Getting To The Roots Of The COVID-Poverty “Link”

Tall cream-coloured high rise apartment tower above the camera
St. James Town photo by Keith Ewing is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0
St. James Town, Toronto, a mixed income community. Some highrise towers are social housing, others are free market rental for those citizens with deeper pockets. In which towers are you safest from COVID infection? The answer isn't as obvious as it might seem.

Eight months ago, The Neighborhood Developers (TND), a non-profit housing provider in the city of Chelsea, Massachusetts, shared news about the COVID infection rates at their properties.

Chelsea residents have the lowest incomes in the state. The city also had the highest rate of COVID infection in the state. Yet at the properties owned by TND, the infection rate was 9 times lower. What possible reason could there be for the difference? TND thought that it came down to crowding, but not in a way we may have been conditioned to expect. 1. Now from Toronto, similar evidence is emerging.

Researchers from Open Policy Ontario are investigating the link between poverty and COVID infection rates. As they point out, COVID is an equal opportunity infector: it doesn’t ask about your income level.

Open Policy Ontario looked at infection rates in neighbourhoods in Toronto where residents have very low incomes and found that poverty on its own did not predict infection rates. It turns out that in neighbourhoods with a higher proportion of “community” housing, the infection rates are lower2. In community housing, rents are geared to income.

Similar to TND properties in Chelsea, there is less crowding in community housing in Toronto than in rental housing in the private sector. What? In North America at least, we have been conditioned to expect that community housing is the root of all evil. Surely it is community housing that is overcrowded?

But that is not the case either in community housing in Toronto, or at TND properties in Chelsea. There are rules about the numbers of residents who are allowed to occupy community housing. Not so much in private market housing, where multiple low income families often pool their incomes and live together in order to pay the rent: occupancy standards are the least of their concerns.

It is also worth noting that many of the tenants living in community housing in Toronto are seniors who have very low incomes. Open Policy Ontario attributes the infection rates for people with lower incomes to five factors3.

The capacity to avoid congregate settings is one of the factors. Nursing homes are congregate settings. The lower levels of infection in community housing contrast with the levels in nursing homes, which were among the highest in the province. Some of the people who live in nursing homes have very low incomes, but again COVID wasn’t being selective.

You can the read Open Policy Ontario‘s report about the benefits that community housing conferred during COVID here: Covid-19 hot Spots, Cold Spots and Poverty – In praise of community housing


  1. For more on this story try: Connecting Housing And Health – COVID Helps Provide Links
  2. Also known as social housing, public housing, truly affordable housing and deeply affordable housing
  3. These include:

    • household size,
    • overcrowding,
    • the capacity to self-isolate,
    • the capacity to avoid congregate settings and
    • testing and vaccination levels.

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