The Pandemic Marathon

9 min read

Creativity in Resident Services May Stick Around

COVID-19 pushed affordable housing managers across the nation to expand resident services, change up service delivery methods and develop new partnerships – all changes that leaders in the space say are likely to stick around.

“COVID has taught us quite a bit,” says David Nargang, president of McCormack Baron Salazar, Inc. “It’s taught us a lot of technology lessons…and about the need for going above and beyond. We’re seeing this trend across the nation.”

Nargang and other leaders in the affordable housing space say they had to pivot and pivot quickly when the pandemic hit to ensure their residents were safe and had access to food, income, healthcare and other necessities. Ensuring those resident needs were met required internet connectivity, enhanced community partnerships and a lot of creativity.

“The silver lining of the last 18 months is that organizations came together out of necessity,” says Trevor Samios, senior vice president of Connected Communities at WinnCompanies. “These relationships will stay in place beyond the pandemic.”

Strengthening the Safety Net
Affordable housing communities have traditionally offered informational and educational services in addition to community social events, job fairs or financial literacy counseling. At events they provide information about accessing food banks, healthcare services or childcare. Their on-site offerings sometimes include providing space for after school care, computer learning or career counseling. But when COVID-19 hit, nearly all of these services shifted in some way. Classes moved online or were canceled. School and after school programs moved online. And it wasn’t enough to just provide information on food banks or healthcare, properties started bringing the food and healthcare to the communities themselves. With food insecurity so hugely increased, bringing food to residents was vital.

“The big shift of the pandemic is we are seeing a doubling down on the health and wellness piece for residents,” says Devin Tucker, vice president of community impact at Fairstead.

The expanded focus on health and wellness spawned new partnerships among affordable housing communities and nonprofits, government entities and healthcare providers. Food banks began to deliver to communities instead of residents traveling to them. Public and private health departments began running vaccine, COVID-19 testing and health-screening clinics for residents at communities. School district employees also visited communities to help residents establish homeschool routines.

And all of these services needed to be provided adhering to COVID-19 protocols of masking and social distancing. They were held outside in the open air when possible. Food deliveries, especially, became a lifeline for residents.

“Prior to the pandemic, part of my conversation would have been on community gardens as an option for addressing food insecurity,” adds Tucker. “Since Covid, we are looking to be more intentional in finding food support partners…It is one of the runaway success stories of the pandemic. There was so much food available for our residents. With those new connections, we were able to make sure no one went without food.”

Samios says residents in WinnCompanies’ communities in Boston were delivered about 5,000 meals a week at one point in the pandemic. He calls increasing access to food for the food insecure “one of the shining lights of the pandemic.”

Many affordable housing leaders say resident services have actually increased significantly during COVID-19, with communities growing into hubs for providing a broad array of services, from food to emergency rental assistance coordination, not to mention COVID-19 testing and vaccinations. Samios terms the communities “resiliency hubs.”

The vaccination clinics, in particular, were key to keeping residents safe.

“We had to ensure (the vaccines) were accessible and convenient,” Nargang says. “Most folks didn’t know where to get it. We saw participation go up when we brought it to them.”

Wellness checks—usually done by phone—also increased dramatically at many communities, with staff calling sometimes three or four times a week. For people isolated from family and friends—particularly seniors—the calls were a critical element of reducing isolation. Since communities were obligated to move away from face-to-face contact, residents themselves called or contacted staff via email instead of going downstairs to the office. This actually resulted in far more contact between staff and residents, managers report.

“Going to email, texts and remote has actually increased our communication with residents – which is phenomenal,” says Nargang. “It gives us an opportunity to address, and more importantly, resolve issues…If we are able to fix it, it gives our residents one less thing to deal with.”

Renewed Focus on Internet Connectivity
The increased contact with residents via technology highlighted the need to expand access to affordable

internet for residents. Property managers worked to expand or develop partnerships with internet providers or companies that help communities find affordable broadband access. Many community managers say they increased their broadband access, although they do not have data yet on the size of the increase. Other managers report it is an issue they are still working on.

“We are working in a more intentional way around the digital divide to make sure the communities we support have access to technology for telehealth, PTA sessions, student teacher conferences and other services,” says Duncan Donovan, executive vice president at Urban Strategies, Inc., a company that helps affordable housing managers bring services to their residents.

Nargang says Urban Strategies succeeded in increasing internet access for many of the communities in the McCormack Baron Salazar portfolio.

But Tucker, of Fairstead, says a lot more work needs to be done in bringing broadband to affordable housing communities.

“The thing that still needs more work is broadband connectivity,” says Tucker.

Tucker says he worked with the Department of Housing and Urban Development on the connectivity issue 20 years ago and “progress has been made, but there are still some major hurdles we have to overcome, which became especially evident during the pandemic when everything from school to work to healthcare moved online.”

“We are working with local and national partners across the country to get cell phones or laptops into the hands of residents, especially our seniors…,” says Tucker. “We hope that after the pandemic, as a country and a nation, we get more deliberate in bringing affordable broadband technology to people.”

Help for Unemployment and Rental Assistance
When the pandemic hit, millions of people across the United States—indeed world—lost their jobs if they weren’t in positions that could be done remotely. While affordable housing communities often offer financial literacy classes and offer other information to residents about the basics of finance and where to find unemployment assistance, COVID-19 pushed property managers to spend huge amounts of time offering one-on-one assistance to residents in actually applying for unemployment or rental assistance. They had offered some of this work before, but never on this scale.

“There have been a great number of real barriers to emergency rental assistance for residents facing hardships,” says Samios.

In normal years, properties may see a handful of people a month asking for help filling out rental assistance paperwork, says Samios. Across the portfolio of WinnCompanies’ properties that would equate to about $300,000 a year in assistance, says Samios. Since May 2020, WinnCompanies has helped residents apply for roughly $25 million in rental assistance, in addition to providing payment plans, mediation services and legal assistance coordination. Accessing those funds required a lot of paperwork and time. Samios says they were able to pull it off despite workforce challenges faced by so many in the industry through dedicated staff.

“We were able to leverage those relationships and get by,” Samios says. “And we haven’t evicted a single person.”

Other executives of affordable housing communities say they too experienced a dramatic increase in residents needing help with rental assistance. They believe even more residents will need help now that federal unemployment insurance enhancements have ended.

Some New Services Will Likely Stay
Wellness calls, onsite food pantries, paperwork assistance, vaccine clinics and increased email and text contact – many of these COVID-19 changes are likely to stick around, say property managers. They are hoping the increase in community partnerships will last too. Managers also have seen a shift in the so-called tenant/landlord relationship due in part to the new points of contact between residents and property management staff. There is more trust, more of a sense that management is there to help. Managers hope that sentiment lasts too.

“There is an increase in trusting relationships with staff and residents,” says Samios. “People look at us as a landlord and property manager in a different way. We are now a resource for a broad variety of supports.”

And managers seem to be looking through a broader lens at the needs of the residents in their affordable communities and the services they can provide them. Julianna Stuart, vice president of community impact for Preservation of Affordable Housing (POAH), says her organization won a Housing Affordability Breakthrough Challenge grant in 2020. POAH’s proposal was to provide trauma-informed services to its residents. That means training staff and vendors in approaching residents from a trauma-informed perspective.

“How do we operate affordable housing services and physical space to be more centered on people?” Stuart says is the overarching question.

This work will include attempting to decrease the stress in residents’ requirements by streamlining such processes as the lease-renewal process or making inspections less intimidating by making them more collaborative. Bringing stress reduction classes, such as meditation and mindfulness also are part of the plan. Already, POAH has launched some of the stress reduction protocols with staff and has re-designed some staff areas so employees have a refreshed area with natural light that offers privacy. They will study how to redesign resident space in similar ways.

“There are ways we can help them recharge and take care of themselves during the day,” says Stuart. She adds that part of the grant requires them to share their best practices across the industry. POAH plans to develop a trauma-informed stress reduction playbook that will be open source.

“It will focus on trauma resiliency,” says Stuart.

Stuart, and other officials in the affordable community space, say the past 18 months haven’t just been about responding to the pandemic. In the U.S., people are grappling with a historic racial reckoning following the death of George Floyd and other tragedies. It has been an intense time that has forced people to look at what’s working and what isn’t.

“It’s a moment of truth,” says Samios. “We have an opportunity to stare these issues in the face and see what hasn’t worked and double down on what will.”

Samios adds that the shifting moment in history also is allowing people to see “the power of creativity.”

Pamela Martineau is a freelance writer based in Portland, ME. She writes primarily about housing, local government, technology and education.