Combining detailed census data and intimate narrative reporting, CalMatters reporter Jackie Botts and the Salinas Californian’s Kate Cimini, along with CalMatters’ data reporter Lo Bénichou, were among the first reporters nationally to link overcrowded housing to the spread of coronavirus, in their Close Quarters series published June 12. The team’s insightful analysis found the communities hit hardest by the virus had three times the rate of overcrowded homes — and twice the poverty rate of better-off communities.
When coronavirus began spreading in California, public health officials told people who fell ill to isolate themselves in their homes for two weeks. However, Cimini and Botts had been covering the California Divide for nearly a year and were well aware that many California families simply can’t do that. Forced by the high cost of living, parents squeeze into rooms with their children, cousins sleep on couches, grandparents convert living rooms into bedrooms and farmworkers pile into barracks-style bunk beds.
As the shutdown dragged on into the summer, various state and county hotel programs began offering shelter to essential workers as part of the government’s response to slow the spread. In July, Gov. Newsom announced Housing for the Harvest, a hotel program to provide quarantine and isolation rooms for farmworkers who live in crowded housing. It’s clear the team’s reporting helped raise awareness about the link between essential workers and the overcrowded places to which they return home.
In early April, Botts began pulling data from a handful of county dashboards that were starting to publish case counts by ZIP code. She compared these to Census Bureau data. A clear correlation between crowding and COVID-19 emerged. She consulted an NYU researcher, who had found a similar pattern in hard-hit New York City. Over the following month, she requested and analyzed the number of coronavirus cases in each ZIP code for 10 California counties with the highest case counts.
The team’s insightful analysis found the communities hit hardest by the virus had three times the rate of overcrowded homes — and twice the poverty rate of better-off communities. In neighborhoods that were most impacted by COVID-19, 82% were people of color. In the first article, reporters told the stories of Californians living in crowded homes in the Central Coast, Los Angeles, and the Imperial Valley. In the second, reporters zoomed into overcrowded hotspots in Alameda, Los Angeles and San Diego.
The effort was a true team effort. CalMatters’ Matt Levin crunched Census data to reveal the deep racial, health and economic inequities plaguing essential workers living in crowded homes. La Opinion’s Jackie Garcia and the Desert Sun’s J. Omar Ornelas contributed interviews and photos. Bénichou’s designs further amplified the team’s analysis through informative charts and maps. The team published a guide to help other reporters replicate the analysis.
What was the hardest part of this project?
The hardest part was the intricate work: They requested positive coronavirus cases in each ZIP code from more than a dozen counties and calculated the number of infections per 1,000 residents. After that, they painstakingly paired neighborhood-level coronavirus data with American Community Survey demographic data to capture overcrowded hot spots.
The results were striking when comparing the highest and lowest neighborhood rates of infection. Benicho’s designs further amplified the team’s analysis on informative charts and maps.
What can others learn from this project?
Neighborhood-level demographic information is public. So is public health data on the pandemic. When weaved together, reporters can uncover the truth about the extent of COVID spread in poor and minority communities, forcing government leaders and policymakers to confront systemic failings from street to street.