PHAs Remain Focused in the Wake of the COVID-19 Pandemic

Published by Caroline Gallegos on Tuesday, January 5, 2021
Journal Cover Thumb January 2021

The COVID-19 pandemic disrupted what was considered normal, but for some public housing authorities (PHAs), the pandemic was a reminder to stick to their intentions. Throughout the pandemic, PHAs stayed focused on creating affordable housing and keeping residents housed. The pandemic also emphasized the importance of relationships with other agencies in the local community and agencies across the state.

Staying Focused

PHAs entered 2020 with individual goals and intentions based on the needs of their local communities, but the pandemic helped PHAs remain constant in their vision and mission.

For some PHAs, that meant continuing to rehabilitate and build affordable housing developments.

“We really saw 2020 as the year that we were going to scale up our work,” said Preston Prince, CEO of Fresno Housing in California. “We have a housing crisis just like the rest of California. In 2020, we started the year with a lot of ambition around creating new revenue streams and a new housing fund to address the poverty in Fresno–one of 19 initiatives in a broader effort called Developing the Regions Inclusive and Vibrant Economy.”

For Columbus Metropolitan Housing Authority (CMHA), the focus for 2020 was also on affordable housing development.

“In 2019, CMHA decided to establish a very aggressive acquisition and development strategy,” said Scott Scharlach, chief operating officer of CMHA. “We committed to development of more than 500 units of affordable, mixed-income housing every year for the next five years. When COVID hit, we already had a pipeline of development leading to the most successful year in our 86-year history. Our visions didn’t change in 2020, but [the pandemic] changed the way we executed our strategies.”

CMHA was able to close 11 affordable and mixed-income housing transactions in 2020, which amounted to more than $200 million in affordable housing investment. This investment allows CMHA to serve an additional 3,500 residents.

The year also presented the opportunity to focus more on racial inequities in local communities.

“[Before the pandemic], we wanted to make sure that we are addressing the needs of the community and addressing inequities,” said George Guy, CEO and executive director of Fort Wayne Housing Authority (FWHA) in Indiana. “We know that there’s a divide, especially in technology. [When the pandemic hit,] we were able to call our partners at T-Mobile and make sure that our residents had Wi-Fi and technology [to work and learn from home].”

Guy knew that for families working and attending school from home, certain inequities would create a greater disadvantage for some people.

“Two years ago, we started asking questions about our role as an agency in creating the racial inequities in Fresno,” said Prince. “More importantly, we started asking what we need to be doing differently to create a more just and fair community. COVID and the civil unrest has affirmed that we need to focus on equity and inclusion in the intersection of race and housing.”

While PHAs were able to maintain and focus on their goals, COVID-19 presented some challenges because of social distancing orders and work-from-home policies.

Advancing Technology

When the pandemic hit and PHA employees had to start working from home, it became clear that the transition would be easier for some because not all PHAs had the proper technology to transition to a fully virtual office.

“Creating a nimble and effective response to day-to-day operations was tricky,” said Clifton C. Martin, CEO of the Housing Commission of Anne Arundel County in Maryland. “The leadership team created a strategic plan that would quickly allow for all agency staff to telework in a manner that enabled them access to all critical information and data and with platforms to be able to communicate with applicants, residents, customers and stakeholders.”

PHAs needed to rethink how they function as an agency and how to help their residents, customers and other stakeholders.

“It took us probably six weeks of focusing on our technology and systems to order equipment and create policies to safely deploy our entire workforce to work from home,” said Prince. “We quickly began doing board meetings and inspections virtually, and we had to ask a lot of questions about compliance and how to keep our staff and residents safe.”

One thing that helped PHAs make the transition to virtual and remote work was funding from the Coronavirus, Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act. PHAs also used this funding to purchase personal protection equipment (PPE).

“We received CARES Act funding and allocated some of it to hardware and software to enable us to work virtually,” said Scharlach. “We also were able to get a lot of PPE.”

Part of being able to work remotely and virtually meant figuring out how to do inspections, certifications and recertifications effectively. PHAs continued to do certifications and inspections–for the most part virtually, but in-person for special circumstances. While the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) provided several deadline extensions for tenant certifications, PHAs have stayed up-to-date on compliance measure for the most part.

Another area of concern for PHAs was the potential end of the federal eviction and foreclosure moratorium.

Keeping People Housed

The eviction moratorium is a concern for PHAs on a local level. There’s a correlation between evictions and economic recovery.

“After the 2008 recession, recovery took longer because people lost their homes,” said Prince. “The current focus on keeping people housed is the right focus to make sure we have a faster recovery. Our role has been making sure that people know their rights, that includes talking to landlords about the implications and unintended consequences of evicting someone. Unfortunately, in Fresno, families sometimes face eviction over as little as one month of rent and can end up with legal fees that are three times as much.”

Evictions can have consequences for the local community as well.

“We’re not only concerned about our residents, but other people in the community,” said Guy. “We’re worried about people slipping into homelessness. Our waitlist is already long and if we add people to that list, there’s a chance they won’t get help, either.”

Scharlach agreed and noted that he wasn’t very concerned about tenant rent delinquency and eviction. Rent delinquency for CMHA only increased about 1.5% during the pandemic, according to Scharlach.

“When the moratorium ends, I’m concerned about what will happen to residents with private landlords,” said Scharlach. “We offer consulting and supportive services for the community and people who may be at risk of eviction. They will walk you through and make sure that when the moratorium is over, you know what to do. In addition, CMHA has set up an eviction prevention fund to help cover rent and utilities for any residents negatively impacted by the COVID-19.”

In addition, people experiencing homelessness are also a concern for PHAs. From state programs to emergency funds and emergency housing, they have been working diligently to make sure people experiencing homelessness and are at risk of contracting COVID-19 have a safe and stable place to sleep.

“We didn’t have to purchase hotel rooms for people experiencing homelessness,” said Guy. “Because of our relationships with landlords and local shelters so we were able to get people housed. We fully leased a supportive housing development for people experiencing homelessness.”

Fresno Housing was able to purchase four hotels through California’s Homekey program–a California Department of Housing and Community Development grant funding program made available to local public entities to purchase and rehabilitate housing, including hotels, motels, vacant apartment buildings and other buildings and convert them into interim or permanent, long-term housing. Fresno Housing will serve those at the highest risk due to the pandemic, and expects to have the four hotels leased up within 90 days. Over the next five years, the hotels will ultimately be renovated into affordable housing.

Conclusion

While housing authorities worked diligently to stay on top of their goals while meeting tenant needs, they also acknowledged HUD’s speediness in distributing CARES Act dollars to housing authorities.

“My hat is off to HUD and their ability to do that so quickly,” said Scharlach. “Without that, we couldn’t have maintained our service and that’s what put us in the great position that we’re in.”

Looking ahead, housing authorities don’t anticipate a significant increase in needs, and hope to stay on track with their ambitious goals.

“[The year] 2021 will bring a focus back to the basics,” said Prince. “We now have the virtual infrastructure in place to utilize cashflow generated by our real estate developments to continue providing important health, workforce and education outcomes for our residents. Our vision remains strong in creating vibrant communities, building quality-affordable housing and empowering nearly 50,000 residents to achieve their personal goals.”

CMHA plans to continue to convert its portfolio from public housing to RAD and distribute more vouchers. FWHA plans to use some additional community development block grant dollars.

“The pandemic has allowed everyone to see the challenges that people on our waiting list have,” said Guy. “With additional CARES funding, we were waiting for Congress. We’re getting concerned looking around the corner, but we are optimistic and hopefully it will be the same as the first one. I’m hoping that when [Congress is] thinking about the budget for 2021, they’re considering these issues as well to make sure that we keep adequate resources in our community.”

“Moving forward, COVID has highlighted national housing issues,” said Prince. “It feels like there will be initiatives at the federal level to address housing. What we need to do as PHAs is to demonstrate that we’re the right investment vehicles for housing solutions, including new developments.”