New Developments: COVID’s Long Tail and Hidden Trauma

4 min read

Later this month marks the one-year anniversary of when our world was turned upside down by the COVID-19 pandemic. Friday, March 13, 2020 marked the last day the team at NH&RA was all together in person at the office and the beginning of a scramble to adjust to the new reality of the pandemic world. Today, we can finally see the light at the end of the tunnel. Tens of millions of Americans have been vaccinated. After a year of remote learning, my kids are scheduled to start in-person school in the middle of the month. We are beginning to shift our attention from responding to the dual health and economic crises to what happens next.

There are many reasons to be optimistic about a return to normalcy in 2021. The role affordable housing and community development professionals have played in providing safety during the public health crisis will increase as we lead the economic recovery by bringing back construction and infrastructure jobs with shovel-ready affordable housing projects across the country. Yet many challenges lie ahead of us as well. Some we have watched unfold with growing concern over the past year – supply chain shortages, rising labor costs and rising insurance premiums create new operational and financing challenges. Others have been downright alarming, like the increasingly vitriolic partisan political violence that exploded in the state capitals over the summer and fall, and culminated in armed insurrection in Washington, DC on January 6.

The experience of the past 12 months has been nothing short of harrowing, and though the open wound is beginning to close, the hidden damage is also beginning to reveal itself. There will be predictable consequences to this lost year. While many of us have been fortunate, staying fully employed throughout the pandemic in various community development roles, it has been exhausting, around-the-clock work. We have been on “emergency” response for a year while also continuing our regular duties. Our colleagues on the frontlines, in particular, have heroically borne the stress of potential exposure to the virus every working day, the fear of bringing that exposure home to their families and witnessed untold numbers of individuals and families in crisis. This takes a psychological toll, and those of us in a position to do so must take proactive steps to ensure the mental health of our colleagues in the months and years to come.

Likewise, there is undoubtedly hidden trauma within the communities and portfolios we manage. I think the following anecdote illustrates on a personal level what is undoubtedly playing out in many apartment communities around the country.

An industry colleague expressed fear of going to the dentist. I myself could relate to this—I have sensitive teeth but haven’t had my teeth cleaned professionally in a year—it just seems like an unnecessary risk. Recently, we had to reschedule my son’s routine orthodontist appointment because of COVID exposure at their practice. Two weeks later, when we went to get his appliance adjusted, we were told progress had been impeded by a baby tooth and that it would have to be pulled by his dentist. We attempted to schedule the extraction only to find out that the dentist was also sidelined by COVID, his return to practice, TBD. Fortunately, our immediate dilemma was solved when my boy wiggled the baby tooth out, but I ask myself what sort of tooth decay or periodontal woes will we discover when we finally do go to the dentist?

Likewise, who knows what we will uncover at our communities after a year of putting off unit inspections and preventive maintenance. How many plumbing leaks will have bloomed to black mold? How many fire hazards will remain unmitigated for lack of detection? How many small, everyday problems will have ballooned to full-blown emergencies for lack of visibility to professional managers and asset managers? In many cases, these dynamics will be intensified by diminished project reserves due to the economic crisis.

One year in, we are all experiencing COVID fatigue, but we cannot afford to be complacent. Sadly, I anticipate COVID-19 will have a long tail. With the end of the public health crisis, we will need to turn our attention to the recovery. Now is the time to start mapping out strategies for healing the emotional and physical trauma our friends, families, colleagues, residents and communities have endured over the past year.

Thom joined National Housing & Rehabilitation Association (NH&RA) in 2004 and currently serves as its as Executive Vice-President and Executive Director. NH&RA is a national trade association and peer-network for affordable housing and tax credit developers and related professionals including: investors, lenders, public agencies and professional advisers. Thom directs the association’s day-to-day operations including legislative and regulatory advocacy, committee activities, conferences and events, publications, financial management and strategic planning. Thom also serves as the Executive Director of the Tennessee Developers Council, a state-wide trade association for affordable housing developers and professionals active in Tennessee. In 2013 he spearheaded the launch of NH&RA's Preservation through Energy Efficiency Project, a major educational initiative supported by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. Thom also serves on the Board of Directors for International Center for Appropriate & Sustainable Technology (iCAST) as well as the Advisory Board for its ResourceSmart program, a turn-key, cost-effective, green rehab provider for multifamily affordable and market-rate housing communities and nonprofit facilities. Thom is a frequent speaker at affordable housing, sustainable development and tax credit industry events and has been published in a variety of industry journals including Tax Credit Advisor, Independent Banker, and the Novogradac Journal of Tax Credit Housing. Thom also serves as the Associate Publisher of Tax Credit Advisor, a monthly magazine for tax credit and affordable housing professionals and is an Executive Vice-President at Dworbell Inc., a boutique association management and communications firm in Washington, DC. Thom was previously employed at a national lobbying firm focusing on financial services and technology issues. Prior to moving to Washington, Thom worked in media relations in the New York State Assembly and as a research assistant for New Hampshire Governor Jeanne Shaheen. Thom graduated Magna Cum Laude from Tufts University with a double major in Political Science and History.