Next Steps: “Reopening” Considerations for Housing Providers

Regulation | May 11, 2020 | by Juliana Bilowich

As the country shifts toward the next phase of COVID-19, senior housing providers navigate community safety measures, state requirements, and property operations.

Throughout the ongoing health crisis, affordable housing providers have had to adapt to the new reality. Many senior housing communities nimbly adjusted to continue housing operations and to keep older adult residents healthy.

As the country eyes recovery, senior housing providers have several things to consider, including federal requirements, state or local directives, equitable recovery, workflow limits and opportunities, and the health and housing needs of residents.

Responsible Recovery

During the next phases of the crisis, adapted housing community policies will require cautious adjustment. Here are several items to consider when shifting from crisis-management to recovery in affordable senior housing:

  • Move-Ins and Move-Outs – Out of concern for both residents and staff at affordable senior housing properties, or in response to state or local travel restrictions, many housing providers chose to temporarily suspend, or freeze, new admissions to the community (with exceptions for certain scenarios). Other providers continued move-ins throughout the crisis under modified safety protocols.

Adjusting new move-ins limits virus exposure for senior housing communities, but impacts cash flow at properties with extended vacancies, as well as affordable housing needs in the broader community. When considering whether to adjust this policy moving forward, providers across the country are weighing options for controlled adaptations to move-ins – such as electronic processing of applicants or restricted move-in timing and reserved paths into the building – and are evaluating the associated risks for staff and residents.

In the meantime, HUD has acknowledged the need to adjust policies based on local needs or directives, and has maintained their policy of reviewing vacancy claims on a case by case basis. In its May 1st COVID-19 FAQs for multifamily housing providers, HUD continued to encourage owners to lease-up units where safely possible; some LeadingAge members have reported flexibility on vacancy claims from their HUD Multifamily Housing regions.

  • Visitor Restrictions – Limiting access to senior housing communities was one of the first – and most important – changes that housing providers put in place at the start of the pandemic. Affordable housing visitation policies are set at the property level by owners, and HUD defers to local or state requirements, or to directives by health officials on what those policies should entail.

Despite the logistical and emotional challenges of limiting access to affordable housing communities, providers likely won’t lift access restrictions without deliberate planning. Many properties have had to hire or reassign staff to monitor building entrances, and residents are anxious to visit with family members and friends; however, restricted property access is seen by many housing providers as being a critical effort in slowing the spread of the virus for an at-risk population, especially as surrounding communities loosen restrictions.

The White House guidelines for “Opening Up America Again” lay out a three-phase approach to adjusting protocols. Throughout the majority of the guidelines, older adults an people with underlying health conditions are advised to continue to avoiding risks, including by limiting exposure. Several state guidelines also continue to take a cautious position on visitation by recommending or requiring senior living facilities to maintain restrictions through both accute and post-accute phases of pandemic response. HUD’s May 1st COVID-19 FAQs encourage multifamily housing providers to adjust visitation policies as they deem necessary, to keep access open for essential services providers, and to be mindful of fair housing and civil rights.

As providers evaluate community access policies for the next phases of the crisis, communication with residents and staff remains key. On-site teams at both small and large properties have navigated frustrated or non-compliant residents with increased transparency and by emphasizing common goals.

  • Remote Workforce – Throughout the height of the crisis, many providers adjusted staff and service coordination workflows to off-site where possible. This approach has limited exposure risk for staff and residents and is one of the more flexible arrangements of affordable housing properties.

In some cases, work flow at housing communities has been impacted by productivity levels or limitations; for example, school closures may have increased childcare demands on remote staff and limited their output; similarly, the limited remote access to resident files or HIPAA compliant software may have reduced capacity of property management teams. In other cases, remote work systems may have demonstrated opportunities for teams to reduce overhead costs, provide the benefits of flex schedules, or connect colleagues with new platforms. Service Coordinators may have implemented new virtual systems that worked for resident wellness checks – or solidified their belief that in-person connections work best.

Regarding management office hours at affordable communities, HUD has said in its May 1st FAQs that multifamily housing providers will not incur penalties for curbing hours as needed for safety reasons during the pandemic. This puts the provider in charge of assessing what works for housing staff and residents, and presents an opportunity for housing properties to innovate for a new reality of increased caution.

Preparing for the “New Normal”

Regardless of what the next phases of the current crisis (or the next crisis) look like, disaster preparedness and response are key for every housing provider. As communities learn from the ongoing emergency, providers can adapt emergency plans and adjust workflows to improve resilience.

By examining what resiliency looks for each stakeholder, providers can better meet ongoing challenges. Helpful questions for disaster preparedness include: What does resiliency look like for my operations? What does resiliency look like for my community? What does resiliency look like for my residents? Practical answers to these questions can be reflected in property emergency operations plans to help with future crisis scenarios.

To help frame these discussions for housing staff, HUD has encouraged the use of several worksheets. These tools help providers learn best practices for job continuity, assess risks and weaknesses, and survey employee capacity to go to work during an infectious disease outbreak.