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Affordable Housing After the Vaccines

5 min read

The vaccines are arriving in the millions, and they work. When do we get back to normal?

Not so fast. COVID-19 will be with humanity forever:

Our model [suggests] that once the endemic phase is reached and primary exposure is in childhood, CoV-2 may be no more virulent than the common cold. We need to understand and plan for the transition to endemicity.

As my friend the computational biologist and virology researcher Matt Healy helpfully translated it:

Wherever anybody has looked for human Coronaviruses (CoVs), they have found them: probably every human alive has been exposed to them multiple times. Nearly everybody alive today was infected with other human CoVs in early childhood. Immunity to a CoV is not a binary, all-or-none thing; protective immunity to other human CoVs lasts a very long time. Older people who were previously exposed to other Human CoVs get either asymptomatic infections or the common cold.

And the endgame?

Once the entire human population has either been vaccinated or naturally exposed to SARS-CoV-2, it will become another common cold CoV. Everybody will be exposed in childhood, get a mild cold, then be repeatedly exposed for the rest of their lives and occasionally get a cold when their immunity has diminished enough for that to happen.

Back to normal now?

Not so fast. COVID-19 isn’t the only bug compelling us to be vigilant:

Humans have regularly been threatened by emerging pathogens that kill a substantial fraction of all people born. Recent decades have seen multiple challenges from acute virus infections including SARS, MERS, Hendra, Nipah and Ebola.

Two decades ago, when the viruses we feared infected ‘only’ our computers, we doubted them – until our computers got epidemically infected. In a panic, we bought expensive software patches, then newer patches. Finally, the business model of computer virus protection evolved from treatment (scrub after infection) to prevention (continuously monitor and update), from product to service. Applying that evolution to post-vaccine America yields these sea changes:

1. Anti-viral habits and procedures will gradually be retrofitted into urban society. Air quality monitors will be omnipresent in offices, hotels, shopping and elevators. Temperature checks will be discreetly embedded in ceiling black hemispheres alongside security cameras. Casual business encounters (paying for your coffee, for instance) will become dry, not wet, as ‘touchless payment’ becomes universally available. Mask-wearing in high-circulation public settings (like airplane flights) will become a permanently accepted personal choice.

2. Housing will be the epicenter of the economy. It will claim more time share (percentage of the day), more mind share, more wallet share. Many things we used to do ‘out and about’ we will now do from home. Concerts, plays and sports—anything with in-person tactile perception—will still draw their adherents as a luxury experience, but the theater for passive entertainment will be at home.

3. Health Secure Housing principles will steadily reshape management company operational interactions with residents. Indoor air quality, free-to-user broadband, and resident agency will become embedded in the physical, operational and behavioral aspects of affordable housing. Property management will reluctantly and awkwardly reorient to residents as health customers and active health partners, not passive occupant and beneficiaries. This will be a value-add (higher NOI net of insurance and everything else) and a competitiveness advantage (vis-a-vis renters and owners).

4. Urbanization and the lure of downtown. Urban downtowns forested with high-rises face a critical reinvention choice among three endgames

a.  Depopulation via rotation. Although the least capital-intensive, as it simply involves using calendared entry/exit to reduce contagion risks, in the long term it’s economically ruinous.
b.  ‘Clean-environment’ interconnections, where the ingress/egress is managed but once inside, you spend a long time inside, such post-vaccine university campuses, research campuses or Minneapolis’s skyways.
c.  Experiential sojourns, where you go for things that cannot be found elsewhere. In Europe, it’s the centro storico or the Old City of Jerusalem; in America it’s Las Vegas or the Freedom Trail.

5. Private-public spaces will be hardened against contagion risk. After the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing and similar atrocities worldwide, office buildings and public entrances to subways and stadia were redesigned with discreet immovable bollards, hardening the structure against assault. Rigorous airport screening followed 9/11. Whether it’s negative-pressure ingress/egress, vaccination cards or on-the-spot bio-testing, owners of large properties will invest in reducing the risk of contagious invasion.

6. Urban health infrastructure will be redeveloped. As far as I can tell, every urban public health catastrophe has resulted in significant upgrading of the urban palimpsest. London’s Great Fire of 1666, a consequence of the 1665 bubonic plague, brought Sir Christopher Wren’s master plan, the rebuilt St. Paul’s Cathedral, and the invention of urban renewal. The 1798 yellow fever outbreak in Manhattan led the New York state legislature to authorize a municipal water system. London’s 1858 Great Stink was the culminating public health catastrophe that led to the building of Joseph Bazalgette’s massive, comprehensive sewer system under London.

All this urban health infrastructure will be publicly funded: financed with municipal, state and federal bonds, and recouped via direct and indirect health taxes. When completed, half a decade or so from now, this will for the first time make some of America’s cities 21st century.

David A. Smith is founder and CEO of the Affordable Housing Institute, a Boston-based global nonprofit consultancy that works around the world (60 countries so far) accelerating affordable housing impact via program design, entity development and financial product innovations. Write him at dsmith@affordablehousinginstitute.org.