Op-ed: Tech, class, cynicism, and pandemic real estate

Designer Health for Designer Tenants

Op-ed: Tech, class, cynicism, and pandemic real estate

(Ketut Subiyanto from Pexels)

It didn’t take long for the coronavirus pandemic to inspire both cutting-edge architectural design solutions and broad speculation about future developments in the field. Many of the realized innovations have been contracted by or marketed to the real estate sector. But as firms compete to provide pandemic comforts to rich tenants, the COVID-19 technology that directly affects working-class communities is mostly limited to restrictive measures that fail to address already-urgent residential health hazards or administrative conveniences for developers that allow them to circumvent public scrutiny. These changes had been long-planned, but they have found new license under the pretext of coronavirus precaution. In terms of “corona grifting,” this sort of thing takes the cake.

The idea that these grifts constitute progress is a notion conveyed in headlines such as “Covid Pushes Real Estate Into the Future.” But the real estate industry does not belong in the future. It doesn’t belong in the present, either. Especially in light of fierce ongoing battles over expiring eviction moratoriums, community rent strikes, and displacement by gentrification, when imagining an ideal location in history for professional real estate, “the dustbin” comes to mind.

It’s gotten easier to defend this stance. In The New York Times, Stefanos Chen describes newly available residential sanitation measures — like UV light disinfection or ionized particle treatments to neutralize germs in elevators ($3,500 to $4,000 per elevator). Owners whose buildings contain amenities like gyms and basketball courts have invested in “Ghostbusters”-like electrostatic disinfectant sprayers and reservation software to enforce capacity restrictions. There is also furniture for those looking to maximize their work-from-home space, often marketed directly to luxury property managers to boost the value of their units, such as robotic contractible desks ($5,000 to $10,000) or beds and storage suspended from the ceiling ($10,000 to $40,000). Sankarshan Murthy, CEO of Bumblebee Spaces, which designs several such items, noted that when “people spend more time at home…[they] realize that traditional architecture is broken.” This is a strange idea of a fix, as people who can afford to work from home are far less likely to live among broken architecture.

The reality is the same as ever: capitalism is not a design problem. There is no possible real estate innovation that could mitigate the urgent necessity of accessible healthcare and guaranteed housing. But even within the realm of such technological development, any potential benefits are useless if they are only available to the wealthy — the people who need them the least. It is a predictable but still cartoonishly nefarious profit model that offers integrated at-home health solutions and spatial conveniences exclusively to those who already face fewer health risks and have more space.

In New York City, the home base for the realty executives interviewed for the Times, pre-pandemic median renter income was roughly $50,000. Most of us in the city don’t live in buildings with gyms or elevators, at least not functional ones.

Nor is this economic discrepancy limited to residential perks. Homelessness, for example, is hardly a new phenomenon, but it took a blow to the foodservice industry for financially ambitious municipal administrations around the world to embrace street shelters in the form of sterilized restaurant extensions complete with mood lighting and winter heating equipment. And now, these feats of pandemic architecture are deemed feasible only as casual dining solutions, notably absent from any significant plan to support members of the unhoused population who face imminent risks far direr than dinner ambiance as well as eviction or arrest for building street shelters for themselves. Who benefits from design is inevitably an economic question, and between restaurant owners and the unhoused community, only one pays rent. That this judgment plays out in “public space” is ironic but ultimately inconsequential.

Some might imagine a trickle-down effect, wherein the first wave of innovation will eventually become the norm, just as smartphones have gone from luxury items to digital staples. But this kind of linear development timeline is a fiction, as there is already ostensibly COVID-19–response tech being implemented in low-income housing. That tech is, however, notably distinct in nature. Whereas pandemic design for the wealthy is about making things more comfortable and safe inside, for the poor, the more profitable business model is always to keep people out.

It is crucial to note that many working-class homes have long been health hazards due to unsafe building conditions such as lack of heat or hot water, pests, or mold. In New York City, for example, the department of Housing Preservation & Development issued about 1.1 million repair violations from 2018 to 2019. The highest incidence was in the Bronx, the city’s poorest borough, where over 10 percent of tenants lived in a home with at least one outstanding hazardous violation. With notoriously scant enforcement, fines levied against owners for neglecting these repairs go largely ignored. If such landlords cannot be compelled to fulfill their legal obligation to provide tenants with safe homes by turning on a thermostat, why would they go above and beyond by spending thousands on high-tech design workarounds or sanitation measures? They have no incentive, legal or financial, to do so. In April 2020, at least 34 NYCHA public housing developments lacked soap and paper towels for cleaning staff. New York is no outlier — such callous delinquency is commonplace nationwide.

Rather than robotic furniture or adequate sanitation, low-income and public housing is seeing a rise in biometric security. This issue predates the coronavirus but is made more urgent by its onset. Biometrics in such developments have thus far been more or less explicitly a point of surveillance in an effort to restrict who comes and goes and what they do. Three congressional representatives have proposed legislation, still pending, to ban biometric and facial recognition identification in public housing, citing technological flaws, privacy concerns, and the fact that low-income communities of color are already overpoliced. Now, the coronavirus is, as has been widely noted, an ideal pretext for pushing through surveillance measures under the convenient guise of concern for public health. One surveillance product manufacturer, BioConnect, even advertises that its residential biometric security system will “block out people who may have the virus.” Meanwhile, Naborly, which offers landlords detailed calculations of the financial risk of renting to any given tenant, took breathless advantage of skyrocketing pandemic unemployment in March 2020 to solicit landlords to contribute to a database of tenants who missed rent in April.

These and other digital real estate solutions, such as ClickNotices’ eviction streamlining platform, constitute the accelerating field of “property technology,” or proptech. Scott Beyer of Market Urbanism Report writes that proptech has “become more common during coronavirus, as the industry observes social distancing,” noting virtual guided tours, as well as automated services to free developers seeking land entitlements from such burdensome responsibilities as “lobbying with neighbors [and] planning boards.” This further hinders communities’ already-limited ability to hold unscrupulous developers accountable, as the latter will no longer even need to talk to the former. Beyer happily concludes the obvious: such upgrades may have been accelerated by the pandemic, but rather than being provisional social distancing measures, they are, in the words of a New Orleans developer, “permanent…not just a short-term reaction.”

From a market standpoint, rich people having nicer things is a feature, not a bug , and the same goes for real estate players gesturing vaguely at a pandemic while doubling down on bad practices that have long been pro forma, with eager designers paid well to enable them. Residential real estate is inherently the business of leveraging the privatization of housing to maximize profits; indeed, there exists little else in the way of definition. This is precisely what demands contempt . The baseline function of commodified housing is antithetical to public health. And in light of a global public health crisis that puts the working class and people of color squarely in the line of fire, the only architectural solutions worth considering would deliver whatever benefit might come of pandemic design directly to those who need it most urgently. Ultraviolet sanitation is of little consequence in an elevator that doesn’t work.

Leijia Hanrahan is a writer, researcher, and tenant organizer in New York City.