Federal Housing Insights: Interview with Richard Cho and Ethan Handelman

Regulation | September 08, 2021 | by Jill Schumann

Richard Cho, Senior Advisor, Housing and Services, Office of the U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development and Ethan Handelman, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Multifamily Housing, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Housing joined the LeadingAge Coronavirus Update Call on September 8, 2021.

Richard Cho, Senior Advisor, Housing and Services, Office of the U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development and Ethan Handelman, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Multifamily Housing, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Housing joined the LeadingAge Coronavirus Update Call on September 8, 2021. They responded to questions from Ruth Katz and from callers.

Q: HUD supports housing for millions of people, some of whom are the most at-risk during the pandemic, including of course, older adults. What are you seeing throughout the HUD-assisted senior housing portfolio in terms of pandemic impacts?

A: HUD has a COVID-19 group that is new and it is part of this administration’s “all-of-government” approach and involving all departments. What we are seeing today is different from where we were a year ago. For a variety of reasons, we don’t have the best data to understand where there are outbreaks, vaccination rates, etc. But we haven’t heard of significant outbreaks in housing that serves older adults. The vaccination rates in Section 202 buidlings is pretty high since most were included in the federal Pharmacy Partnership program. We are doing what we can to make sure older adults continue to have access to testing and vaccines. Secretary Fudge believes HUD’s mission is not just buildings and programs, but most especially the people served.

Q: Shifting to the President’s Build Back Better agenda – we were delighted to see an expansion of the Section 202 program specifically called out. Can you tell us more? How close is this vision to becoming reality, and what would it mean for older Americans with low incomes?

A: We see this as a once- in- a- generation level of investment in people, places, housing, and health. The proposed investment in 202s is very significant and would really make a difference. We are hopeful that this is an opportunity to make the investments we “housers” have known is needed. There are a number of moving pieces including proposals for green and resilient retrofits and others. Some of what is exciting is not only a growing understanding that housing is infrastructure, but also understanding that we need housing that supports people’s ability to age in place and also to get services they need to age independently.

Q: Yes, aside from expanding the supply of affordable housing, LeadingAge also supports partnerships among federal agencies to improve health outcomes for HUD-assisted residents. What can you tell us about partnerships between housing and health agencies in the Administration's plans for HUD housing?

A: One of the first things I did when I began this position was to start ongoing conversations with colleagues at HHS. During the Obama administration the HUD and HHS people were trying to get to know one another and to understand their different worlds and languages. Now, we can build on that and connect more readily. Together, we want to find a way for older adults not to have to chase down supports individually, but rather have more services wrapped around the people who live in HUD housing.

Q: Speaking of partnerships, I know you have been encouraging vaccine partnerships for housing communities during the pandemic. What is HUD doing on the COVID-19 vaccine effort, and what can housing providers do who are trying to get vaccine clinics set up for residents?

A: We know that there won’t be a Pharmacy Partnership for additional vaccinations. And, we know that we are dealing with people who have transportation challenges, vaccine hesitancy, and vulnerability to due age and comorbidities. HRSA that oversees Community Health Centers has enlisted them to bring vaccines to low -income people including people who are homeless and people who live in HUD-assisted housing. We provided a toolkit and a mapping tool to enable HUD programs and health centers to find one another. Through our regional and field offices we are helping to hold vaccine events with healthcare partners. We have been doing this since the end of April and are continuing. We are also in conversation about boosters. Any HUD housing providers who want help with vaccination connections should contact their HUD field offices.

Q: Another key issue for our members during -and beyond the pandemic is Service Coordination Less than half of Section 202 communities have a Service Coordinator, either grant-funded or funded out of the budget. Given how critical Service Coordinators have been during COVID-19, what is HUD doing to get a Service Coordinator in every building?

A: I share your desire to expand service coordination. One challenge is that HUD has used different models to fund it over the years and so we have a number of different models still going on. We are looking at what the most effective ways to fund Service Coordinators might be. Real investment over time and the growth of dedicated staff in the HUD Multi-Family Office who are focused on this should reap good benefits. A Service Coordinator’s job as a bridge is easier when the services provided by the mainstream health systems are more flexible and willing to fund onsite wellness/ health positions in housing.

Q: Most senior housing communities lack access to the internet, which is difficult for building operations, but more importantly, it's harmful to the residents and perpetuates the digital divide across the country. What is HUD's Office of Multifamily doing, or thinking about doing, to increase connectivity in these communities? Can internet services be paid for as a utility?

A: The cost to provide internet varies a great deal based on where you live and what internet providers are charging. We are trying to figure out a sustainable funding model. We know that it ` is important for people to be connected.

Q: Funding for community health workers is increasing. Is there any way to transfer some of this funding into service coordinators who play similar roles?

A: It may be possible to apply for those grants, but part of the overall challenge is helping the healthcare system/ payers understand the value of community health workers and those coordinating services and pay for them. We are trying to make sure the funding is sustainable long term and not load it onto the backs of the real estate.

Q: Are you seeing a trend of growing older adult homelessness?

A: Yes, many studies confirm this. People who have been homeless long term are aging, but also many people are also experiencing housing instability for the first time in their lives. This is of great concern and we are looking at addressing needs not only through targeted homelessness programs, but also finding ways to prioritize people who are especially at risk for homelessness in our other programs.