Strategies for Safely Reopening LIHTC Common Areas and Community Service Facilities
The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) released IRS Notice 2021-12 in January to extend through Sept. 30 the temporary relief provisions outlined in IRS Notice 2020-53. One of the provisions of this relief was that if a common area or amenity is temporarily unavailable due to COVID-19 and not due to other reasons, the temporary closure does not result in a reduction of the eligible basis of the building.
This did not mean that all common areas were closed. Some common areas and certain amenities were still necessary to keep properties safe and sanitary for the tenants. For example, the laundry room is necessary for tenants to wash their clothing and bedding for hygiene purposes, and the computer room may serve as the only access some tenants have for ordering food, deliveries and prescriptions. However, many common areas were closed, and with temporary low-income housing tax credit (LIHTC) compliance relief set to expire Oct. 1, 2021, common areas and community service facilities that were temporarily closed will need to reopen.
LIHTC property managers should formulate a reopening plan informed by guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), especially in light of growing concerns around the COVID-19 Delta variant and other COVID-19 variants.
The CDC does not necessarily have direct authority over administration of the LIHTC, but the IRS, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and state housing agencies often defer to CDC guidance for matters related to COVID-19 protocols for multifamily properties.
Strategies to Maintain Healthy Environments
The following list from the CDC’s website (www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/community/multifamily-housing.html) highlights considerations that can help property owners maintain healthy environments in common areas:
1. Ensure adequate ventilation
- Ensure ventilation systems are operational and provide acceptable indoor air quality for the current occupancy level for each space.
- Consider upgrading ventilation systems to improve the delivery of clean air and dilute potential contaminants.
- Disable demand-controlled ventilation controls that reduce air supply based on occupancy or temperature during occupied hours.
- Increase outdoor air ventilation by opening windows and doors, as weather, health and safety conditions allow. Use strategically placed fans to increase the effectiveness of open windows, taking care to avoid potentially contaminated air flowing from one person to another.
- In common areas where outdoor ventilation cannot be increased, owners should consider decreasing occupancy in those areas.
- Use portable high-efficiency particulate air or HEPA fans/filtration systems.
2. Ensure safe water systems
- Check that all water systems and features (e.g., sink faucets, common-area drinking fountains, decorative fountains) are safe to use after a prolonged shutdown.
- Clean and sanitize drinking fountains, but encourage residents, workers, volunteers and visitors to bring their own water to common areas to minimize use and touching of water fountains.
3. Promote frequent cleaning with a household cleaner that contains soap or detergent
Clean high-touch surfaces (e.g., doorknobs, tables, handles, light switches, countertops) and objects regularly.
Clean surfaces using products suitable for each surface, following instructions on the product label.
4. Ensure safe congregate spaces
- Ensure that social distancing can be maintained in communal spaces.
- Alter schedules to reduce mixing and close contact, such as staggering activity times.
- Arrange for chairs and tables to be at least 6 feet apart during events.
- Minimize traffic in enclosed spaces, such as mailrooms, elevators and stairwells.
- Designate one-directional stairwells and hallways, if possible.
Physical barriers and guides
- Install physical barriers, such as sneeze guards and partitions, in areas where social distancing is difficult, such as reception areas.
- Use signs and tape on floors or sidewalks to remind individuals to remain at least 6 feet apart.
Adapt and Accommodate
Keeping common areas closed after compliance relief expires is not an option–the key is to adapt and accommodate health and safety guidelines in a way that makes sense for the property and for residents’ needs. For example, LIHTC property owners who provide on-site services, such as health classes and after-school programs, can find alternative or virtual methods to hold those programs as long as those common areas remain open for resident use. The California Tax Credit Allocation Committee (CTCAC) in February issued compliance monitoring guidance with the following examples of alternatives to indoor gatherings:
- Zoom or video conferencing fitness classes,
- Zoom or video conferencing food preparation, art or skills classes where any required materials are prepackaged and given to the tenants before the class,
- Outdoor fitness classes that can safely maintain a minimum of a six-foot distance from each participant,
- Outdoor after-school programs where participants are kept in the same small groups, can be spaced out to safely maintain distances and masks are worn at all times.
Again, indoor meeting and common areas must reopen, but owners and property managers should find outdoor or virtual alternatives to large indoor gatherings when possible.
CTCAC included a reminder in the memo that providing pamphlets, fliers or other reading materials about a subject is not an acceptable substitution for providing the actual classes and does not count toward meeting the required annual service hours requirement. According to CTCAC: “Failure to meet the service amenity requirements of the regulatory agreement for the LIHTC property in 2021 may result in either negative points or fines to the owner and/or management company.”
As COVID-19 health and safety protocols continue to evolve, owners should stay current on federal, state and local guidelines, and should contact their LIHTC advisors to ensure that their reopening plans are consistent with LIHTC program requirements.
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