Metropolis

What COVID-Scarred Cities Can Learn From the Bubonic Plague

An engraving showing Parisians in various states of sickliness and death.
Le choléra à Paris by J. Roze, c. 1832. National Library of Medicine (Public Domain)

When the going got tough, the rich got going. So Heinrich Heine observed of the 1829 cholera outbreak in Paris, the class resentments of which would get a legendary depiction in Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables. “The multitude murmured bitterly when it saw how the rich fled away and, well packed with doctors and drugs, took refuge in healthier climes,” Heine wrote. “The poor man saw with bitter discontent that money had become a protection also against death.”

To make matters worse, while Paris home sale prices dipped considerably, rents barely budged. That’s according to new research by Marc Francke and Matthijs Korevaar, a pair of researchers in the Netherlands who studied how the housing market responded to epidemics in pre-modern times. Using a remarkable set of data on deaths, rents, and real estate sales, they show that outbreaks of the plague in Amsterdam and cholera in Paris produced similar outcomes: substantial impacts on sales, lesser impacts on rents, and in each case a relatively brief interruption in the upward trajectory of urban housing prices. After the public health emergency, these cities snapped back.

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The waves of bubonic plague that hit Amsterdam in the 16th and 17th centuries and the two big cholera outbreaks that hit Paris in the 19th century featured several similarities to our current experience with COVID-19. They chased the richest inhabitants into the country, where they could breathe free of pestilent vapors. They had substantial impacts on the economy, shuttering businesses and disrupting trade. They killed lots of people. And the impact was worst in the poorest neighborhoods.

Generally speaking, things were far worse back then: Cholera outbreaks in Paris killed 1.5 to 2.5 percent of the population. In Amsterdam, a plague year might kill as many as 1 in 10 people. In the United States, despite the high absolute number of COVID deaths, the death rate is a fraction of a percent, though it is higher in some hot spots.

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Housing-wise, however, there are clear echoes. The fact that rents showed only brief and small declines, in this research, is a reminder that many menial workers had nowhere else to go—and certainly nowhere else to find work. Indeed, that rents declined at all may be entirely due to the astounding number of people who died, creating a momentary surge in empty apartments. Meanwhile, the stronger home price declines show pullback from nervous investor-landlords—the rate of owner-occupied housing was very, very low—a trend we also saw in our own pandemic’s real estate stocks.

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As for the quick recovery, that was thanks to two instructive trends. First, though life expectancy was shorter in cities than outside them, the Amsterdam and Paris of yore kept growing because they offered compelling reasons for more people to move there. Namely, a chance to make more money. You couldn’t trade tulips on Zoom in those days, so we can’t draw too close a comparison, but cities recovering from the COVID pandemic should also keep trying to attract new residents.

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Second, both cities took their health crises as opportunities to remedy the conditions that had made some neighborhoods particularly deadly. Then as now, the big problem was overcrowded housing. Amsterdam reacted to plague years by continuing the expansion of the city, even offering mortgages on new plots, dispersing the population. Cholera outbreaks in Paris led to widespread slum clearance, including the famous Haussmann-led urban renewal undertaken in the 1850s that gave us the city’s famous and spacious boulevards.

This is exactly where U.S. cities are failing now. One thing that has been conspicuously missing from the conversation about post-pandemic planning so far is what we can do to alleviate the chronic crowded housing conditions that made some neighborhoods so vulnerable. (Crowding, needless to say, is not the same as density!) Vaccines must be tailored to each new disease, but healthy housing inoculates us against all kinds of ills.

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