Fair Housing expert discusses COVID-19 for seniors

Regulation | August 24, 2020 | by Juliana Bilowich

On a special LeadingAge call, HUD compliance expert shared fair housing tips and considerations for senior housing providers during COVID-19.

On August 24th, LeadingAge hosted a special edition of its weekly Housing Advisory Group call for senior housing providers. Titled "Fair Housing Issues during COVID-19," the call featured HUD compliance expert Heather Staggs of S.T.A.R. Momentum Compliance Consulting, who answered a variety of member questions sent in advance.

Currently, LeadingAge hosts a weekly call for its Housing Advisory Group members on Mondays at 12:30pm EST; during the weekly calls, members discuss issues and solutions to the COVID-19 crisis and beyond. To join the Housing Advisory Group (open to LeadingAge members only), email jbilowich@leadingage.org. 

Here are some highlights from the August 24th Fair Housing-themed call:

Fear and Stigma

Staggs started the call by talking about the profound impact that COVID-19 has had on HUD-assisted older adults, including higher rates of depression and abuse among senior residents. Staggs also answered member questions about fear and stigma at housing communities - both among residents and between residents and staff - and discussed effective ways to combat discrimination and stigmatization. She suggested two approaches: First, provide staff training to help dispel stigmatization of certain groups, including those of Asian descent and other minorities, and help staff understand the appropriate questions to ask residents while screening new applicants or navigating reasonable accommodation requests; secondly, raise awareness among residents about the facts of the disease to help dispel unfounded reactions to the virus. 

Reasonable Accommodations

In response to questions about COVID-19, disability protections under the Fair Housing Act, and resident requests for reasonable accommodations, Staggs offered practical advice for providers: Manage your reasonable accommodation requests according to your pre-pandemic best practices. Standard procedures should involve processing requests on a case-by-case basis, utilizing medical verification where the disability is not observable, and checking that the request is directly impacted by or related to the disability. Reasonable accommodations that Staggs has seen increase in number during the pandemic include requests for emotional support animals to counteract isolation, exceptions to community mask requirements for medical reasons, late rent payments due to hospitalization, and the installation of grab bars due to limited mobility that persists due to the virus or exacerbated chronic conditions. 

Limited Access Policies

Staggs also discussed fair housing implications of visitor restrictions and closed common areas. She warned about policies that are too restrictive and may prevent a service provider from entering the community, which could have a disparate impact on residents with disabilities (a protected class under the Fair Housing Act). Limited access policies should be based on COVID-19 recommendations from the CDC or requirements by state and local order or directive; instead of banning individuals providing necessary services to residents, Staggs recommended posting notices on the entrances requesting that people do not enter if they have been exposed to COVID-19. Regarding closed common areas or reduced management office hours, she referred to HUD's recent FAQs on the issue, which allow for closures at the management's discretion. 

Mask Requirements

Many members asked Staggs about the fair housing implications of mask requirements at a HUD-assisted community. In response, Staggs cautioned providers about the medical reasons why a resident might not be able to wear a mask; providers can consider this a reasonable accommodation request and ask for medical documentation or self-certification. LeadingAge members have in some cases amended their House Rules with a mask requirement, or they have relied on existing provisions in the lease or community rules for mask wearing enforcement. When asked about issuing lease violations for non-compliance, she referred providers to their legal counsel, but offered this practical advice: Focus on the behavior, not the person engaging in the behavior. Above all, stay consistent, and reach out to local health authorities for guidance and assistance.

Notifications to Residents

Regarding communication to residents, Staggs reminded providers to rely only on quality information, especially from the CDC. She also stressed that resident privacy is paramount, meaning that personally-identifiable information about COVID-19 or disability status should never be communicated to other residents. Owners also cannot require residents to let them know if they have contracted COVID-19. If an owner does become aware of a confirmed case on site, they should notify other residents (without disclosing personal information), explain what precautions the community is taking in response, and post notices at the entrances for as long as the CDC recommends. 

To reach Heather Staggs or to ask follow-up questions, email heather@star-momentum.com or visit https://www.star-momentum.com/