California: Worse on Overcrowding than New York

It’s one thing to feel claustrophobic in a crowded theater, but when it comes to housing, the term “crowding” has a very specific meaning — namely, too many people living in a single home.

Just how “crowded” are California’s cities compared to the nation’s densest metropolis? We sent California YIMBY’s data analyst Darrell Owens off on a number-crunching expedition, and he returned with some startling statistics: Our state has among the highest overcrowding rates in the country. According to the US Census Bureau, many Californians live in conditions that are more crowded than New York City.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development defines overcrowding as more than 1 person per room, on average; severe overcrowding is more than 1.5 people per room. Remember, that’s not per bedroom, just per room.

Key takeaways:

  1. California has two regions with the highest overcrowding rates in the country. San Francisco and Los Angeles both have higher percentages of overcrowded households than New York, though they both have less than half of New York’s population-weighted density. The Los Angeles region has more than double the rate of severe overcrowding (1.5%) as New York (0.69%).
  2. This pattern is reflected at both the regional and municipal level. The city of Los Angeles has more overcrowded homes as a share of its residents (13.2%) than New York City proper (9%), and the Los Angeles metropolitan statistical area (MSA) has a higher rate of overcrowding (7.5%) than the New York metro area (3.85%).
  3. Consistent with this pattern, the city of San Jose has more overcrowded households than San Francisco, even though it also has less than a third of its population density. Philadelphia is nearly four times denser than Phoenix, yet Phoenix has a much higher rate of overcrowding (6.6%) than Philadelphia (2.6%).

The MSA Overcrowding rate is from the 2017 ACS 1-Year Estimate. The City Overcrowding rate is from the 2014-2018 ACS 5 Year Estimate.

Here’s what that looks like:

There is an understandably a fair bit of confusion regarding the relative merits and risks of urban population density—something we support increasing throughout California—and overcrowding. Let’s be clear: Density means more people per square mile, not per bedroom. Conflating the two may be politically expedient, but can lead to worse outcomes as it disregards best practices in public health policy.

As we’ve said in the Sacramento Bee recently, “the primary factors keeping people safe from COVID-19 are not low-density land-use patterns, but good governance, sound leadership and a robust public health response.”

The evidence clearly also shows that less dense cities can have more overcrowding in homes on average. A new analysis by NYU’s Furman Center found that New York neighborhoods with higher rates of COVID-19 contagion had higher rates of overcrowding and lower rates of population density. We hope to see public health and city planning discourse follow accurate evidence on these variables.