Resolve to Continue Pandemic Best Practices in 2021
Don’t relax your COVID protocols too soon.
Although the vaccine rollouts have begun with health care workers and residents of long-term care facilities, normal operations for LIHTC sites are still a ways away. The current level of vaccine distribution won’t be able to stop a difficult winter with rapidly growing outbreaks and record hospitalizations threatening to overwhelm health care resources.
The past year was a challenging one for residents and housing providers. The economic downturn created by the pandemic has particularly affected renters earning less than $25,000 a year, according to the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies’ (JCHS’) “2020 State of the Nation’s Housing” report. As a group, these renters were much more likely to report lost employment income since March, and more than half of the lowest-income renters lost wages during this period compared with 41 percent of all households.
In addition, a survey by the National Leased Housing Association found that expenses rose for affordable housing providers as a result of the pandemic. Additional monies spend on personal protective equipment and other health-related expenses to protect staff have had a negative effect on bottom lines. The survey found that nearly three-quarters of housing providers have increased their operating expenses due to COVID-19. For these housing providers, operating expenses have increased by an average of 14.8 percent. The increase was greatest for housing providers with 1,000 units or fewer, whose operating expenses increased nearly 16.7 percent, compared to 14.3 percent for those with 1,000 to 5,000 units and 11.7 percent for housing providers with 5,000 units or more.
Successfully getting through 2020 required owners and managers to adapt quickly to changing conditions and implement new policies in a very short time frame. We’ll review the best practices site owners and management companies have adopted in 2020—and will have to continue to adhere to until the vaccine is more widely available.
Social Distancing, Reducing Infection Risk
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the virus that causes COVID-19 most commonly spreads between people who are in close contact with one another (within about 6 feet). It spreads through respiratory droplets or small particles, such as those in aerosols, produced when an infected person coughs, sneezes, sings, talks, or breathes. These particles can be inhaled into the nose, mouth, airways, and lungs and cause infection. This is thought to be the main way the virus spreads.
Droplets can also land on surfaces and objects and be transferred by touch. A person may get COVID-19 by touching the surface or object that has the virus on it and then touching his or her own mouth, nose, or eyes. However, spread from touching surfaces is not thought to be the main way the virus spreads.
Reduced office hours. Considering the ways the virus spreads, many sites closed offices to walk-in traffic and management offices encouraged residents to use online rent payment methods. Your staff may have worked in the leasing office but scheduled visits by residents by appointment only. To cut back on unnecessary face-to-face meetings, you may have encouraged residents to speak over the phone or via email when possible. To further promote social distancing, encourage all residents to utilize their community website, resident portal, and email for all service requests, rent payments, and general questions, where applicable.
Amenity spaces. To protect residents and employees from further exposure, owners have considered closing amenity spaces with the exception of areas such as laundry rooms. Any common areas that remained open were put on a sanitization schedule to prevent possible infection by droplets. The IRS has stated that closing an amenity or common area during some or all of the period between April 1 and Dec. 31, 2020, in response to COVID-19 and not some other noncompliance reason, does not result in a reduction of eligible basis.
Rigorous cleaning protocols. Staff should sanitize work areas, public areas, and commonly touched places (door handles, elevator buttons, etc.). Staff should place hand sanitizers in common areas. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has listed disinfectant products that are qualified for use against COVID-19 at www.epa.gov/pesticide-registration/list-n-disinfectants-coronavirus-covid-19.
Service requests. Service requests should be considered with regard for the safety of both maintenance staff and residents. To limit exposure, consider deferring nonessential maintenance and handling only emergency or urgent issues as allowed by applicable law. Maintenance staff should wear masks and gloves when performing service in an occupied apartment and thoroughly wash their hands after completing any service.
Building deliveries. Encourage staff and residents to maintain social distancing when getting packages, mail, and entering or exiting the building. For buildings where packages are left in the lobby, building staff may consider assisting residents by dropping deliveries outside their apartment to prevent residents from potentially congregating when picking up packages from the lobby.
In addition, delivery services such as Uber Eats, FreshDirect, and Amazon have an online section for “special instructions.” In this section, residents can request that packages be delivered to the door or to text/call and leave the packages at the door to potentially minimize person-to-person contact and touching of surfaces.
Staff absences. In the event of a staff shortage, site owners and managers may consider identifying backup staff or asking resident volunteers to help with package delivery, routine cleaning, and disinfecting, and other tasks in the building as appropriate, while encouraging social distancing.
Owners should actively encourage sick staff to stay home. Also, owners should maintain flexible policies that permit employees to stay home to care for a sick family member. Staff members who are well but who have a sick family member at home with COVID-19 should notify their supervisor and refer to CDC guidance for how to conduct a risk assessment of their potential exposure. If an employee is confirmed to have COVID-19, employers should inform fellow employees of their possible exposure to COVID-19 in the workplace but maintain confidentiality as required by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Employees exposed to a co-worker with confirmed COVID-19 should refer to CDC guidance for how to conduct a risk assessment of their potential exposure.
Resident infections. If a resident tests positive for the coronavirus and notifies the staff, the owner or manager should follow the CDC’s guidance and work with local health officials. It’s the responsibility of the health care provider, not the patient, to report cases of disease to health departments and the CDC.
You may be able to post a notice to the community about somebody at the site having COVID-19, but you should exercise extreme caution if choosing to make a disclosure because of privacy laws. The staff member or resident’s identity and unit number shouldn’t be disclosed. This is what the ADA and privacy laws refer to as protected health information (PHI). The general rule is that you can’t disclose PHI without the person’s consent. However, you don’t need consent if the disclosure:
- Includes only the PHI necessary to accomplish that infection control purpose; and
- Doesn’t cast a stigma or subject the person to discrimination.
Rent collection. While rent collection should be continued in accordance with your lease agreement, you may consider working with those residents who’ve been financially impacted by COVID-19 on alternate payment schedules. In the September issue, we published “How to Avoid Costly Evictions with Rent Payment Plans,” which discusses gathering information from at-risk residents and coming up with a realistic repayment plan for those low-income residents financially affected by the pandemic.
In July 2020, the IRS issued Notice 2020-53, which stated LIHTC site owners aren’t required to perform income recertifications, and allocating agencies aren’t required to conduct compliance monitoring inspections or reviews between April 1 and Dec. 31, 2020. The IRS hasn’t indicated whether it will extend this relief for LIHTC sites facing COVID-19 related challenges into 2021.
In the event the IRS doesn’t extend relief, income recertifications for mixed-income sites will resume in 2021. It’s important to note that the IRS’ income recertification waiver for 2020 didn’t encompass a waiver for the LIHTC annual student certification requirement.
With processing applications, obtaining student certifications from households, and general processing of documents, you may have adopted protocols on accepting e-signatures on documents. And in many cases, state housing agencies and federal program administrators have allowed copies of signed documents in place of original signatures due to local and federal safety guidelines.
In 2021, for residents who are ill or have concerns about coming to the office for their recertification interview, you may want to allow electronic signatures as long as you obtain original, “wet” signatures on recertification documents at a later date. A note should be placed with documents that contain electronic or photocopied signatures stating that originals were not available due to COVID-19 restrictions.