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Column: Coronavirus may be a new factor when California's housing debate reignites

Michael Smolens, The San Diego Union-Tribune on

Published in Home and Consumer News

People fleeing cities in an attempt to outrun the coronavirus have caused consternation in rural hinterlands and warm-weather refuges.

But the COVID-19 crisis has triggered a longer-term discussion about the health risks in densely packed cities and whether the crisis will lead to living quarters being more spread out in the future.

In the heat of the moment, it's important to keep perspective. It's worth noting that over history, cities have suffered great population declines because of plague and attack, but often eventually experienced a resurgence.

Flu pandemics haven't always changed the course of history. The 1957-58 pandemic -- which was different in many respects from the current one -- resulted in 1.1 million deaths worldwide and 116,000 in the United States, but didn't seem to alter the trajectory of cities.

When the coronavirus runs its course, hopefully in the not too distant future, the crisis likely will find its way into the debate over housing construction.

The term "suburban sprawl" has become something of a pejorative to urbanists, climate-change activists and many mass-transit promoters who say new housing should be densely built along transit lines. But the single-family home life has had great appeal for post-World War II generations seeking to flee the hustle and bustle of urban areas that others find attractive.


Suburbs also have the image of being a relatively safe haven from the crime, grime and real or perceived racial and ethnic tensions in the cities.

Now add the notion that urban areas facilitate the spread of the disease simply because people are living, working and commuting in such close quarters. Will that raise arguments for different kinds of housing, even more suburbs?

Suburbanites have long been a potent political force as residents there tend to turn out to vote in substantial numbers. In more recent times, they have become a more powerful lobbying force, albeit a fragmented one, but often with a common goal: to protect their relatively quiet neighborhoods from encroachment of new housing, particularly the multi-unit, lower-income variety.

More housing should go elsewhere, such as closer to urban areas, they often argue.


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