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Extinction, Innovation and Reform

5 min read

“The lesson that health authorities took
away from the catastrophe [the 1918 Spanish
flu] was that it was no longer reasonable to blame an individual for catching an infectious disease, nor to treat him or her in isolation
[from community health].”

Catastrophe is both precondition for and stimulus of three things – sudden extinction, explosive innovation and enduring reform. As all three happen speedily, each vies with the other two for primacy. As we look at the post-lockdown landscape to which we will emerge in our individual communities, counties and states, we may find these changes:

Sudden extinction. Catastrophe can wipe out incumbent species and systems that were hanging on via the advantages of incumbency, but whose monopoly on the ecosystem the catastrophe disputes. Among the extinction risks relevant to us are:

  1. The traditional 9-to-5 daily commute. We’ll work earlier, later, location-flexibly and possibly location-agnostically.
  2. Shopping malls. Already wheezing from oxygen-deprivation caused by Amazon and others sucking up wallet share, and with their internal symbiotes like movie theaters and food courts short-lived, they’ll go dark for some time.
  3. For-profit nursing homes. If customer anxiety doesn’t take away their healthier residents, tort litigation will drive so many of them into bankruptcy it’s hard to imagine the survivors constituting an industry.
  4. Zoning. A century-old invention created when real estate had only two dimensions (pre-elevators) and most properties only one use, zoning has long been a force for exclusion and stasis instead of inclusion and change. As WFH is redefined (see no. 8), it’ll be cracked apart everywhere like a lobster carapace.
  5. The office audio telephone system. Immovable, impersonal, unportable, expensive and now a stranded cost.
  6. ‘Wet signatures’ for legal documents. Including leases, property inspection forms and resident notices.

Explosive innovation. In disruption, speed, confidence and clarity win, and in such environments bold entrepreneurs flourish. Among the real-estate-related property types and business models that must explosively innovate or perish may be:

  1. Campus-centric university education. The bottom quartile in value proposition will disappear – fast. Everyone else will scramble to solve the student-housing conundrum without vaporizing their revenue models.
  2. Universal home-centric information technology. Digital exclusion now means health exclusion, and for that, omnipresent reliable intra-property broadband is a necessity. And to be effective, it’ll need to be free-to-consumers: paid within the rent, funded via property-based or person-needs-based grant, mandated by the provider’s involvement in a government program, or otherwise.
  3. Fixed-flow federal funding silos. Until we have stabilized in the new normal, agile immediate human-centric response requires flexible and adaptive budget reallocations within and among housing, health, education and employment.
  4. Smart tech pervasive in the home and workplace. Ceiling thermometers, air quality monitors, and possibly adjustable negative-pressure rooms will soon be retrofit accessories, then necessities.
  5. Legacy public housing. Physical obsolescence will now be seen as a major health risk, and that will be litigation-liability-intolerable.
  6. Rent payment mechanisms for the unbanked (and potentially the undocumented). It’ll have to go electronic and phone-based, and that involves tech, network and personalized app-downloading support.
  7. Elevator travel. The vertical utility is now health-dangerous unless and until new protocols and new technology (say, complete air filtration and every-cycle aerosol sanitization of the cab interior) are retrofitted into the building’s systems.
  8. A monopoly on the concept of WFH. Once it meant workforce housing, now it means work-from-home, and everything in between. Likewise, office buildings (especially vertical ones) may reinvent their floor plates or even many of their floors to accommodate an intrabuilding multi-floor lifestyle; shop on one, work on five, exercise on fifteen, sleep on ten.

Fundamental and enduring reform. This rise of humanity can be traced by the emergence of ever more complex structures (buildings, cities and political bodies) and infrastructure systems to support them (transportation, water, sanitation, power and now information). No matter the scale to which it is initially built, infrastructure gradually becomes overloaded, and when an overloaded system is hit with a sudden and far-reaching shock, catastrophe is the result. Because infrastructure is always established top-down (starting with the richest first), the fallout is worst among the poorer and poorest, and in the aftermath society as a whole realizes that what once was optional infrastructure is now a universal necessity in community health self-defense. This is going to compel fundamental and enduring reform in these areas:

  1. Information and financial infrastructure. Ever since Roman emperors made water free to all citizens, post-catastrophic governments have expanded infrastructure, made it universally available, or created it anew. As COVID-19 demonstrates that lack of access to broadband or to electronic finance is a health risk or worse, look for government to mandate it, with or without subsidy or concessionary financing.
  2. Employer-employee relationships. When every customer-employee relationship is viewed through the lens of potential disease transmission, the relationship between employer and employee will blend professional and personal issues and redefine boundaries of trust, testing and disclosure.
  3. Medical-related tort liability. When doing nothing does harm, the precautionary principle needs rebalancing, and when every choice an employer or landlord makes leads to a class action suit, tort liability needs to be circumscribed by nationally enacted safe harbor compliance policy principles, laws, regulations and operating procedures.

Fundamental reform that is begotten of catastrophe always starts with sweeping overreaction before eventually settling down to accepted and unobtrusive modi vivendi.

Just as the 2008 meltdown begat Dodd-Frank and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, COVID-19 may beget a Health Secure Housing certification; a new C-suite executive, the Chief Health Officer; and an employer-supported Health Reinvestment Act.

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.