Now There Are Two: Could Ebola in Dallas Hurt Our Hot Real Estate Market?

Village Bend East Apartments

Let’s face it: the only news we care about today is the sickening news coming out of Presbyterian Hospital of Dallas, a Texas Healthcare Resource Hospital, that a second nurse who treated Ebola patient Thomas Duncan has now tested positive for the disease. I have been glued to Facebook this morning (where I am limited to 5,000 friends, but you can still follow me) because I thought, well, this is a health issue, not real estate.

Then I heard from an agent or two that showings were slowing down. I hate to say it — hate to — but the whole world is now looking at Dallas as the place where we messed up with an Ebola patient. We have become Ebola Central.

Candace Carlisle at the Dallas Business Journal hosted a panel of real estate bigwigs and asked if Ebola had any negative, halting effect on companies looking to relocate here.  No, said the panel, which included Downtown Dallas Inc. president and CEO John Crawford and Brad Selner.

“Companies aren’t saying they can’t afford to look at Dallas, or the area because of Ebola, but I would say the longer it goes on, the more impact it will have,” he added. “I would hope we get this corrected so it doesn’t take away from the attractiveness of the area. When you talk about families, community and health — I don’t care who you are — people get concerned.”

I have a thousand thoughts on this and how it will affect real estate.  I’d like to know yours.

Agent John Jones with Texas Urban Living tells me that a buyer cancelled a showing today in East Dallas, because he said it was too close to the Village Apartments where the second Ebola patient lives.

Will more people want to live in the suburbs, shunning urban life for more space? We all love an urban environment, but urban comes with more germs. Though I do want to stress to everyone that the people in most danger from catching this Ebola are health care workers caring for the patients, not the general public. We love high-density living, and we say we want more of it. Dallas is growing to a (gag me) “world-class city.” We want to dump our cars and walk more, hanging around more people in the process. Well, a world-class city means immigrants, and in this case, a whole population of them, a veritable Ellis Island on Park Lane east of Greenville where Thomas Duncan went to stay with his family, his friends from Liberia, where he felt safe. My ancestors did the same thing in Chicago in 1917.

But my ancestors were screened first for disease at Ellis Island. That doesn’t happen when visas are issued.

Please note there are no reports of Duncan’s family having contracted the illness, probably because Presbyterian Hospital kept them away. Unfortunately, they didn’t protect their nursing staff as well, thanks to the CDC. But when you look back in history, we see that urban life has always been rife with disease, filth, and illnesses far worse than Ebola that spread even more rapidly, like cholera:

“The whole history of urban life, in a sense,” says Richard Barnett, “is of living with parasites and trying to get rid of them.” We are at the end of a rainlashed walk through London, one of a series of health and disease tours run by Barnett, a historian of science and a Wellcome engagement fellow. He has told us of mummification and mass graves; the heads once displayed on spikes at the entrance to London Bridge; and the bodies that washed up in dead man’s hole in the Thames, before being taken to a mortuary. The history of cities worldwide, he says, is one of filth and disease, of docks humming with people, rats and mysterious cargoes, of overcrowded slums, poor diet and pollution.

In the old days, before jet air travel, if you came to the U.S. it would take six or seven weeks to get here, and if you got sick on the boat you were quarantined or tossed overboard. Compare that to today when you can hop on a plane at DFW — that temperature-taking is a joke — and fly anywhere. Maybe we ought to reverse the reversal of the Wright amendment? (Kidding!)

In a way, it is impossible for us to build any walls because there are too many ways around them. That’s why cities are such breeding grounds for illness:

Once an infection has arrived in a city, proximity enables its spread. The city is a playground for parasites. “There are a lot more exciting human beings they can jump on to,” says Barnett, “lots more opportunities for vectoring and transmission. It’s all about movement. Parasites love movement. So in that sense the city is an absolutely fantastic place for them.”

We know day cares and schools are cesspools for infections because everyone is so close together:

“In January 2010, at the height of a swine-flu outbreak, researchers at Stanford University in the US used wireless sensors to monitor the movements of 788 students, teachers and staff at a high school. They were particularly interested in how many times people came within 10ft of one another, the distance at which it’s possible for infections to spread through coughs and sneezes. In the course of a day, the researchers were astonished to discover 762,868 encounters in all.”

What do we do? Stay away from people? How does this bode for high-density living? Rapid urbanization? The World Health Organization, whose budget was plundered and probably one reason why we are dealing with Ebola in Dallas today, says 4 in 10 people were living in cities in 1970, by 2050 this proportion will be 7 in 10.; during that 70-year period, the world population is projected to have grown from 3.7 billion to 9.3 billion. And our population is growing older. Older people get sicker, and are more susceptible. And some of us have “bad respiratory etiquette”:

Infections can be passed from person to person partly through bad respiratory etiquette. Dr Arpana Verma, senior lecturer in public health at the University of Manchester, says she was recently involved in a project where a group of researchers covertly observed people’s coughs and sneezes: “We were amazed by how many people spit.”

That is just plain gross! Ebola is here, and we have to deal with it. Maybe it’s time for Dallas to not just focus on walkability but emerge as a leader in hygiene and infection control in our urban infrastructure and design. Public toilets, for example, which I avoid at all costs, can be designed for easier, better cleaning and sanitation:

In environmental terms, public toilets are obviously breeding grounds for germs in cities, and Cutler says he’d like to see “ways of improving environments so they become easier to clean, easier to manage – novel surfaces and structures, so there aren’t so many nooks and crannies in public areas. There’s now a plethora of different toilet designs, none of which have been realistically tested but which nevertheless show promise. What people forget is that when you flush a toilet, there’s a thing called a spray that goes something like two metres in the air and can contain faeces, which means you could breathe in E coli and the rest.”

Feeling pretty grim about all this? Me too. But we still have the best real estate market in the country, and a chance to pull ourselves out of this with grace and grit, as Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins put it. The CDC left community hospitals in a huge void, and one in Dallas happened to pull the unlucky card. I so hope that when Nina Pham and Amber Joy Vinson recover — and they will — they will become beacons of light, information and education for the way to care for patients in the big city.

Meantime, second home sales might just be on the rise …