020, Mayor Bill de Blasio floated the idea of massively scaling up the program. By May, funding for the pilot program had been slashed severely, and the broader plan looks dead on arrival.
Both the pilot proposal and the suggested expansion were steps in the right direction. But what will it take for the next administration to address New York’s overcrowding crisis more meaningfully?
For starters, the city must attack the problem’s root cause: a crippling housing shortage. The decision to double up or subdivide a home is the natural result of New York City’s dramatic slowdown in new housing production, particularly at the bottom of the market, which puts price pressure on the existing housing supply, forcing families just scraping by either to leave the city or get creative. As the Manhattan Institute’s Eric Kober points out, the only way out of this quandary is to build more housing.
New York built less over the recovery boom of the 2010s than it did in the prolonged depression of the 1930s. It’s not for lack of demand: one barrier standing in the way of new housing is the city’s out-of-date zoning, which makes it difficult to build in vast swaths of the city. Fully 40 percent of Manhattan buildings would be illegal to rebuild today because they’re too tall or house too many people.
“We now understand that the coronavirus proliferates when people are crowded indoors, breathing recycled air.”
The rules are even stricter in the outer boroughs. Despite New York City’s reputation for building up, multifamily residential housing is banned outright in half the land deemed appropriate for residential in Queens, while 71 percent of Staten Island’s residential area is closed to anything larger than a duplex. A homeowner who might wish to turn her garage into an apartment or divide her home in half now often has little choice but to do so without proper permits, hoping that neighbors don’t snitch.
In fact, New York remains one of the few remaining big cities to lack an accessory dwelling unit ordinance. Variously known as “granny flats” and “mother-in-law suites,” ADUs are extra apartments in unused attics, garages, and bedrooms. They’re often affordable, since they’re small and cheap to build. And as a side benefit, the extra income from an ADU can help homeowners defray high housing costs.
But ADUs are often illegal under conventional zoning, with restrictions on the number of units per lot or stringent off-street parking requirements making an extra unit infeasible. To deal with this issue, state and local policymakers across the country have adopted sweeping reforms to accommodate the extra housing. In California, preemption legislation requires cities and suburbs to permit ADUs pursuant to certain standards; Durham, North Carolina, is looking to reduce regulations to open up construction of more ADUs and other housing options. Chicago and Philadelphia are adopting ADU ordinances. A liberal ADU ordinance could grant New Yorkers the flexibility to build desperately needed new housing on their own.
Another “free” way to expand the city’s supply of affordable housing would be to legalize single-room occupancies (SROs), a housing arrangement in which the resident rents a private bedroom, with access to a shared bathroom and kitchen. Depicted in films like immigrant story Brooklyn and Sam Rami’s Spider-Man 2, SROs have long acted as New York City’s housing safety net, domiciling single young immigrants and cash-strapped superheroes alike.
In 1955, New York City banned the construction of new SROs and spent subsequent decades heavily subsidizing the conversion of many into luxury co-ops. As a result, informal conversions have filled the void, with bunk beds in shared bedrooms or informal living-room partitions acting as de facto unregulated SROs. Legalizing SROs would bring this essential housing typology out of the underground, while providing a zero-cost way for the city to expand housing supply at the bottom of the market. With thousands of vacant hotel rooms sitting empty indefinitely because of the pandemic, the potential SROs of tomorrow in many cases already exist.
We ignore the role that New York City’s overcrowding crisis has played in spreading the coronavirus at our own peril. As city leaders and, eventually, a new mayoral administration contend with a painful recovery period, overcrowding should rank high on the agenda. Stratospheric rents serve as a clear reminder that millions of Americans still want to call Gotham home. Will we build enough housing for them?
Photo: A report by the comptroller’s office found that more than 270,000 New York City homes were overcrowded, which many believe worsened the spread of Covid-19. (CAROLYN VAN HOUTEN/THE WASHINGTON POST/GETTY IMAGES)