Blog April 23, 2020

Helping public and affordable housing weather the storm of COVID-19

By Allen Feliz

The COVID-19 public health crisis might be the greatest blow dealt to the American low-income housing industry in modern history. Our national housing ecosystem, serving populations with acute needs prior to the pandemic, is currently faced with obstacles that could take months or years to overcome. With the affordable and public housing industries across the country feeling the deep impacts of this crisis, we’re taking a look at how these sectors are struggling, what’s being done to help them, and what it will take to weather this storm together.

How COVID-19 affects public and affordable housing

As of right now, our low-income populations, many residing in the developments operated by MRI’s Affordable and Public Housing clients, are feeling the effects of the pandemic at a disproportionate rate. These struggles are not new for them – they’re just intensified by the pandemic. According to a report from the National Low Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC), almost 10 million low-income households were severely housing cost-burdened before the start of the pandemic, spending more than half of their income on rent.

The challenges facing affordable and public housing are even more pronounced when considering this article from Urban Institute, which points out that most low-income residents who have lost their jobs as a result of this crisis don’t have enough savings to cover rent for months to come. In 2018, nearly half (20 million) of all renters paid more than 30% of their income on housing costs and a quarter (11 million) paid more than half their income on housing. As of 2016, only one in five renters who qualified for and needed housing assistance received it.

What’s currently being done to help the industry

The unwavering commitment our industry requires during the pandemic is on full display at our affordable and public housing communities from coast to coast. Resource-constrained management and maintenance staff are working around the clock – helping residents practice social distancing, especially senior residents (the most vulnerable), maintaining constant communication with staff and residents, responding to emergency repairs, and endlessly disinfecting common areas – in addition to performing their normal operational tasks.

Stewards of Affordable Housing for the Future (SAHF), the nonprofit collaborative of thirteen multi-state nonprofit affordable housing providers, has launched a COVID-19 resource page to help resident services practitioners, and those directly working to meet resident needs, to access and share useful information, tools, and templates. The SAHF resource page was developed in large part to support property management staff and residents and to bring external resources to help practitioners operate during the health crisis. The list of SAHF COVID-19 resources include guidance for frontline staff and templates developed by SAHF members such as Mercy Housing and Volunteers of America, COVID-19 housing operations guides, and templates other operators can use for their communities.

At MRI’s Affordable and Public Housing group, we’re trying to do our part as well, helping our clients weather the storm by focusing on the products, services and resources they need the most to do their jobs. As many of our clients continue to work from home with the immense challenge of keeping their residents safe and healthy while continuing their normal operations, remote connectivity, electronic communication and automation are more important than ever. In response to these critical needs, we have shifted our focus to products that are of the greatest needs to the industry – SaaS migrations for hosting, Assistance Connect for resident and owner online communication, Callmax Automated Communications for emergency maintenance, package tracking and resident contacts.

What still needs to be done to protect affordable and public housing

We’re a technology and services provider in a network that relies upon a host of interdependent players – developers, builders, owners, property managers, investors, lenders, government agencies, lawyers, accountants, consultants and housing advocates, to name a few. No single part of the industry can possibly save the entire system, but each segment has an important role to play. As we help one another we can create a bright future for the low-income housing community.

How can we help to address these challenges? Some housing advocates are asking for additional commitment and coordination from all areas, including all levels of government. State and local government, for instance, can use the CARES Act’s funding flexibility to stabilize low-income renter households including offering rental assistance.

A long-term resolution to the issues plaguing the low-income housing industry (especially addressing the supply constraint), however, requires more. Although Congress may include policies in their next relief bill that would ensure renters can stay in their homes throughout this crisis, housing policy advocates are lobbying lawmakers to promote maximum housing stability by providing more funding for long-term rental assistance.

Affordable housing production also requires better support. The Affordable Housing Tax Credit Coalition and its partners in the ACTION Campaign are lobbying Congress to provide more short-term and long-term relief for the Low Income Housing Tax Credit program. The proposals include measures aimed at increasing the overall production of affordable units – one of the fundamental shortcomings of the industry pre-COVID-19 and likely to worsen if we don’t respond quickly and comprehensively.

As always, MRI’s Affordable and Public Housing group is proud to stand beside our clients and our industry, helping our housers any way that we can. To learn more, visit MRI Software’s COVID-19 Resources page.

“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” – Fred Rogers

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