Housing industry pleads with HUD to postpone restarting REAC inspections
REAC plans to begin inspections on or after October 5, 2020 despite industry pleas to wait until it is safe to restart. Notifications will go to properties starting September 21, 2020.
Earlier in the national virus emergency REAC suspended property inspections for all public and multifamily properties. This action allowed properties a breather in managing under the pandemic. Now these actions to balance public health efforts to control the spread of the virus with the need to provide safe housing has been upended.
It seems peculiar that REAC, whose mission is to assure HUD subsidized housing is safe wants to return to operations (RTO) in the middle of a pandemic, which the public and private housing industry has told them will put the residents’ lives at risk.
REAC has a history of putting lives at risk and contributing to residents deaths by, for example, not inspecting for Carbon Monoxide detectors and insisting on inspecting units known to have bed bug infestation. Now it wants to force it’s way into units during a pandemic to check for items like inoperable sink stoppers, and ¼” door holes, all while potentially putting lives at risk by spreading Wuhan virus, and despite the housing industry pleas to wait until the pandemic has been declared over.
The National Housing & Rehabilitation Association and over 100 partners in a letter of July 28, 2020 told HUD that it has not sufficiently considered that consequences of COVID-19, across the board, require providers to operate properties with reduced on-site staffing due to illness and the need to alter operations to insure that both site staff and residents are kept safe, and temporarily defer routine maintenance and capital projects to mitigate the spread of Coronavirus.
The latter most significantly includes the essentially universal decision to temporarily forego non-emergency work orders, which was largely based on HUD’s own guidance to make the decision to defer non-essential or non-health and safety repairs on a unit-by-unit basis. As we believe all would agree should be the case, in addition to responding to emergency work orders, priority was given to sanitizing properties with products and techniques designed to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, as well as assisting tenants who lost employment with access to much needed benefits and services and processing income recertifications as required by HUD. (NH&RA July 28, 2020 Letter)
Once it is safe for owners to resume routine maintenance work-orders and conduct their own unit inspections, it will likely take months to catch up with the backlog. It will also take considerable time for other non-urgent work to be performed. Responsible property owners should not be subject to inspections that will likely generate artificially low scores because they did not have sufficient time to resolve every work order or perform other non-urgent work under current conditions. (NH&RA July 28, 2020 Letter)
It is also worth noting that data from 2015 estimates that over 1.7 million households or one-third of all HUD-assisted households are headed by an individual over 62 and 1.2 million households or 23 percent are headed by a person with a disability, putting them in a high-risk category for the Coronavirus (source). We applaud HUD’s decision to exempt these households from the inspections, but question how many others live with or provide care to someone in a high-risk category? (NH&RA July 28, 2020 Letter)
How many HUD-assisted households have a resident with a medical condition (e.g. asthma or a compromised immune system) that is not considered a disability that puts them in a high-risk category? How many others simply do not feel comfortable letting a stranger into their home in the current environment? If HUD resumes REAC inspections in the current environment, will residents have the right to refuse to allow inspectors into their unit without negatively effecting the properties REAC score? (NH&RA July 28, 2020 Letter)
These questions as well as the logistical and procurement hurdles are immense and should not be overlooked. For example, REAC inspectors and owners’ representatives would need to change their PPE between each in-unit inspection to guarantee the virus is not unwittingly transmitted to another unit. We understand that HUD’s preliminary plans indicating a restart of inspections this summer is currently aspirational. We encourage HUD to consider revising the aspirational timeline to begin January 2021 at the earliest. (NH&RA July 28, 2020 Letter)
Further, REAC’s current plans to provide owners at least 45 days from when the inspection commencement notice is published may be insufficient. Our preference would be that the lead time be at least 60 days, with a waiver of the 14-day property specific scheduling notice to permit a 30-day scheduling notification. If HUD decides to proceed with REAC inspections on a more accelerated schedule, we recommend that at a minimum, properties which received a score of 60 or above on their last inspection be exempted from inspection at least through the end of the year, unless there is a significant reason to believe that the health and/or safety or residents is in imminent danger. (NH&RA July 28, 2020 Letter)
Despite REAC’s best intentions to assure a safe operating environment, PHADA says the RTO plans do not address the practicality of inspections from a housing provider’s perspective. REAC’s plans assume inspectors will find properties in their true condition given the notice provided to property owners. However, the HA’s and owners that have deferred and ongoing and preventative maintenance may need far longer than the time provide to return properties to their true condition. In a recent poll of PHADA members, fewer than a third of respondents indicated they have resumed all regular maintenance including unit inspections. (PHADA Advocate September 8, 2020)
PHADA argues that requiring HA’s to modify their operational plans to prepare for a REAC inspection contradicts every effort by HUD to support HA (and Multifamilies) in this difficult time. Currently the potential scope of inspectable areas is small as of this writing of this article fewer than 200 counties would qualify. This is a data point that DAS Vargas and other HUD officials have repeatedly pointed to in hopes of decreasing anxiety around the department's plans. The same fact raises questions about the department's insistence in restarting inspections in the midst of a pandemic particularly when it had an alternative process available. (PHADA Advocate September 8, 2020)
Alternative processes to REAC Inspections include remote video inspections in lieu of entering units. This approach was HUD's idea (PIH Notice 2020-13, etc). The Pandemic and HUD’s reimagining of physical inspections in the NSPIRE demonstration provided an opportunity for the Department to implement remote inspections on a limited basis. (PHADA Advocate September 8, 2020)
PHADA says Housing providers currently face extraordinarily difficult operating environments exacerbated by the virus. Prior to the pandemic there were concerns about low occupancy and those statistics have only gotten worse. Announcing a return to inspections may cause HA's to shift resources to certain activities instead of making units ready for occupancy.
There is little benefit to be gained from resuming REAC inspections compared to the disruption the plans may cause. Ensuring assisted housing is safe, healthy, and decent is an important role for the Department, but it must be balanced with the concerns of HA's residents working to maintain safe environments and keeping the virus out of their homes. (PHADA Advocate September 8, 2020)
Hank Vanderbeek, MPA, CMI
REAC Property Consultants, LLC CEO