06 Jun Restricting housing density not the answer to preventing fu…
By Claire Levy
Advocates of low-density development are capitalizing on the COVID-19 pandemic to push for density limits in Boulder. Lowering population density is the wrong cure for this disease and would exacerbate more problems than it solves.
Density has played a large role in allowing COVID-19 to spread in cities throughout the world. But trying to reconfigure communities to be less dense in response to this particular global health threat is unrealistic, counter-productive, and hugely short sighted.
Proponents of a density-limiting ordinance for Boulder purport to be motivated by a desire to protect low-income people who live in multi-family housing. It is the case that low-income residents of Boulder are at higher risk of infection, and that their housing situation is a contributing factor.
But let’s consider the plethora of other contributing factors. They are at risk because they work in low-wage service sector jobs that are deemed essential. These jobs require them to work at close quarters with others. They do not have paid sick or family leave. Their employers are not providing adequate personal protective equipment. They do not have the luxury of working remotely or paid sick leave. And their access to health care tends to be limited, despite the fact that many of them actually provide health care to the rest of us.
Restricting density would not change housing options for lower-income Boulderites. Low-density housing that is affordable to low-wage workers isn’t feasible. So, effectively, this ordinance would eliminate low-income residents from Boulder.
We would be an island of affluent, probably aging, residents living in low-density housing, making single occupancy vehicles a necessity. And where would essential workers live who teach our children; respond to fires and emergencies; work for the city; fix our cars, furnaces and other devices; and provide a myriad of other services that keep our lives on track?
Elsewhere, presumably somewhere less dense, from where they would drive to Boulder to keep us all safe, comfortable and healthy.
Limiting future growth and density will not change working conditions for current low-income residents of Boulder. So even if it were possible for lower-income households to afford less dense housing, if we don’t change working conditions and address the societal causes of health disparities, exposure to the virus will continue.
COVID-19 is now ravaging rural communities where people work in the corrections industry, manufacturing and meat processing plants. It is marching through elder care facilities in small towns from which care providers go home to single-family homes. Working conditions, not living arrangements, are the culprit.
Let’s not learn the wrong lesson from this pandemic. Density allows us to conserve energy and water, makes it possible to bike or walk to work, allows more economic and demographic diversity, and makes public transportation viable. Yes, at the outset of the pandemic COVID-19 spread more quickly in high density cities.
That was in large part because social distancing is more difficult and use of public transportation is more prevalent. But it is also because of a lack of services, poor health care, inadequate protections for essential workers, vestiges of segregation, and underlying chronic health issues. Let’s fix those problems.
We need density for the long-term environmental and economic health of our planet. Density allows us to reduce our environmental footprint and makes it more feasible for people in low-wage jobs to live in the community in which they work.
Future pandemics are indeed a risk. We should be planning for the next pandemic now, even as we strive to overcome this one. Increasing wages for essential workers, improving benefits, bolstering our public health system, and addressing the causes of chronic disease will provide far more enduring protection than perpetuating suburban density living.
Claire Levy represented House District 13 in the Colorado House of Representatives. She lives in Boulder.