Comparisons & Findings

NOTE: Numerals generally denote interview numbers, ages (e.g. 5 year-old), and scores (e.g. stress rating), while spelled-out numbers denote quantities (e.g. twelve participants).

Stress Self-rating 
When asked to rate their household stress levels during the stay-at-home order, on a scale of 1 (“not stressed at all”) to 5 (“extremely stressed with no way to make my own living situation better”), eight of sixteen participants gave themselves a “5”. Two scored themselves “4”, four scored “3”, and 2 scored “2”. Of the households who scored “4” and “5”, all ten identified excessive indoor heat, pests, and weatherproofing issues in the building envelope as major sources of stress. By contrast, those who self-scored “2” (Tess, Joy) could environmentally control their home, transition their work situation without much difficulty, and could maintain some continuity of domestic life with the support of extended family.

Top Stresses (shared by eight or more households)
The survey found several concerns shared by more than half of households, detailed in the Stress Factor Matrix. These stress factors are summarized as follows, in order of frequency.

Twelve of sixteen participants experienced heat stress at home.

This is significant considering Houston’s hot summers and particularly extreme 100-degree days this year. Of these twelve, ten reported inadequate air conditioning (A/C). Heat stress occurred in both rental and owned properties, and were more prevalent in kitchens and bedrooms than in living rooms where A/C was usually installed (see Notes on Domestic Spaces). Jane took provisional measures of covering windows with tin foil or cardboard: “I know it’s a bit ghetto, but we need to keep the heat out.” Ana used heavy drapes to block daylight; Paul’s family porch was clad in fabric to keep it cool; Charlie’s home had opaque paint over bedroom windows. In an overheated house, windows were no longer regarded as a source of visual relief or views to the outside, but rather, as a source of heat gain to be mitigated.

When asked “if you could immediately change one thing about your current home to help you through staying at home, what would it be?”, four participants responded that they would install central air (Jane, Michelle, Chloe, Phoebe). Only two families had working central air conditioning and heating across all rooms of the house: Rachel and Joy reported no problems with summer heat and had overall lower stress levels of 3 and 2 respectively. Tara and Michelle’s rental apartments have central air vents, yet they do not work, indicating that heat reduction is not only about the type of HVAC system, but also its active maintenance. Tara also wondered why her apartment, a newer model, only had one ceiling fan in the entire house. Most families relied on portable fans and heaters to spot-control indoor temperatures. Beyond A/C: the single family house Valerie was temporarily staying in had a gas water heater installed in the bathroom which added to high indoor temperatures. This also raises issues with code compliance and safety.

Twelve participants were concerned with pests at home.

Rats and roaches were the most common, but Ana experienced possums, Nicole had ants, and Yvonne and Valerie had issues with wasps. Note that pest problems were not a reflection of an untended home—families took care in cleaning and self-repairing their own housing conditions. Rather, participants explained that pests entered from existing breaks in the building envelope that have yet to be repaired (Jane, Ana, Michelle, Valerie), or because of the property’s proximity to unkept common trash receptacles (Kelly), or from recently vacated neighboring properties (Charlie). For Kelly, the rat problem was significant: “They eat your clothes, eat your shoes... [They come through the back door] from the dumpster. ...I see them rats running up the porch and everything.” Pest problems, like other building repair requests, were often met with little or no recourse from landlords. Michelle had to plug her water heater closet door with a rolled towel to prevent rats from entering her rental apartment. Sometimes, pests can inhibit the use of otherwise stress-relieving outdoor spaces: the presence of a snake prevented Paul’s mother from using their backyard.

Twelve participants relied on external assistance from non-household relatives, the local church, or community organizations through the pandemic, particularly for groceries and child-minding. All participants received varying degrees of support from the Center for Urban Transformation (CUT), ranging from food assistance to rent relief applications.

Eleven participants could not work from home. The survey found that the seemingly ubiquitous shift to working from home is not accessible to all, particularly under existing limited access to services and space. Ana, Paul, Chloe, and Michelle lost their jobs during the pandemic which required in-person activities such as housekeeping or medical care. Charlie left his delivery job due to COVID exposure concerns. Jane, Yvonne, Lydia, and Valerie did not work and looked after children at home. For Jane, there were “too many kids to even try [working from home].” Of the seven participants who remained employed through the pandemic, only two could work from home: Tess, who braided hair from her living room, and Phoebe, who purchased a laptop and installed home internet for shift work. Rachel, Joy, and Nicole were essential workers who regularly left home for work throughout the pandemic, while Tara and Kelly worked outside the home in food service.

Ten participants used non-bedroom spaces as bedrooms.

This ranged from pushing sofas together at night to make beds, to moving mattresses around, to installing permanent beds in living spaces. Sometimes, sleeping overlapped with other activities: three times a week at 4 a.m., Jane’s grandfather would have to pass through the living room, where Jane and her children slept, to attend dialysis. Non-bedroom sleeping arrangements were not simply due to a lack of space from overcrowding (Ana, Jane), but also because A/C cooling was limited to the living room (Michelle), or because COVID quarantining necessitated household re-zoning (Lydia), or simply due to children’s sleeping preferences (Charlie, Kelly).

Aside from being a stress factor, flexible sleeping spaces were also beneficial: Phoebe’s father or sister occasionally stayed over to help with childcare, while Joy’s mother stayed over to help out after the birth of Joy’s child mid-pandemic. Tess’s grandchildren had occasional sleepovers. Rachel slept on the front couch as an essential worker leaving the house daily, while her daughter took her bedroom.
Nine participants described weatherproofing issues in the building envelope, such as ceiling leaks (Paul, Valerie), holes in walls (Ana, Phoebe), and unsealed window openings (Jane). This makes dwellings more susceptible to everyday rain leaks and pest ingress, in turn affecting the use of indoor spaces. Seven participants lived with or made temporary self-repairs to the home to alleviate indoor environmental stressors: from covering windows with tarp, cardboard or heat-reflecting foil (Jane) and plugging service openings with a towel to prevent rat entry (Michelle), to covering numerous holes in vinyl flooring (Ana) and patching holes in living-room ceilings (Paul, Lydia). Some are not able to afford repairs or have encountered unresponsive landlords or building management during the pandemic.

Nine participants reported major difficulties with childcare at home. Some were unable to leave young children unattended at home (Jane, Phoebe) or could not address medical needs at home (Paul). Others had compromised physical mobility at home (Joy), had issues with privacy and noise (Valerie, Tara) and had difficulty creating a home environment conducive for study (Lydia, Ana). Lydia’s “house became a school” for her six children, including two with autism. While she had no issues with internet or laptops, she was stressed assisting in schoolwork and constantly providing food. Lydia was stressed by constant noise at home after school hours, and noticed that the children, too, became more stressed spending all their time indoors, resulting greater physical conflict with each other.

Nine participants had difficulties accessing repair or installation services during lockdown.

This ranged from specific appliances (e.g. faulty sink, clogged tub, broken A/C unit), to house-wide utilities (e.g. faulty hot water heater, or home internet that remained uninstalled). Some explained it was difficult to get repairmen willing to enter their homes during COVID (Jane, Tess, Paul, Chloe), while others described lengthy delays in landlord repairs or poor building management (Ana, Phoebe).

Sometimes, delayed maintenance raised safety concerns. In Chloe’s rented upper-level duplex, her kitchen’s egress door opens out onto an unsealed opening in the façade with no stair installed, raising concerns about fire escape and general building safety. Chairs were stationed in her small kitchen to restrict backdoor access. Chloe explained that “before the pandemic started, they used to come out and do... repairs. But now they wouldn’t send [maintenance workers].”

Nine participants did not have an in-house washing machine or dryer and relied on a local washateria or shared laundry facility on premises. Rachel, an essential health worker who washed scrubs frequently through the pandemic, considered her local washateria an essential service. During the pandemic, households generally made fewer laundry trips than usual. Tess limited COVID exposure by designating herself as the only family member to do the laundry, and not allowing her kids to go to her apartment’s shared laundry room. Nicole has a washer and dryer in her parent’s shared garage, but she still had to go to the washateria when the dryer broke down: “It’s scary… Many people don’t have masks on.” Ana also felt that her local washateria was unsafe during the pandemic; she would try to reduce trips by washing clothes at home in the shower or bathtub 2-3 times a week and hanging them to dry on her boundary fence.

Phoebe and Tara preferred to go to the washateria as their apartments’ shared laundry facility had broken or overpriced machines, or were “where the teenagers hang out”. Yet on the whole, the absence of in-house laundry appliances was not a major stress as compared to other factors.

Nine participants reported not having enough or no school laptops for children to study remotely during the lockdown, and eight lacked or had poor home internet access during the lockdown. From the interviews, it became evident that wi-fi and laptop access, oft-considered essential items for working from home, were not a given. Phoebe had to purchase a laptop to work from home, and had trouble setting up an internet connection as many companies did not offer internet service in her area. Charlie explained that the absence of home internet was never a problem for his five teenage children before the pandemic, but was now a source of stress. His children now use wi-fi hotspots to study.

For Michelle’s three children in middle and high school, transitioning to remote studying was a struggle. Their household had one computer and had no home internet, and school laptops and hotspots had not yet been distributed during the stay-at-home order, so they used Michelle’s cellphone as a hotspot. Tara’s 14-year-old daughter also used Tara’s cell phone for schoolwork; she was able to obtain a laptop only after the school semester ended. Similarly, Rachel’s daughter used Rachel’s cellphone to study until it crashed; her school grades suffered in part due to these disruptions. These moments of delayed access to internet and school equipment highlight an education gap in the remote studying experience.

Eight participants live in homes considered overcrowded based on Persons Per Room (>1.00).

Of these, four are considered extremely overcrowded (>1.50). Ana’s household of five lived in a 1-bed 1-bath duplex; at approximately 650sf, it had the smallest floor area of all the households and scored an “extremely overcrowded” PPR of 1.67. Ana’s overcrowding metric is congruent with her stress arising primarily from the house being too small for her family, and her being at a loss for what to do if anyone contracted COVID. Valerie, who had been displaced from her long-term home due to hurricane damage, moved into an extended family member’s spare bedroom during the pandemic with her four children. Valerie felt that they were “all jumbled up together and there’s not enough space.” Her overcrowding stress (PPR 1.75) is compounded by inadequate cooling (broken ceiling fan and no A/C until recently) and lack of storage space in the bedroom they shared. There were also household disagreements about using one crowded bathroom.

It is crucial to note, however, that a high overcrowding score does not necessarily correlate with stress levels, as in Charlie’s case (PPR 1.50), whose family members enjoy, and are used to, each other’s proximity: “If I don’t hear no noise from [my kids], then something’s wrong.” Here, the metric is used to give some base level of comparison across differently sized households, in considering whether existing housing typologies are compatible with real family structures.

Some of the larger extended family households, such as Jane’s family of twelve in a 3-bed 1-bath house (PPR 2.40), and Lydia’s family of twelve in a 4-bed 2-bath combined property (PPR 2.00), would both be considered “extremely overcrowded.” But these larger households also benefited socially from living in larger kinship structures and demonstrated collective resilience in pandemic circumstances. Jane’s mother helped babysit when Jane made grocery trips. Lydia and her sister, who lived in an attached secondary dwelling, took turns to watch the children when the other drove out to collect groceries from community organizations. When asked to speculate on what she would change about her current home conditions, Lydia did not ask for more space apart from her eleven family members. Apart from adding another bathroom, she said she would not change anything.

Moving past the normative assumption of overcrowding being “bad” per se, this survey instead suggests that single family homes and apartments designed for the presumed small nuclear family, are in fact not always compatible with the way many families live. The dwelling, particularly in times of difficulty such as COVID, may require more flexible living arrangements that accommodate intergenerational or multi-family needs.

Notes on Site and Access

Access to Food and Essential Supplies
Based on the interviews, the picture of access to food and essential supplies is not what one would usually expect in a designated food desert such as the Fifth Ward, where there are no major supermarkets like HEB, Kroger, or Walmart. None of the participants expressed issues with proximity to supermarkets during the pandemic—in fact, most lived within walking or driving distance to at least one grocery store, such as Fiesta Mart (refer to the map sheet showing the Fifth Ward’s distribution of grocery stores, health services, and neighborhood amenities).

For participants, the concern with food access in COVID times turned out not to be geographic distance per se, but more nuanced factors, such as the inability to leave young children unattended at home during grocery trips (Jane); having their car break down during the pandemic which impeded mobility (Chloe, Phoebe); limited storage space for frozen food at home (Paul, Chloe, and Lydia); and unaffordable products at the few big-box stores close to home (Paul). Chloe’s car broke down at the start of the pandemic. While she has been able to catch a ride from close family or friends to grocery store once every two weeks, this is a source of stress as she prefers not to depend on others. In Paul’s account, the local supermarket “price gouges,” so their family travels out to other neighborhoods to buy from other big boxes such as HEB or Joe V’s.

In contrast, Ana and Lydia rely heavily on local food distribution services at nearby churches and the Fifth Ward CUT—highlighting the importance of community organizations in supplying food to families through the crisis. Neighbors also supported each other: Michelle drove other single mothers living in her apartment building, who did not have cars, to get groceries together.

Beyond food, five participants experienced difficulties with accessing medical supplies and services (Paul, Lydia, Phoebe, Kelly, Joy). Phoebe shares Jane’s childcare dilemma: “I don’t have adequate people to watch my kids, so I’m not able to even take them to the doctor most of the time.” Additionally, Phoebe’s clinic did not allow siblings or relatives to enter, which meant that her child could not go with a relative, nor could she bring all her children to the appointment. Phoebe therefore had to decide between being present with one child and leave the rest at home unattended, and ended up foregoing doctor’s appointments. Despite her household circumstances, however, Phoebe herself acted as a family support: she took in her 5-year-old niece when the child’s mother, an essential worker, fell ill during the lockdown.

Importance of Public Parks and Washaterias

Numerous interviews implicitly revealed the importance of living close to public green spaces within walking or short driving distance of home. When Jane’s local park closed during the stay-at-home order, Jane had to drive her children there just to prove that “mommy wasn’t being mean” in keeping them at home. Charlie began taking his children to their park later than usual in the evening, to avoid running into other people. Paul could not access his local basketball court for his usual outdoor activities: “everybody’s basically cramped at home, unless it’s an emergency, or unless we go to the grocery store.”

While most public parks were closed during the stay-at-home order, several residents were able to use smaller parks or common greenspaces for outdoor recreation. Tess’s house and porch faced a large outdoor greenspace shared by residents of their apartment complex, which they used frequently through the pandemic. Kelly held a small graduation party for her children in a park nearby.

The washateria also emerged as a key urban amenity through the pandemic, particularly as most households did not own an in-house washer or dryer. While it presented COVID-19 concerns, all households who needed access had one close by.

Notes on Resilience

Instability vs. Resilience
According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Healthy People 2020 definition of housing instability, “people with the lowest incomes may be forced to rent substandard housing that exposes them to health and safety risks such as vermin, mold, water leaks, and inadequate heating or cooling systems. They may also be forced to move in with others, potentially resulting in overcrowding.” [1] The Stay-at-home Stress survey of sixteen Fifth Ward households found similar stress factors, which call for immediate mitigation and future planning. Yet, the survey also moves beyond disparaging portraits of instability, and shows how household resilience and active support networks shape domestic life under lockdown.

Role of extended support networks
The survey inadvertently uncovered the social value of the extended household “pod” under stay-at-home circumstances. Ten families (Interviews 03, 05, 07, 08, 10, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16) had closed family (or neighbor) networks for social time or child-minding: whether by traveling beyond the confines of their home to other COVID-safe spaces (Rachel), by hosting specific family visitors at home (Tess, Phoebe), or by driving other single-mother neighbors to get groceries (Michelle). Three families (Jane, Yvonne, Paul) were intergenerational and had mutual support between younger and older members of the same household.

Phoebe’s father or sister would occasionally stay over to look after her children when she left the house for groceries. They would stay overnight on a futon or air mattress in Phoebe’s living room. When Chloe was not feeling well during the pandemic, she was able to quarantine from her children by sending them to their grandmother’s, who lives 10-15 minutes away. Today, Chloe’s children still stay there on weekends, allowing Chloe to have the whole apartment to herself which reduces stress levels. Joy’s mother watched her 5-year-old son when she was in labor in the hospital, and babysat at Joy’s place after childbirth. Her mother and sister assisted with groceries as she was unable to qualify for food stamps while on maternity leave. Valerie and her three children had been living from her van for little over a year, having been displaced from her long-term home due to Harvey damage repairs. When the pandemic struck, she was able to temporarily move in with her brother and sister-in-law for a few months while finding a new place.

Rachel and Tess (who had lower stress self-ratings of “3” and “2”) continued to host family members on a regular basis throughout the pandemic without necessarily fearing COVID-19 transmission, with events such as movie or game nights in each other’s’ homes, or Sunday barbeques or dinner outdoors on the porch. “We rotated homes”: Rachel explained that her sister and her niece, and herself were all essential workers who regularly took COVID tests and kept closed family gatherings safe: “ We don’t go no different spots…We all just travel [within] the comfort of those spaces.”

Charlie and his five children live in a rental property next to his mother’s self-owned house where his brother’s family also lives. He expressed how valuable this proximity to family was during the lockdown. For Nicole, who moved into her parents’ secondary dwelling to reduce rent burdens during the pandemic, family proximity was so immediate that she could see her parents’ house from her window. Between the two dwellings, the family would call out to one another particularly around dinner time, and would occasionally eat as a whole family. During the pandemic, Nicole was able to host a small piñata birthday party for her daughter in that gap between houses, which allowed a few family members to safely meet outdoors in privacy from the street.

These experiences highlight the precarity of isolated caregiving, and the significance of having social infrastructure such as trusted family members to regularly mind children or deliver groceries during the pandemic. It also reveals moments of resilience in an incredibly isolating health crisis.

Notes on Domestic Spaces

The living room tended to be the physically coolest (and AC-prioritized) room in the house, and therefore also a key social space where most family members gathered during the pandemic summer. For eight households (Interviews 01, 04, 05, 07, 09, 10, 11, 16), living rooms were converted into bedrooms at night. In particular, Jane and Michelle pushed sofas together to make a bed, while Ana had additional beds installed in the living room. Air mattresses also kept room layouts flexible from day to night (Paul) and allowed families to reorganize sleeping configurations during periods of suspected COVID illness (Lydia). 
The bedroom was not homogenously populated either: it could host an entire family (Valerie), or remain unused due to intense summer heat or lack of furniture (Michelle).

Kitchens were described as both stressful and social spaces. On one hand, kitchens were high-traffic spaces and could become incredibly hot with the presence of cooking elements (Jane, Chloe, Lydia), especially for Chloe’s small enclosed kitchen and for Lydia whose kitchen stove had no dedicated ventilation. 

Kitchens with limited dry or cold storage space posed issues for seven participants during the pandemic when stocking up on groceries became necessary. Paul, Chloe, Lydia and Charlie deployed extra cooler boxes to store perishables in addition to their refrigerator. Paul and Phoebe also had to stock up on boxes of bottled water, as they did not regard tap water as safe for drinking—a signal that grocery storage needs may be greater for those living in environmentally compromised neighborhoods. Large storage spaces can also cause stress: Phoebe has had trouble getting building maintenance to fix their mold-infested pantry, and has not used it due to her daughter’s asthma.
On the other hand, kitchens were site of collective cooking (Yvonne, Michelle) and spaces where family discussions and prayers took place (Paul). As domestic spaces absorbed more activities during the lockdown, kitchen tables became school desks (Jane, Rachel, Nicole), and BBQs brought cooking outside into the porch and yard (Tess). Kelly’s kitchen, while largely separate, connected to the living/dining space such that an additional deep freezer could be installed in the broader space of the home. As such, Kelly did not perceive having storage issues, unlike Chloe, whose completely separated small kitchen with a broken fridge had less net space for extra food storage units.

Bathrooms were generally sites of stay-at-home stress, particularly for larger families sharing one bathroom (Jane, Tess, Lydia, Tara). There were concerns with privacy or social distancing. Three of the sixteen households (Jane, Chloe, Lydia) had to socially distance from at least one family member due to suspected COVID, and expressed related stresses with sharing one bathroom and with zoning the house between the sick and healthy.

The location of Jane’s bathroom required more cleaning effort and intensive choreography of use during the pandemic. Jane’s uncle, who stayed in a bedroom next to the kitchen, contracted COVID-19 symptoms and had to isolate from the other 11 members of the household—but he could not isolate from using the only bathroom in the house. To reach the bathroom, he had to traverse the kitchen, living room and shared hallway. This meant that “when he had to come out for bathroom/kitchen, everyone had to ‘get out the room’ during that time.” To keep the family safe from infection. Jane’s mother would have to clean the affected rooms each time.

None of the dwellings had dedicated studies or workspaces. For Jane, Rachel, Ana, Tess, and Nicole, the living room or kitchen was used for school study; some turned them into dedicated study space while others moved furniture to accommodate changing activities from day to night. Lydia recounts significant difficulties in organizing her six children across two bedrooms and a living room to study concurrently, and in maintaining their concentration levels during school hours (headphones were used). Ana’s family of five (four children and herself) live in a 1-bedroom house; both living room and bedroom are used for schooling in the day, and for sleeping at night.

Rachel set up her kitchen/dining nook as a dedicated study area for her daughter during the pandemic, even installing a home printer at the kitchen table and removing a mini-TV (considered a study distraction). The family often ate in the living room with pull-up tables. Nicole’s kitchen table also became a summer school study. As both Rachel and Nicole worked in healthcare and were mostly attending shifts during the day, there was no trouble sharing home-schooling space with their child.

Shaded porches or patios were frequently described as stress-reducing spaces, offering outdoor sociality and relief from the confines of the house (Interviews 02, 04, 05, 06, 07, 11, 13). As a connecting interface between inside and outside, one could spend time outside without leaving the house. It reduced indoor stress and boredom for Ana’s children, and allowed Tess’s family to continue their pre-COVID BBQ tradition with extended family. Michelle used her large porch in her ADA-compliant apartment unit when parks were closed, and sat outside when she had company.
Paul’s family sat out on the porch in the morning or evening when it was cool out, and had fabric stretched between columns which created a shaded outdoor room. Despite living close to the local dumpster and having witnessed the presence of rats along the porch, Kelly still described her porch as her “little sacred space”, and her family liked to eat outside together.

Front yards, backyards, and private outdoor spaces became important social spaces during the pandemic, but also brought about issues with child safety and proximity to traffic. Immediate access to the outdoors were important for families who were unable to frequent public parks with their children (Interviews 01, 04, 05, 08, 09, 13), and for older participants who were housebound due to COVID concerns (Yvonne). Trees provided shade and made outdoor spaces more comfortable (Jane, Valerie). The paved space and driveway between Nicole’s garage apartment and her parent’s primary dwelling hosted a small family gathering for her daughter’s birthday.

Lydia’s large backyard was particularly important for her six children and her sister’s small family, who also lived on the property. It was a space for play, laundry, and chicken-rearing, and gave both households access to the shared laundry and storage shed for their belongings when the Harvey-damaged house was being repaired. She also started an extensive garden-ing project with her kids in the front yard during the pandemic. Without a backyard, Ana’s children played in the front yard, indicated by the pile of toys outside her house.

But the presence of private open space does not always alleviate stress: Ana worried about her children playing along a high-traffic road with little boundary separation from her front yard. Charlie did not use his backyard much because of perceived safety concerns from recently vacated neighboring properties (showing signs of break-in). Phoebe’s building management did not allow her to inflate a small pool for her children in the apartment complex’s common greenspace over the summer. This tells us that it is not enough simply to increase square meters of private outdoor space, but that it is also important to look at neighborhood vacancy, street safety, expanded use rights of renters, sun shading provisions, and other broader factors which affect its frequency of use and stress reduction during long bouts of confinement at home. Private open space should also not be considered equivalent to larger scale public parks and outdoor amenities (see Notes on Site and Access).

Seven participants (four rental, three family-owned) experienced stress from pre-existing physical building conditions needing  immediate repair. Homes with flooring finishes inappropriate for high-traffic or wet areas (Ana, Michelle, Chloe) tended to have poorer flooring conditions that created everyday frustrations. Ana’s biggest concern was her rental unit’s need for physical repairs: from holes in vinyl flooring posing trip hazards, to ceiling tears and water marks, loose electrical outlet, and poor sealing around the bathtub which brought pests indoors. While waiting for the owner’s repairs, she repaired the bathroom wall gap with foam. Michelle’s bathroom floor was not tiled but wood-finished, leading to water damage and warping. The additional lack of proper separation between shower wet area and bathroom floor, also contributed to water ingress. The entire floor of Chloe’s duplex was finished in a thin, wallpaper-like sticker which was now peeling badly.

Jane and Paul’s families relied on their living rooms, which were currently compromised by an unglazed window and a large ceiling leak respectively. Lydia’s experience living with significant Hurricane Harvey damage for 3 years was also notable: “We had been ashamed of having guests over, because everything was damaged, even the walls.” Having just renovated the home with storm relief funds, Lydia was significantly happier, and explains it has almost erased the memory of their extreme hardships through the pandemic. “And we are also renovated.”

Discussion and Conclusion

To conclude, we have attempted to ask the following three questions based on stressors identified by the spatial survey. Given the project’s small sample size, however, the following remarks are not to be read as a list of comprehensive solutions, but rather, as a series of discussion points and preliminary suggestions for housing organizations, community leaders, residents, and researchers to build upon when planning for pandemic preparedness, home repairs, support services, or future home-building activity in the Fifth Ward.

Which home stressors
require urgent mitigation?




  • Landlords to ensure tenants’ A/C systems work.
  • Distribute emergency A/C units to homes without it, particularly in summer under lockdown.
  • Consider central air conditioning system instead of window A/C.

  • Building management to improve pest control of shared trash receptacles, as this can affect dwellings nearby.

  • Improve home internet access at neighborhood and household levels.
  • Building managment to give adequate notification before power shutoffs, so that residents can plan.
  • Maintain machines in shared laundry facilities.

  • Repair existing breaks in envelope at risk of immediate rain or pest entry into habitable spaces (e.g. ceiling holes, unsealed windows and doors).
  • Caulk and weatherstrip around doors and windows.
  • Insect screens over high-use operable windows.
  • Repair deteriorated flooring that pose trip hazards (e.g. holes in floor tiling).
  • Building management to respond promptly to tenant repair requests and keep homes habitable.

Which stressors may be alleviated through spatial reorganization?

This question was challenging, considering the varied responses, diverse ways of living, and overlapping causes of stress that go beyond the physical design of the home. As such, these are only initial ideas to be further developed with specific residents and sites.


  • Consider sun-shading devices in front or back yards for regular outdoor use, particularly if public parks remain closed.
  • Consider deploying portable outdoor toilets for large or COVID-affected households that share one bathroom.

  • Incorporate generous porch or similar shaded outdoor space connected to the dwelling.
  • Orient dwelling to reduce heat gain and improve child safety in outdoor playspaces (e.g. kitchen window facing north out onto yard to give visibility without heat gain).
  • Bathroom could be designed with dual access, with door accessible from the outside.
  • Enhance ability to wash/dry clothes at home (e.g. retractable cord over shower in bathroom).
  • Consider designing flexible living / dining areas with ample storage, that can accommodate changes in furniture layout for day-to-night transitions in use: e.g. school study, family members staying overnight for occasional childcare.
  • Consider designing kitchens with space for extra dry and cold storage (e.g. pantry, space for cooler, electrical outlets for extra freezer unit), or consider non-enclosed kitchens connected to dining spaces such that additional storage can be installed in a broader space without impeding the kitchen.

Which stressors are likely to persist or worsen beyond the COVID-19 emergency period itself?

is likely to be particularly difficult for residents who lost employment during the pandemic or are unable to work from home (e.g. essential healthcare workers). Low-income families may continue to rely on external support for food and essential supplies, and on family or friends for lifts to get groceries if they do not have a functioning car.

is likely to present another stressor for parents trying to maintain conducive study environments for children at hone, particularly large households with different child learning needs. Lack of home internet access and delayed school laptop/hotspot distribution may also be a major setback for school-aged children expected to keep up with online study materials. Ensure timely distribution and setup of school equipment from schools, to support students transitioning into home study.

may continue to bring stay-at-home discomfort and health hazards not only during pandemics, but also between crises. Households without adequate cooling or consistent access to utilities are likely to experience similar or worse heat stress in a warming climate, particularly if confined at home for long periods of time.

is likely to affect more families than just those living within Houston’s designated FEMA 100-year and 500-year floodplain. Unrepaired leaks may exacerbate indoor stresses during heavy rain or storm events. See “Overheated Homes” and “Building Envelope”.

  • Continue supporting community resources: from food distribution programs at local churches, to the gap-filling social service work of organizations such as the CUT and Fifth Ward CRC.
  • Maintain access to neighborhood washaterias as essential service for families without in-house washing machine / dryer.
  • Consider providing affordable options for living close to extended family. The accessory dwelling unit (ADU) and garage apartment may be typologies of interest. A smaller discrete unit on the back of a family property (e.g. Nicole) may help strengthen COVID stay-at-home resilience and allow pooling of resources and utilies, while preserving degrees of family privacy.

  • Ensure timely distribution and setup of school equipment (laptops, hotspots) from schools, to support students transitioning into home study.

  • Consider adequate thermal insulation, sealing around wall openings, and ceiling fans in all rooms future homes.
  • Keep air-conditioned neighborhood amenities (e.g. community cooling centers) open during summer.
  • See “Overheated Homes” above.

  • Continue supporting hurricane relief funds for families living with existing damage.
  • Keep existing homes hurricane prepared and as weatherproof as possible, and new homes above the flood level.
  • Consider increased storage space for food and essential supplies.

COVID-19’s unequal domestic effects
In a recent New York Times assessment of the United States’ “resilient but increasingly unequal economy,” Head of U.S. Economic Research Michael Gapen remarked that the pandemic “has drawn a tremendously bright and vivid line between the affected and the not affected”. [2] (This line was already visible in pre-COVID times; it is made evident through our context maps of social vulnerability, health risk, and income in Harris County, Houston.) Like most COVID impact assessments, the Times article featured data in numerous line charts—rising unemployment rates, wages, and housing costs across the country. While data-rich and extensive, the study conceded that “[a]lone, none of these metrics can tell a complete story of the pandemic economic crisis.” [3]

What Stay-at-home Stress adds to this discussion is not a generalizable line-chart trend or projection, but rather, a nuanced, individuated picture of families in the most intimate realms of everyday domestic life. It shifts the gaze from economic indices to bodies in space, to that thick and precarious line between resilience and vulnerability under crisis circumstances.  While sixteen interviews cannot produce generalizable conclusions about a neighborhood or city, they certainly give texture, voice, and materiality to their systemic conditions. By narrating personal stories through CAD plans and entourage, this pilot project can perhaps be said to carve out an alternative architectural method for sociology—or a sociological method for architects—to listen to, learn from, recognize, and document the unequal shape of pandemic experience.

In future surveys, what constitutes a “top stress” warrants further development. Stressors identified by less than half of households should not be discounted as less important than others just because they were less prevalent, as they still caused major stress at home. For example, seven participants in this survey had physical building conditions needing immediate repair, four had trouble accessing medical supplies, and four had to socially distance at home during the lockdown. In reality, these are more stressful experiences than not having an in-house washer/dryer, which had a higher tally of eight participants. This suggests that surveys privileging participant frequency may not always capture variable intensity.

[1]     "Housing Instability," Healthy People 2020 initiative, Office for Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, link.
[2]    Ella Koeze, "How the Economy Is Actually Doing, in 9 Charts," New York Times, December 17, 2020, link.
[3]    Ibid.