In response to the catastrophic COVID-19 pandemic, the affordable housing community across the country has sprung into action to help prevent and mitigate the life-threatening impacts of this crisis at the ground level. Advocates have been sharing best practices, conducting online trainings, and disseminating public guidance, all with the primary goal of providing urgent assistance to vulnerable low- and moderate-income residents.
None of these activities could be carried out without the heroic support of front line staff, including property managers, maintenance technicians, resident services coordinators, service providers, and many others who are working to keep at-risk seniors and families as safe as possible during this trying period. They join workers in hospitals, grocery stores, pharmacies, and other essential businesses that continue to serve the public despite enormous stress.
This quick ramp-up is a testament to the sophisticated housing infrastructure that has been strategically built over many years across local, state, and national levels. This effort has been supported by a caring and dedicated corps of affordable housing advocates, service providers, owners and property managers, public officials, lenders, attorneys, social mission investors, and many other like-minded and committed individuals. National organizations, such as the National Low Income Housing Coalition, Stewards of Affordable Housing for the Future, Housing Partnership Network, Leading Age, National Leased Housing Association, and many others, have played an important leadership role in synthesizing complicated and fast-moving information and advocating for necessary policy changes.
This mobilization has focused on three areas:
Assisting those who are homeless:
Families and individuals living in emergency shelters or surviving outdoors are particularly vulnerable to the Coronavirus. Expert staff are conducting medical screenings, are seeking alternative shelter arrangements that provide adequate space for social distancing in the near term, and are desperately trying to find permanent housing for these families and individuals, although this has become nearly impossible.
Ensuring the safety of low-income renters:
Multifamily housing owners are adopting significant measures to protect the health and safety of residents living in assisted housing. In addition to addressing immediate food and health care needs of renters, affordable housing owners are:
Regularly cleaning and disinfecting common areas and focusing on emergency repairs;
Educating residents about public health guidance;
Instituting social distancing among staff and residents;
Limiting nonessential visitors;
Staying in regular contact with local public health agencies and providers;
Encouraging sick employees to stay home and providing staff with flexible time-off and the ability to telework.
Many private owners have halted evictions during this emergency even as local and state governments pursue eviction moratorium legislation. These protections are needed because many residents are—or soon will be—facing job loss and will be unable to pay their rent. However, it is crucial to couple these policies with flexible, short-term rental assistance to affected tenants so private owners can continue to operate and maintain healthy properties over the long term. If this assistance is not available, many owners will be unable to pay operating costs, such as maintenance expenses, mortgage payments, or local property taxes, and ultimately face default or foreclosure.
While these short-term actions at the local level are helpful, massive federal resources are needed to bolster and expand these efforts. The “third-phase,” $2 trillion economic relief bill, or CARES Act, (that the Senate passed on March 25, and that the House is expected to pass on Friday, March 27), provides $12.4 billion for affordable housing programs and imposes a 120-day moratorium on evictions for most residents living in federally subsidized properties. This infusion of funds will help homeless families with immediate assistance, provide temporary rental assistance for those who have difficulty paying rent, help owners ensure continued safety in their properties, and enhance fair housing efforts.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) is a crucial partner in all of these housing responses. We are grateful to the public servants at HUD who continue to do their jobs and who have provided flexible guidance to affordable housing providers so that we can adapt to this unprecedented challenge. Working in partnership with state and local government agencies, HUD will face an enormous task to distribute these new funds in an efficient and effective manner and provide additional flexibility in existing programs while doing so.
Restoring Economic Health
While this new federal funding is essential, it is highly likely that more funds will be needed, especially for emergency rental assistance to help prevent evictions and possible homelessness. In addition, development projects that are now delayed because of the Coronavirus will need relief from deadlines imposed by public funding sources, notably the Low Income Housing Tax Credit program (LIHTC), as well as new resources to bridge funding gaps related to these delays. Congress can have an immediate impact by fixing a floor value for the 4% LIHTC, which has been seriously eroded as bond yields have fallen. The companion 9% LIHTC rate was fixed in response to the 2008 recession, but the 4% rate is pegged to a market-based rate that resets monthly and is now at an all-time low of 3.12%.
Even while we are in the early phases of the pandemic, we must plan for measures to jump-start our economy, which is now sliding into a recession. Congress, in the next stimulus bill, should significantly increase resources for affordable housing production and preservation, such as the LIHTC program, HOME, Capital Magnet Fund, National Housing Trust Fund and rural housing development. This will help boost the economy and simultaneously meet the growing needs of low-income families and seniors.
Aaron Gornstein is also Chair of the Board of Stewards of Affordable Housing for the Future, Chair of the Board of New Lease for Homeless Families, and a board member of the National Low Income Housing Coalition and Technical Assistance Collaborative.