Los Angeles’ Overcrowded Housing Fuels Southern California’s Covid Outbreak

LOS ANGELES—Betty Rivera was the first in her household to fall sick, early last month. To protect her family, she locked herself in the bedroom she shares with her grandson. Her daughter left chicken soup and herbal remedies of ginger and garlic and rosemary outside her door.

But it was impossible to stop the spread, not with three generations crammed into a one-bedroom apartment in one of Los Angeles’ most overcrowded communities.

Her three-story brick building is wedged between Koreatown and Pico-Union, neighborhoods filled with immigrants who stock groceries and drive buses and where the streets are dotted with businesses that serve the underprivileged—99-cent stores, check cashing outfits that dole out payday loans, pawnshops. These days, the wail of ambulance sirens never seems to fall silent.

“It’s all day long,” Rivera, 69, said in a recent interview in her living room, where her family sleeps and where the fireplace is jammed with toys.

Rivera’s daughter was the next to fall ill, and then her son-in-law and two of her grandchildren. Even Chloe, the black-and-white dachshund and Chihuahua mix scurrying around the apartment, became sick, she said.

Betty Rivera, right, and five other members of her family, who all live in a one-bedroom apartment in Los Angeles on Jan. 20, 2021. Perhaps nowhere else in America can the unequal toll of the virus be felt more dramatically than in Los Angeles as suburban sprawl and freeways demarcate the neighborhoods of the haves and the have-nots. (Karla Gachet/The New York Times)

Los Angeles may not have the population density of New York, may not have as many skyscrapers or high-rise apartment buildings or jam-packed subways, but the county does have a higher percentage of overcrowded homes—11 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau—than any other major metropolitan area in America.

Overcrowded housing is defined as more than one person per room, excluding bathrooms. If you drive across the vastness of Los Angeles County, starting at the ocean and going east, the shifting landscape tells the story of the housing inequality that has fueled the virus surge. Mansions give way to smaller, single-family homes, and finally to the immigrant areas like where Rivera, who moved here from El Salvador almost 40 years ago, lives, six people in a tiny one-bedroom.

In some areas, like Westlake, where street vendors line the sidewalks near MacArthur Park, close to 40 percent of homes are considered overcrowded.

It is this Los Angeles, of tight-knit families, of streets packed with food vendors from Central America and Mexico, of encampments of homeless residents, where the virus has spread ferociously, bringing so much sickness and death.

Early in the pandemic, many hoped that Los Angeles—at least the Los Angeles of the popular imagination, with nice houses and backyard pools and everyone in their cars—would somehow be protected from catastrophe.

Now, the hospitals are overrun, and Southern California has become one of the centers of the nation’s outbreak, with alarming daily death tolls. In communities across Los Angeles County, the nation’s largest with a population of more than 10 million, it is clear those early hopes were misguided.

Perhaps nowhere else in America can the unequal toll of the virus be felt more dramatically than in Los Angeles, where suburban sprawl and freeways demarcate the neighborhoods of the haves and the have-nots.

And now that the virus is coursing through the city’s densest neighborhoods, it has underscored the crisis in economic inequality and housing affordability that, even before the pandemic, was one of the region’s most pressing issues.

The problem has been most visible in the growing number of homeless encampments across the state but also in some ways hidden, with so many people living in crowded homes.

“I think that LA was extremely vulnerable and has been vulnerable all along,” said Anne Rimoin, a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles’ Fielding School of Public Health. “LA is extremely large and it’s extremely complex. There is a lot of overcrowding, and I think that is very critical to thinking about how the virus spreads.”

Wearing Masks, Even at Home

Amid soaring cases and deaths, Los Angeles leaders in recent weeks have issued urgent pleas to citizens to wear masks and keep their distance from one another. Officials like Mayor Eric Garcetti are also increasingly warning people that the virus is now spreading rapidly in the one place they thought they were safe: their own homes.

To combat that spread, people should keep their masks on indoors if they live in overcrowded homes, especially those who interact with the public at work, said Barbara Ferrer, Los Angeles County’s public health director. Rivera has already been taking that advice.

“This is particularly important,” Ferrer said, “for those people that live in their households with people who are very vulnerable, people who are older, people who have serious underlying health conditions that put them at great risk for serious illness from COVID-19.”

The county has no way to enforce such a recommendation, but she added that wearing masks indoors would “add a layer of protection while we get through this surge.”

Because the virus has spread so rapidly in Los Angeles, efforts at contact tracing have not been enough. The county and state has moved some homeless people into motels, and offered rooms in RVs and motels to those infected who cannot isolate safely at home, but many people have chosen to stay with their families, or on the street.

The virus has underscored inequalities around the country, bringing far more death to poor people and communities of color.

Consider the number of coronavirus deaths Los Angeles County has registered through Thursday in wealthy, predominantly white neighborhoods on the Westside: Brentwood, nine; Bel-Air, two; Venice, 13; the city of Beverly Hills, 21. There, where life feels almost normal, ambulance sirens are not a constant intrusion and many people are able to work from home.

Now consider the death tolls in overcrowded, more populated neighborhoods to the east, like the one where Rivera lives: Westlake, 202; Pico-Union, 146; Boyle Heights, 187; City of Compton, 147.

On one quiet street in Pico-Union, Bob Armstrong runs a business that has been in his family since 1903, first in Canada and then, starting in the 1920s, in Los Angeles—the Armstrong Family Malloy-Mitten Mortuary. He has never been busier. There are new refrigerated units out back to store the growing number of bodies received from hospitals. He has pulled all his advertising off the internet.

“Everyone in our industry is swamped right now,” he said. “We’re turning away business. I’ve been in the business for 45 years and this is the most challenging situation we have ever seen.”

As immigrant households in Los Angeles become consumed by the virus, many people are also worrying about relatives back home. In El Sereno, a largely Latino working-class neighborhood in East Los Angeles, Domingo Miguel Aguilar, the family patriarch who lives with three generations in a small, two-bedroom bungalow, lost his mother in Guatemala to COVID-19.

In his home, almost everyone became sick. His wife, who had been living in Bakersfield while working at a fruit packaging plant, died.

Aguilar, 69, an evangelist and missionary, reflects on his losses with the equanimity of a deeply spiritual man.

“We have prayed and God has fortified our lives,” he said. “He has blessed us and lifted us. We have not fallen.”

Pawning Jewelry to Afford Food

The virus often leaves economic devastation in its wake because so many people who fall ill are working in jobs that provide no health benefits or sick pay.

Rivera, who works in child care, lost income when she got sick; so did her son-in-law, who missed shifts at a textile factory. To pay their $1,500 monthly rent, Rivera had to pawn off the gold necklace her daughter received for her quinceañera. She got $500.

She hopes to get it back, but after just a month, she already owes $200 in interest. They have relied on charity to leave food boxes outside their door.

“Even if we don’t have enough to eat we have a roof over our head for the kids,” Rivera said.

In South Los Angeles, Hilda Rodriguez-Guzman was lucky enough to buy a house about 20 years ago in the neighborhood where she grew up. But as housing prices have skyrocketed in the region, homeownership is out of reach for her children.

So now, there are four generations living in her small three-bedroom house, which has one bathroom. Her adult son sleeps on the couch. There are grandchildren running around. Her father recently came to live with her after being hospitalized for COVID-19. For a time so did her godson, a veteran who was homeless and suffering from PTSD.

“We are forced to live in these conditions where we’re basically all on top of each other,” Guzman said. “There’s no privacy.”

Nearly everyone in the house has come down with COVID-19. Guzman believes that the infections started when her daughter attended a small dinner party in June, after the initial coronavirus restrictions were lifted. Guzman had the worst of it and was hospitalized for nine days last summer. She needed supplemental oxygen for months afterward.

In richer and whiter neighborhoods, she said, people who get sick can easily isolate and they often have jobs that provide benefits and allow them to work from home.

“We can’t do that,” she said. “We don’t have that luxury. And it says a lot about the inequity that does exist and the racism. This pandemic has made the disparities all the more clear.”

With so many people in the house, and so many falling sick and missing work, money became tight. Utility bills skyrocketed and so did food costs, as quarantined family members relied on delivery apps like Postmates.

“Luckily we had a little bit saved up but all of it is gone now,” Guzman said.

And still, as Los Angeles officials parse the daily drumbeat of cases and deaths, looking for any sign that the surge is slowing, Rivera keeps hearing the sirens.

With each passing ambulance, Rivera pauses, wondering who is sick this time. Her lingering effects from the virus include loss of smell, and she is scared about getting reinfected.

Before she gets on the bus for work each morning, she says a short prayer, asking God to keep her safe.

But she does not leave it all in God’s hands. For protection, she always has extra face masks, passing them around on the bus to those who need one.

Copyright 2021 The New York Times Company.

Ana Facio-Krajcer contributed reporting.


  1. > Los Angeles’ Overcrowded Housing Fuels Southern California’s Covid Outbreak

    Message for San Jose:


  2. This article assumes correlation is causation, but never proves it. Denser neighborhoods may have more covid cases, but that does not mean the density is causing the covid outbreak. It could be age-related, employment-related, behavior-related, it could even be atmospheric or the clustering of some superspeaders. We just don’t know. But the author assumes density is the culprit but doesn’t have the statistical goods to make the point. This is of a sort with almost all of the Social Equity Journalism one reads, in which cherrypicked correlative data is meant to stand as irrefutable truth. It isn’t. You may be right but you don’t have the data. As a result, you are being Trumpian in your logical extrapolations. We are not fooled.

  3. 1 go on craigslist
    2 select a red state
    3 find a red county
    4 search rentals
    5 repeat step 2

    i have leases signed by tenants that say 500/month, i dont need to prove anything, and i certainly owe you nada

  4. What are blabbing about, I have repeatedly said on this site I sold all my california holdings, even specifically to you, stating it is too depressing to collect 2000 a month from broke people and the causa justa fight proved the city council was clueless and would one day vote to cancel rent, which they almost did

    and i also said its about 20% of mhh, which put mhh at about 30000. of course that precludes almost all of california

    i offer affordable housing, without being regulated to do so for about 75 adults and about 20 kids, that Im aware. no special deeds, no low inc tax credits, just market rate, at at or less than 20% of mhh

    do you know what mhh is? do you even understand what youre talking about?
    how many people do you house? your cat, or is that too expensive?

  5. Culture counts. Crowding? “WE WANT MORE” say San Jose, Wiener, et al at the happy developers’ and tech’s, too, behest.

    Go ahead. Do it. Massive new 5-7 story housing and some high-rises, public housing of the first or both types, included, not just in the Google village and Diridon train station (global transportation complex, with SJC as an appendage) area, but build it all full of dense housing from east San Jose all the way to Richmond and beyond along the East Bay flats.

    Commuters go east to west, and south in the morning, and in the evening?

    (Plenty of ’em packed aboard trains and lots and lots of unsung buses, too)

    Begone! Back home; scoot! Chop-chop! Be out of sight after closing time.

  6. Ellen:

    A brilliant and lucid post.

    > This is of a sort with almost all of the Social Equity Journalism one reads, in which cherrypicked correlative data is meant to stand as irrefutable truth. It isn’t.

    And then you blew it:

    > As a result, you are being Trumpian in your logical extrapolations. We are not fooled.

    Trump’s “logical extrapolations” built a business empire, and won TWO presidential elections, and created a roaring economy.

    “Postmodernism” rejected reason, science, and free will and embraced “Social Justice Activism, “Social Equity”, identity politics, cancel culture, and lockdowns.

  7. > As long as I can demonstrate with unbiased objective sources how many have made false claims on any site, I will be there to “fact check” them.

    Who are these “unbiased objective sources” you keep mentioning?

    And, why you’re looking for such sources, I would like to register a complaint with you: you’ve been ignoring me.

    Based on your admitted expertise as an IT Security professional, I humbly sought the benefit of your wisdom on some of the pressing issues of the day. Forthwith:
    – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
    > I am an IT Security professional and this act just set back IT Security 20 years because now Trump SOLD a pardon, in effect trashing the investigation and prosecution of IT Security laws.

    Dear IT Security Professional:

    1. What does the Hursti Hack show?


    2. Can Dominion Voting Systems be hacked?

    3. Would anyone ever want to hack a voting system or machine?

    From the holy and infallible New York Times:

    – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
    You can handle these questions, correct? They’re not to hard?

  8. Thanks for the shout out, SJ Outside, you know i respect your thinking and writing! You may still not like this but let me clarify my Trump “logical extrapolations” comment. I was complaining how the author of the density=covid article started from a premise (Density Causes Covid) and then cherrypicked reports and squirmed around trying to prove his point *but he didn’t have the data.* I believe Trump did same thing on election in that he started from a premise (I Was Robbed of Election) then cherrypicked and elided facts to try to try prove his point “but he didn’t have the data.* I also figured labelling the Social Justice guys “Trumpian” would get their goat :-).

  9. It’s no surprise NYC metro zoomed up in cases and deaths, and why L.A. County, with the city featuring very dense districts (which the ignorant, including the vast ignorant population in the state today, don’t know about) and the metro area featuring dense development (same), is a risk, especially where safety precautions are neglected culturally and otherwise. (See “skinflint employers,” including with health care workers in this country.) Avoid the three Cs as best you can!

    The term “kulak” only being learned in the past few days? (We natives of better times learned it in school as part of history, or learned it on our own in youth sometime.) I bet applying it to Mom-and-Pop or private individual or family landlords, as well as government hostility to them, and the envy and resentment and exploitation of it (true Blue) driving the hostility, remains too much a stretch, too.

    Incorrect reference to Trump or Trumpism, which is neurotic when not worse, is a throwback to such behavior contributing greatly to getting Trump elected in 2016. (It is related to such behavior of all kinds, including the attacks at Trump rallies then, in San Jose being “blamed” by Liccardo on Trump, naturally.) The Left has been ailing long before Trump appeared and unsurprisingly continues to be ailing after he is gone.

    It’s quite the comment section with this article, indeed, with issues accompanying overcrowding and overcrowded housing, and reasons behind that.

    Meanwhile, the powers that be and the big money from some of them want much more density in the Bay Area, L.A. Land, and elsewhere throughout the state while openly supporting … well, acting against long-term mitigation.

  10. Ellen Rosen, too many are actually serious when they misuse “Trump” or “Trumpian.” (They continue to want Revenge, including in Congress …)

    Density is a risk factor, without question, since the disease is transmitted between people and (inverse) distance and exposure time affect the “viral load,” to use a term many health care workers facing the virus use. Infection control measures including wearing masks that a number of people, including “classic” Trump supporters even now don’t wear and may become combative if confronted, obviously help, but reducing exposure is key and density and its effect on living increases exposure. Overcrowded housing (bigger in LA like many other problems than in the Bay Area) and obviously, collective public transport (and air and rail inter-city travel), where density is characteristic and intentional, are rightly seen as especially risky. It won’t be surprising if these are the last places and the last people to be released from the virus’s effective grip.


    I am happy to see that there was once a time classrooms covered Kulaks. The Holodomor was initially denied with east and west, and in some quarters still is, and I was unaware it was discussed in schools. Being of half Ukrainian descent with that side of the family escaping the darker times there in the 1920s, it was something that I thought only other Ukrainians (and Russian intellectuals that love to deny it) was generally aware of.

    “remains too much a stretch, too”

    You are entitled to your opinion, but I would disagree. However, a bit more history may give context. If you recall from your education, serfdom was a common way to organize society for a large part of Western history as well as Russian History. However, there was emancipation in Russia like in the US, just in 1961 and it emancipated the serfs, late relative to other European powers. That lead over a few decades to property rights being extended to peasants. By 1900, there was a class of peasants, let’s say the top 5% in wealth, that were considered Kulaks. It was good to be a Kulak then, especially in Ukraine. You were like a successful small businessman in a small town.

    During the 1917 Revolution, the Bolsheviks, who didn’t care much for Kulaks, played some very intersectional games putting the poor peasants in charge of the Kulaks. However, by the time of the New Economic Policy, Lenin got smart and repositioned the Kulaks to help encourage growth and allowed them to re-enrich themselves, because, well poor peasants have never run things well.

    But class resentments, changing orientation from Moscow, and petty government apparatchiks milked Kulaks for as much tax and returned to a policy of punishing their success. Ultimately leading to the policy of dekulakization in 1929, which then caused/evolved into the Holodomor.

    This is my basic understanding, some details may be inaccurate of course. But to say being a Kulak was only relevant in the late 1920s and early 1930s misses the point. Now, are we in 1929 again yet? No. But make no mistake, we are on the path. I would say we are at about 1916 or so.

    Will San Jose eventually expropriate the landlord’s property? It is inevitable. City leadership has been dehumanizing them for 5 years, and there is a growing belief that no one should own rental property.

    Will they steal their crops and give them to their political allies, of course, they will, it has already started. What do you think an eviction moratorium and talk by the members of the council advocating rent cancelation are?

    Will they watch modern-day Kulaks starve to death while they point a rifle at their head to dissuade them from crawling to the fields and picking from the dirt the seeds that fell during the harvest? I would not count out the possibility with some of the rhetoric being through about by your leaders in DC, evolving from calling for a War on Domestic Terrorism to calling Republicans terrorists in a matter of days.

    The handle I chose, years ago, was an attempt to make people consider the direction we are on, not an implication that we are mid-Holodomor, 1933. When I started using it, things were nowhere near the state things are now.

    Thank you, but I will have to disagree with your dismissive verdict.

  12. Thanks Better Before for your response and for so convincingly proving my point. My issue was that progressives follow the same rhetorical techniques as our ex-president (or maybe vice versa): claiming conclusions without having the data to support it. He didn’t. You don’t. You both put narrative before facts and it’s just not convincing to people who think. You guys argue the same.

  13. Ms Rosen,

    I think you bring up a good point, but to say this is Trumpian thinking is a bit disingenuous. Confirmation bias and its numerous fallacy cousins are widespread in humanity. I have read it is a critical part of survival and embedded on our Rasa Tabula during evolution.

    But, concluding without solid evidence seems to me to be the modus operandi of the entire virus response. Efficacy of masks, probability of asymptomatic spread, surface spread, school lock-out, SIP orders, use of respirators, use of PCR as a diagnostic tool. From the beginning both the CDC and WHO played fast and loose with these things. Frankly, I can’t see how people can be so insistent, so morally indignant of nonconformity on these open questions. So certain, so willing to accept, they are clamoring for isolating children for 10+ months in front of chromebooks, destroying quite a bit of the economy, and rush a novel mRNA treatment, without solid evidence that these things would work in relation to the negative effects. There has been very little discussion on the NY State contact tracing statistics, the Stanford study on shutdown efficacy, and the modeling on the study of asymptomatic spread. The amount of collective certainty and accompanying moralization around these issues is quite shocking.

    From where I sit, if you ask these questions, have doubts, you are a science-denying Trumpian flat-earth fascist. But I am not impressed with the level of data, review, and control that surrounds these unprecedented infringements on our constitutional rights, normal way of life, and abandonment of long held economic and monetary policies. And it is not just Corona. The interpretation of the events over the summer in contrast to the reaction to the event of Jan 6th. So forgive us for being taken aback by your use of the “Trumpian” qualifier, when much of government on all sides these days is concluding and only see data that confirm those conclusions.

  14. Steven:

    Leading a horse to water and making him drink is a breeze compared to leading you to a fact that you don’t want to admit.

    > 1. What does the Hursti Hack show?

    It shows that software based voting and elections systems can be and actually have been hacked.

    > 2. Can Dominion Voting Systems be hacked?


    I will include under “hacking” the malicious programming or alteration of the machine software by the makers to covertly achieve something nefarious.

    Any “IT professional” who tries claim that a computer system CAN’T be hacked has just proven his incompetence and should be fired immediately.

    > 3. Would anyone ever want to hack a voting system or machine?

    Yes. “Why?” you ask. To steal an election without alerting people that the election was stolen.

  15. > No you don’t, BUT you are only allowed to do 3 things about it.

    For Democrats, there’s always a fourth option. Ignore the law.

    “Rule of law” is a Constitutional principle which is really only respected by Constitutionalists.

    Democrats believe in “rule of the majority”, and if the majority wants to ignore rule of law, there is no rule of law.

  16. > BUT prior to even operating the equipment, the equipment is put into a “SECURED” storage, meaning they are NOT accessible between uses except by AUTHORIZED personnel.


    I love it when you put your naivite on full display.

    “SECURED” storage doesn’t do squat to protect against hackers when the company who makes the servers and software is the hacker.

  17. > OMG. Again even FOX NEWS has had many of its people interviewed point out that that did not happen.

    FOX NEWS? You’re using FOX News to prove that something didn’t happen?

    Well, THEY’RE certainly an open-minded, competent, and unbiased source:


    “Chris Wallace: Biden speech was the ‘best inaugural address I’ve ever heard'”

    But, explain to us how your PROVE that something “DIDN’T” happen?

    Deep thinkers have long ago figured out that proving that something DOESN’T exist is “problematic”. There still might be a unicorn on an undiscovered island in the South Pacific.

    Therefore, truth seekers accept the burden of proving something DOES exist.

    Proof of existence requires investigation and evidence, both of which are vehemently opposed by “progressives”.

    Do I have to enumerate for you all the efforts to obstruct election observers and and deny access to courts?

    What are “progressives” afraid of? WHY do the NOT want scrutiny of their “fair and honest” election? What do they have to hide?


  18. > The “EVIDENCE” was not in compliance with the Code of Civil Procedures which prevent “SPOILED” or “INVALID” evidence from being presented in court. And in this case having so many “experienced” attorneys presenting so much “SPOILED” evidence clearly did not work. The Code of Civil Procedure is the method which “DUE PROCESS” is followed so that “CONSTITUTIONAL” decisions are made.


    “compliance with the Code of Civil Procedure” or lack thereof probably had squat to do with anything. Just pompous eyewash.

    Stop insulting our intelligence, and stop throwing crap on the wall.

    There were many cases filed. In many of the cases, the courts reportedly did not look at the evidence. They ducked the issues for various reasons: alleged lack of standing, alleged lack of jurisdiction, refusal to get involved in a current election, political bias, blackmail, threats of violence, etc, etc. Someday, we may find out the reasons after the books are written and published by publishers not beholden to the progressive oligarchs.

    It is amusing that you place so much trust in the wisdom, competence, and integrity of courts and judges . . . except for judges appointed by Trump and confirmed by the Republican senate.

    Chuck Schumer and the Democrats sure fought hard to defeat and discredit Amy Coney Barrett, Brett Kavanaugh, and Neil Gorsuch.

    Would you think as highly of a Justice Barrett decision as you would a Justice Ginsburg decision?

  19. Let’s open the borders and let anyone who wants to come into the country come in. That should fix our overcrowding problem?

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