The pandemic has focused attention on urban density, with much less recognition of the significance of crowding. Crowding, much more than density, has created public health challenges during the pandemic, especially for groups such as recent immigrants. We need to take advantage of the growing recognition that residential crowding is an important public health issue, then implement policies and programs that redress the inadequate supply of rental housing in Canadian cities, as well as the income precarity that forces so many recent immigrants into crowded quarters

Defined differently from one country to another, in Canada “crowding” is measured largely in terms of bedrooms and people. It occurs when children of specified ages and different sexes share a bedroom, or when adults who are not in a conjugal relationship share a bedroom, or when household members sleep regularly in rooms used for other purposes – for example, parents sleep on a pullout couch in the living room while children sleep in the bedroom. The data suggest that it is this kind of crowding, and not density, that is associated with high case rates during COVID.

In Canada, crowding is a serious housing issue for many immigrants, especially within 10 years of their arrival. Many immigrants, who are disproportionately renters, live first in older apartment buildings that provide some of the cheapest housing. Although there are three- and four-bedroom units in many of these older buildings, they are rarely available. Much of this stock consists of one-bedroom and two-bedroom apartments. Faced with a limited supply of large rental units and with low incomes, many immigrant families crowd into small apartments where there are not enough bedrooms to separate children of different sexes from each other and from adults.

In a pandemic, crowding matters because people who suspect they have, or are confirmed to have, COVID-19 need to isolate. The medical advice is to occupy a separate room, use a separate bathroom and ideally cook separately. In crowded housing, such separation is unlikely, if not impossible. People share bathrooms and kitchens, and they may share bedrooms. Crowding exacerbates the vulnerability of recent immigrants, who are often already at risk of infection at their jobs. Many are essential workers who cannot work from home and whose jobs require proximity to the public and co-workers.

Parkdale apartment building, Toronto.

Unlike crowding, population density does not have much effect on transmission of COVID-19 and is not associated with high case rates. Density – the number of people living in a geographic area – is high in cities such as Hong Kong and Singapore, which are renowned for their high-rises and crowded sidewalks and parks. But in these cities, COVID has been controlled successfully. Although there is some evidence that airborne diseases may be shared through ventilation systems and public areas, the experience in Singapore demonstrates that vigilant use of masks, strict social distancing, handwashing and other public health measures reduce these risks. COVID outbreaks have been minimal in Singapore outside the dormitories housing temporary workers who share bathrooms and kitchens while living in close quarters.

Why does crowding matter?

A focus on crowding rather than density would successfully redirect public health efforts, draw attention to persistent housing issues in Canadian cities and inform efforts to promote sustainable urban development. Public health measures that take account of crowding are more effective in controlling the pandemic. Identifying areas with crowded housing enables targeted public-health initiatives that respond to the specific needs of vulnerable groups, such as recent immigrants. Already, there are moves in this direction with provincial governments identifying postal codes or “hot spots” with high rates of infection such as Bramalea, Malton West and Scarborough North in Ontario; Bas-Saint-Laurent in Quebec; and Port Coquitlam and Surrey West in British Columbia. In these places, expanded testing and vaccination clinics – operated in collaboration with local community groups – are reducing COVID case rates. Immigrants who live in crowded housing in “hot spots” benefit from neighbourhood strategies that acknowledge the pandemic’s uneven social geographies.

The crowded living conditions of many recent immigrants expose the current housing crisis in Canada’s cities, where housing costs are increasing faster than incomes and where the stock of rental units suitable for families with children is limited. Many recent immigrants live in crowded housing because their earnings are not keeping pace with housing costs and there are few available rental units large enough for their families. Squeezed initially into the available one-bedroom and two-bedroom units, some immigrant families eventually move to more spacious housing as their incomes increase, while others – particularly refugee and lone-parent immigrants – remain stuck in crowded housing. During the global pandemic, the dangerous impact of crowding is further evidence, if it were needed, of the imbalance in housing supply and demand in Canada, and the fact that suitable housing is often out of reach, especially for immigrants.

The inner workings of government
Keep track of who’s doing what to get federal policy made. In The Functionary.
The Functionary
Our newsletter about the public service. Nominated for a Digital Publishing Award.

Canada’s aging housing stock poses additional risks during a pandemic. With many of its affordable rental buildings constructed before 1981, current levels of crowding put pressure on their ventilation and mechanical systems – key to the prevention of COVID. Effective ventilation is difficult in many older buildings where the heating and air-conditioning systems were never designed for so many residents.

Other mechanical systems are also strained by crowding. Prior to the pandemic, some families reported that elevator delays in the mornings meant children were late for school or had to leave 15 minutes early. Now that the capacity of elevators has been reduced to prevent transmission of the virus, wait times have likely increased along with anxiety and inconvenience. The solution to these mechanical problems is not the enforcement of dwelling-occupancy standards, which would simply make the lives of immigrants and other vulnerable people more difficult, and could aggravate efforts to respond to the public health crisis. Rather, the solution is to create more-affordable rental housing designed to accommodate large households.

Paying attention to crowding also reinforces our efforts to achieve urban sustainability. While work-from-home policies have made many workers able and eager to live far from their workplaces, recent moves to the suburbs also reflect unfounded fears that COVID-19 is transmitted easily in high-density environments. Misinformation about the supposed dangers of population densities threatens ongoing initiatives to achieve urban sustainability with high-density development and expanded public transit services. Indeed, suburban sprawl may undermine social sustainability by heightening urban inequality, as recent immigrants and other vulnerable groups are left behind in crowded, aging rental units, while more affluent urban residents move to detached suburban housing. Achieving urban sustainability depends on identifying the right culprit in the current pandemic crisis.

In the 1970s and 1980s, federal tax-expenditure programs expanded the supply of rental units. In response to today’s crowding crisis, similar programs could target creation of rental housing suitable for large families. Municipalities can expand the rental supply by reducing development charges levied to pay for municipal infrastructure when any new housing is constructed, including rental buildings. Greater adoption of inclusionary zoning measures that set aside a specified percentage of newly built units as affordable for large households is also a proven option.

Universal benefits, such as paid sick leave and caregiver leave for all workers, as well as higher minimum wages would stabilize and enhance immigrants’ incomes, so they can afford the housing they need. If designed to ensure that renters spend no more than 30 per cent of after-tax income on shelter, such housing and income programs will reduce the crowding that has threatened immigrants’ health during this pandemic.

Finally, equal attention should be directed to crowding in other settings such as the warehouses in Peel Region, workplaces and stores in Manitoba, work camps near Fort McMurray and food-processing plants in British Columbia, which have been the sites of many outbreaks. In these workplaces, where recent immigrants often find jobs, transmission occurs when workers cannot distance from each other and sanitation procedures are inadequate. Taking crowding seriously will not only enhance public health responses to the pandemic, it will also encourage social and economic policies that benefit immigrants and other vulnerable groups by acknowledging people as more than just transitory residents of the apartment buildings and row houses that dot our cities.

This article is part of the Reshaping Canada’s Cities After the Pandemic Shockwave special feature. 

Do you have something to say about the article you just read? Be part of the Policy Options discussion, and send in your own submission, or a letter to the editor. 
Valerie Preston
Valerie Preston is professor of geography at York University, where she serves as academic director for the York RDC and project director for the BMRC-IRMU partnership.
Brian Ray
Brian Ray is an associate professor in the department of geography, environment and geomatics at the University of Ottawa.

You are welcome to republish this Policy Options article online or in print periodicals, under a Creative Commons/No Derivatives licence.

Creative Commons License