Your home could be helping or harming your mental state during quarantine

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The 2020 coronavirus pandemic and stay-home quarantine reveal that the nature of your residential real estate environment — physical characteristics of the dwelling and neighborhood you inhabit — affects your state of mind in how you view your confinement and isolation experience.

Neighborhood density, dwelling size and design, interior and exterior amenities and number of household occupants can greatly influence your feelings and ability to cope.

Numerous coronavirus reports have documented the psychological malaise experienced by people confined at home. Suffering most are millions of furloughed or unemployed Americans facing increasingly severe economic hardship as they worry about making mortgage payments or paying rent. The possibility of living on the street looms.

Researchers, media reporters and pundits regularly point to disparities in pandemic impact. Using Zip code data, they identify those most adversely affected, typically people of color in urban areas where household incomes are at or only marginally above poverty level. Such households have minimal access to health care and little financial security.

Adverse effects can become even more intense and chronic for someone confined in a tiny, cramped room or efficiency unit, or cooped up with too many other people in a small apartment or rowhouse.

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Imagine the cheerlessness of inhabiting an overcrowded apartment building and looking out your windows at nothing more than other overcrowded apartment buildings. Contemplate the misery of living in a substandard, unsafe dwelling in an impoverished neighborhood short on public services and lacking ample sources of healthy foods.

Now imagine why other people successfully cope with covid-19 confinement. Some are intellectually and emotionally able to tolerate uncertainty. Such people also are likely to have sufficient income and financial resources to continue paying their bills, despite declining net worth. And they probably inhabit psychologically favorable real estate.

Our house and its Northwest Washington Palisades neighborhood are an example of real estate that makes coping with covid-19 tolerable. In an area zoned for detached, one-family homes on 5,000-square-foot lots, our house is in a cluster of seven detached houses sharing a single, 39,000-square-foot hillside parcel. Seven detached, one-family homes on less than an acre is relatively high density compared with suburban densities

Yet despite the density, each home enjoys considerable interior and exterior privacy. The shared property’s mature deciduous and evergreen trees surround the houses and shade each home’s decks elevated above on-grade masonry terraces. Sizable windows and sliding glass doors are placed to provide views into the landscape rather than into adjacent houses, while enabling natural light to pour into house interiors.

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Several quite good Palisades restaurants — open for takeout — are a short walk away on MacArthur Boulevard, with a CVS Pharmacy and Exxon station less than a mile to the south. A Safeway is three miles to the north in Montgomery County, and Whole Foods and Giant supermarkets are on Wisconsin Avenue, a 10-minute drive east.

Across the street from our house is a D.C. elementary school and playground. Battery-Kemble Park, the Palisades Recreation Center and the Capital Crescent Trail are a few blocks away. I can put on a mask and readily go walking, biking or grocery shopping.

Despite being quarantined, my wife and I sometimes feel as if we are living in a getaway vacation home perched on a wooded hillside in a town out in the country. How different this must be than the feelings of people whose residential real estate environment is less aesthetically pleasant and more functionally inhospitable.

These observations and comparisons lead to two quite different questions: Are your home and physical surroundings helping or hindering your pandemic confinement outlook? And will we as Americans be motivated to address the many systemic, socioeconomic disparities so clearly revealed by the covid-19 pandemic?

Roger K. Lewis is a retired practicing architect and a professor emeritus of architecture at the University of Maryland.

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