By David M. Dworkin
“What a difference a day makes… and the difference is you.” As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to evolve at an exponential rate, the words from that song written in 1934 describe the tremendous opportunity for all of us to make a difference – together. Working together, we can do our part to manage and mitigate the impact of COVID-19 on the millions of renters and homeowners who depend on our work. That process is only just now beginning, and will be even more important with every day, week and month that we fight this war against a virus that has attacked every aspect of our lives.
Later this week, NHC will release a set of recommendations on mitigating the long-term impact of the pandemic on the housing industry. Areas covered will include threats to homeowners, renters, apartment owners, tax credit investors, homebuilders and the homeless. We encourage you to reach out to us and share your suggestions and experience. Ultimately, we will be depending on your advocacy to ensure these recommendations are adopted.
On Friday, two of our members, the National Low-Income Housing Coalition, and the National Multifamily Housing Council, worked together on a letter to Congress which was also signed by the National Apartment Association and the National Housing Conference. Together, we span the entire ideological spectrum of the rental housing industry, and together, we raised some important issues. First, we need immediate and direct rental assistance. “Providing direct financial assistance to renter households will better allow them to fulfill their financial obligations and prevent delinquencies that otherwise would lead to them losing their home. At a time of major housing affordability challenges across the nation, this type of assistance could mean the difference between keeping families housed and them falling into homelessness,” the letter said.
The letter also raised the importance of considering downstream impact on apartment building owners. “Even if rental relief were provided to large numbers of residents, it is likely that property owners will nonetheless suffer significant financial shortfalls. The inability of housing providers to meet their financial obligations, many of whom are small businesses owners or may struggle to support their employees, undermines the stability of the rental housing market. In particular, property owners now face increased and unusual property management and maintenance needs as Americans who were urged to telework, self-quarantine and shelter in place return to their homes. To ensure that affordable rental properties remain operational, targeted federal financial assistance – combined with appropriate protections for renters – should be considered for housing providers to mitigate the gap between any renter assistance and expected shortfalls in rental income,” the letter said.
The letter also raised the importance of addressing the shortage of millions of apartment units to meet our current needs. The letter made clear that “housing affordability was already a national problem demanding federal attention before the onset of the COVID-19 outbreak.” To address this growing need, we urged Congress to “mitigate sustained, unnecessary disruption to ongoing housing construction efforts or otherwise ensure the rental housing market can return to construction projects as soon as possible. We encourage policymakers at all levels to recognize that the availability of housing is essential, and its continued construction is similarly situated to other critical infrastructure. In addition, to the extent that federal efforts to mitigate this crisis address infrastructure investment, we urge policymakers to include housing needs and strategies to support the rehabilitation and development of new affordable housing, particularly for the lowest- income renters, those with the greatest needs.”
Here at NHC, we are developing a COVID-19 Housing Resource Center to act as a clearing house of scientifically vetted information and best practices by and for our members. We want you to have the most up to date and accurate information available to guide your response. This week, we hosted a COVID-19 and Housing Webinar, featuring Dr. Mark Dworkin and Dr. Sinan Almukhtar from the Division of Epidemiology and Biostatistics at the University of Illinois at Chicago’s School of Public Health. This 75-minute webinar is full of detailed information on what you need to know about the novel Coronavirus from a public health perspective, including outbreak mitigation and disinfection techniques, as well as recent innovations gleaned from the response in China. Please take the time to educate yourself by watching the webinar and sharing it with anyone you know who needs it. One sobering reality, the infection numbers, which were accurate the morning of the presentation just a few days ago, are dwarfed by the current levels – underscoring the importance of thoughtful but rapid response to this exponentially growing crisis.
The webinar offered a lot of valuable information for all of us, and for housing providers in particular. Highlights include:
- Gestation and symptoms
- Symptoms of COVID-19 can appear within as few as two or as many as 14 days after infection, and may include fever, cough and shortness of breath. This means that you can be infected, or spread the disease, well before you know that you are exposed or exposing others.
- This is why social distancing is so important for all of us, and why frequent hand washing is a critical component of infection control.
- Hand hygiene
- Hand washing with hot water and soap, followed by drying with paper toweling, is the most effective way to minimize the risk of infection. Hands need to be rinsed, then soaped for 15-20 seconds, and then rinsed again and dried.
- Alcohol-based hand sanitizers, with at least 60% alcohol content, are the next best thing to washing with soap and water.
- Transmission by air
- Transmission without touching is most likely to occur within six feet through “respiratory droplets.”
- As Dr. Dworkin explained, “when we talk, whether we see them or not, tiny respiratory droplets fly out of our mouth. If you’ve ever been on a bus or somewhere where there’s bright sunlight, you can actually see this happening. So, when we are close to each other… there is some of this that goes on. That’s normal, but what we’re trying to do is make it impossible for the virus to get from me to you, or from you to me. By just spreading out a little bit, that can be highly effective.”
- Transmission through surfaces
- Novel coronavirus remains infectious on surfaces for days of even weeks, depending on the surface material and environmental factors. The virus can live on hard surfaces like steel or glass for five days. In cold temperatures, under 40 degrees Fahrenheit, it can be preserved for as long as 28 days.
- “There is no magic answer about how many days or hours [the virus can survive on surfaces] because conditions will vary for every situation,” Dr. Dworkin said, which is why regular disinfection of surfaces that come in contact with people is so important.
- Surface cleaning
- Recommended disinfectant cleaners are those containing at least 70% alcohol, or 0.5 percent bleach. The surface needs to remain wet for one full minute. Do not wipe the cleaner off of the surface.
- Gym rooms should be closed unless they are disinfected at least once per hour.
- Metal surfaces, like door handles and elevator buttons, should be cleaned hourly as well. But even this frequency does not guarantee that the surface is virus-free.
- Elevator buttons are particularly problematic. Colleagues of Dr. Almukhtar in China shared pictures of innovative ways to protect residents from spreading the virus on elevator panels, including creating foot pedals to choose floors and providing toothpicks to press floor buttons.
- Transmission by pets
- Animals present a potential threat to spread the disease by someone who is infected and touches an animal that is also touched by someone who is not infected, Dr. Dworkin explained. He emphasized that it is important to wash your hands after coming into contact with an animal, even if it is your own pet.
- Transmission by fabric
- Clothing and linens can spread the virus and should be washed with soap and the highest temperature recommended for the fabric. Machine drying at the highest recommended heat should follow. Never shake out linens or clothing before washing and drying.
- Protection of employees
- “Remember to protect those who are doing the cleanup” at your buildings, Dr. Dworkin said. “If we expect them to potentially be in contact with cleaning the virus over and over during the day, then there is some heightened risk for them, so we need to be thinking about them and their knowledge about how to protect themselves. Employers should work with their local and state health departments to ensure appropriate local protocols and guidelines for cleaning and disinfecting are taken.”
- The CDC regularly updates their guidelines, so recheck the CDC site for updated information.
- Homeless shelters
- Because of the high concentration of homeless populations in the current virus hot spots, it is critically important that we focus on this population. This does NOT mean that homeless people are responsible for these hot spots. It does mean that they are especially vulnerable populations that need special attention because of challenges in maintaining social distancing, hygiene and heightened health risk factors. “There has never been a better time to make a donation to your local homeless shelter,” Dr. Dworkin said.
- Senior Housing
- Senior housing is another high-risk area that requires special attention. A recent study of mortality rates in China found that nearly 15% of patients over the age of 80 died from the disease. These numbers are preliminary, dependent on data collected and made available by the Chinese government and need to be verified by data in other countries with different health care systems. But they underscore the unique risks faced by seniors.
- Dworkin was clear on this point. “It is prudent to limit or discontinue visitors from senior facilities in the short term… As we know, these are the most vulnerable to get very sick and die… You can’t eliminate this risk entirely, but it is prudent to limit or shut down visitors in the short term in an effort to protect them.”
- Notification of residents
- On the issue of what to tell residents if someone in the building is infected, balancing the demands of transparency and privacy requires planning and communication with local health officials. “There is an obligation if you have someone in the building who has the virus to inform the residents without naming the person,” Dr. Dworkin said. “People need to be aware that their risk is higher because it may trigger proper behaviors.”
- But, he added, “there is a negative side to that too, because it may trigger panic, or anger or any number of things so it needs to be decided on an individual basis. There’s no absolutely right decision here… Talk to your local health officials to help you handle it.”
As you deal with the many issues and challenges that arise from this unprecedented crisis, know that NHC is here for you. Our work and our prayers are with you, your staff members, and your families.
David Dworkin is president and CEO of the National Housing Conference.