Close quarters: Overcrowded homes fuel spread of coronavirus among workers

Every day, Isidoro Flores Contreras stands at the edge of a
parking lot in Sand City selling $15 bouquets of flowers. And every
evening, he returns to a small apartment that he shares with four
other people.

Flores Contreras, who makes about $300 a week, is highly
vulnerable to the coronavirus — both at work, which he had to
stop until Monterey County’s health order was eased, and at

He lives in the most crowded ZIP code in Monterey County,
sleeping in the living room of a two-bedroom apartment. His housing
conditions put him at high risk: The millions of Californians who
live in overcrowded houses are more likely to be infected with the
coronavirus, according to an analysis of health data by The California
a statewide media collaboration.

The hardest-hit neighborhoods have three times the rate of
overcrowding and twice the rate of poverty as the neighborhoods
that have largely escaped the virus. And the neighborhoods with the
most infections are disproportionately populated by people of

About 6.3 million Californians, or 16%, live in overcrowded
housing. A third of those, 2.1 million, inhabit severely
overcrowded housing. California has the second-highest rate of
crowded households in the nation, about 2.5 times higher than the
nationwide rate.

About two-thirds of the people who live in these crowded homes
— some 4 million people — are essential workers or live with at
least one essential worker. Health experts say this creates a
perfect storm for the coronavirus: people crowded together in homes
at night and spending days working on the front lines, exposed to a
lot of people both at work and at home.

Hot spots for overcrowded homes are spread throughout
California, including the Salinas Valley, Oakland, Los Angeles and
desert towns near the US-Mexico border.

Monterey County, home to many farmworkers, leads the state in
overcrowding with one in every seven households crowded. In
Monterey and San Benito counties, nearly one in 10 households, the
highest rate in the state, are both overcrowded and include an
essential worker.

During a pandemic, this can be deadly.

Crowded communities hit hardest

Flores Contreras lives in the Alisal, a Mexican and
Mexican-American community in Salinas where 61,000 people are
squeezed onto a parcel of land less than three square miles.

The Alisal, where 22% live in poverty, is the center of the
coronavirus outbreak. About 31% of patients in Monterey County
diagnosed with COVID-19 live in the 93905 ZIP code, even though
just 14% of the county’s population lives there.

Many, like Flores Contreras, live doubled or tripled up, which
heightens the risk of transmission. In the 93905 ZIP code, where
the Alisal lies, 31% of homes are crowded. An average of 4.5 people
live in each household.

The Census Bureau defines overcrowding as a home with more
people than rooms, while a home with more than 1.5 people per room
is severely crowded. California’s overcrowded homes are due, in
part, to the sky-high cost of housing. Nearly a third of California
renter households spend more than half their income on rent.

In Monterey County’s eleven ZIP codes, the five areas most
heavily burdened by the virus had 2.5 times more crowded housing
than areas with the fewest people diagnosed, as of June 8.

Drive 22 miles west from the Alisal, and you’ll arrive in
Carmel-by-the-Sea, a wealthy hamlet of fewer than 4,000 people on
the edge of the Pacific. Here, the median income is almost $91,000
and just 3.9% of homes are crowded. Fewer than five people (the
county’s reporting cutoff) have been diagnosed with COVID-19,
compared with 233 in the Alisal’s ZIP code as of June 9.

Oakland is another area with wide disparities, based on which
neighborhood people live in. In the ZIP code that contains the
affluent Montclair neighborhood and Piedmont city, just 1% of homes
are overcrowded. Fewer than one in every 1,000 residents tested
positive for the coronavirus there. But across town, in majority
Latino neighborhoods like Fruitvale, the infection rate was six
times higher as of late May and 21% of homes are overcrowded.

An April analysis of New York City emergency department data
found neighborhoods with more residential overcrowding tended to
have more emergency department visits for influenza-like illness in
March compared with the previous four years.

“What we’ve been generally seeing is very high transmission
rates within a household. … You can imagine if there’s less
space, if people have to share room, it’s going to be really hard
to isolate people,” said Justin Feldman, an NYU social
epidemiologist who conducted the research.

Neighborhoods with more foreign-born residents, poverty and
Latino residents had the biggest increases.

“And who do we know is living in crowded housing?” asked
Feldman. “People who are lower income, they’re more likely to
be immigrants, more likely to have to go to work.”

Essential workers stuffed into homes

Social distancing is especially hard for essential workers, who
must leave their homes regularly to keep the rest of the United
States fed and sheltered.

According to an analysis by the Public Policy Institute of
California, essential workers are more likely than nonessential
workers to live in overcrowded housing — 16% versus 12%. More
than a third of California’s labor force works in essential jobs
that mean they must be physically present, such as farming, fishing
or forestry. Nearly a third of farmworkers and people who work in
restaurants live in overcrowded homes.

Crowded housing also puts Latinos at higher risk. Latino
households are nearly eight times as likely as white households to
be crowded.

At the low-income health clinic where Dr. Efrain Talamantes
works in Los Angeles, most patients arriving with coronavirus
symptoms are essential or service workers, Latino, low-income and
live in crowded housing.

“Patients who live in places where there’s no privacy …
when you tell someone to get in a room and stay away from their
loved ones, it’s almost nonsense to them,†said Talamantes.

He said patients are often just as worried about staying housed
as they are about the virus, and fear being evicted if their
landlord finds out they’ve contracted COVID-19.

“What we’re most concerned about is how this virus is going
to exacerbate inequalities in communities where we’ve made so
much progress since the last recession. It really takes a toll on
the communities they’re in,†Talamantes said.

In Los Angeles, as many as two in every five households are
overcrowded in some neighborhoods. The areas most heavily burdened
by COVID-19 had twice the rate of crowded housing as the areas
least hard hit.

Ricardo Hernandez and his family of five live in West Adams, a
neighborhood in South Los Angeles where 83% of residents are Latino
or black, in a two-bedroom home his parents purchased years ago. In
West Adams, about 17% of households are overcrowded, and there were
about seven coronavirus cases for every 1,000 residents in late
May, almost three times the statewide rate of 2.6 per 1,000.

For months, Hernandez, his wife and two sons shared one bedroom,
while his mother, a diabetic, and his brother, a kidney transplant
survivor, shared the other. Because of their health problems, they
are both highly vulnerable to severe effects if they are infected
with the virus.

“We remove our shoes before entering the house, we disinfect
door knobs often and we wash our hands as much as we can,†said

Although it was hard, Hernandez said it had been beneficial to
stay at home together during the pandemic.

“I feel this is a mental, moral cure and a peace of mind
because we know how we are doing when we see each other,†he

‘I can’t fly to the moon’

For California’s farmworkers, crowded housing is the norm,
whether it’s a rental unit, a farmworker shelter, or
employer-provided, barracks-style housing.

On the northern edge of the Salton Sea in Riverside County,
Gloria Gomez runs the Galilee Center, a boarding house for
farmworkers who stay in Mecca for just months at a time.

The pandemic has completely changed their operations. The center
expanded its hours to 24 hours a day, provides three full meals a
day instead of two and stopped charging farmworkers the usual $7 a
day for room and board. Staff moved the beds six feet apart,
reduced residents and cleans the dorms every two hours.

Gomez said many of the farmworkers have caught the coronavirus
from another relative in the home, unable to properly quarantine
themselves in too-small housing. In recent weeks, Mecca had three
farmworkers die from COVID-19, according to the Desert Sun.

Enrique Reyes, a farmworker in Mecca, has one of the coveted 34
farmworker beds at Galilee Center.

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Before the pandemic began, he fought with his wife and moved out of
the two-bedroom Salton City trailer they share with their two kids
and two grandchildren. But now, he said, he doesn’t want to move
back for fear of bringing the virus into their home, and he can’t
miss work.

“Nada es cien por ciento,†said Reyes. “¿Qué más puedo
hacer? No me puedo ir a la luna ni llevar mi familia a la luna.
Tengo que seguir las reglas como todas las personas.†In English,
“Nothing is certain, but what else can I do? I can’t fly to the
moon or take my family to the moon with me. I have to just follow
the rules like everybody else.â€

J. Omar Ornelas of the Desert Sun, Jacqueline Garcia of La
Opinión and Matt Levin of CalMatters contributed to this story.
This article is part of The California Divide, a collaboration
among newsrooms examining income inequality and economic survival
in California. Kate Cimini at The Californian reported this story
with support from the California Fellowship through the USC
Annenberg Center for Health Journalism.  

Source: FS – All – Real Estate News 1
Close quarters: Overcrowded homes fuel spread of coronavirus
among workers