The COVID-19 pandemic has taken a permanent and heavy toll.
There have been more than 19 million cases and more than 332,000 deaths in the country related to the coronavirus as of late December. People have had to change the way they live and work. Businesses and schools have closed their doors.
During the past year, the pandemic’s far reach has taught the affordable housing industry hard lessons, both good and bad, both temporary and lasting. Heading into a second year with the health crisis, industry leaders look back on what they’ve learned so far.
“The thing that stands out for us about 2020 is that a home is the foundation for a family,” says Chris Dischinger, co-principal of leading affordable housing firm LDG Development. “As the COVID-19 pandemic persisted and record unemployment occurred, we have been amazed at the resiliency of our residents to pay rent and maintain their homes. While we know that many residents struggled with job loss and other fallout from COVID, they prioritized protecting their homes. Residents that had protections from evictions chose to pay their rent. We believe that this speaks directly to the quality of our communities and the lack of adequate alternatives. The value proposition of affordable housing to both the residents and the communities they are located in continue to shine.”
Others agree that new light was shined on the importance of housing.
“You and your family can’t be healthy—during a pandemic or otherwise—unless you live in well-built, well-maintained housing in uncrowded conditions,” says Bart Mitchell, president and CEO of The Community Builders. “Racial justice, worker productivity, and national health all support the need for more affordable housing.”
The biggest lesson learned is how essential housing is, adds J. David Heller, president and CEO of The NRP Group. “The industry was very concerned about occupancy and collections, but we learned this year that people value home first,” he says. “Everywhere across the country, people hunkered down and paid rent first because their home is what matters most for them and their families.”
The affordable housing industry also showed its resiliency during 2020.
“Every player in our industry—from developers to construction firms, governmental agencies to property management firms, lenders and investors—all had to make adjustments in ‘business as usual.’ And we did,” says Deborah VanAmerongen, strategic policy adviser in the affordable housing practice group at the Nixon Peabody law firm. “Deals continued to close, governmental agencies worked remotely, many for the first time. In many places, construction of affordable housing was deemed essential and continued, albeit with workplace safety protocols in place. My hope is that some of the innovations that have been adopted, which actually improve efficiency, will become part of the regular process post-COVID.”
Sean Thomas, senior adviser for housing policy and programs at the Ohio Housing Finance Agency, agrees that the industry showed how adaptable it can be in a crisis.
“Projects were completed,” he says. “Housing finance agencies kept programs moving. Low-income housing tax credit pricing remained steady. Property managers did outstanding work keeping residents safe and properties financially viable. The big lesson for the public and policymakers was showing the importance of housing for public health and the connection between the two.”
There’s no doubt that developers have had to change the way they work to remain productive.
With the help of technology, developers were still able to conduct business from leasing apartment homes to conducting internal and external meetings via Zoom, says Jeff Kittle, president and CEO of Kittle Property Group.
“As bad as the last 10 months have been mentally, from a business perspective, the housing industry has done surprisingly well, and that includes various eviction moratoriums at the state, local, and federal levels,” says Rob Hoskins, managing principal of The NuRock Cos. “We have learned to work the assets from a distance with more technology to create safety. We have found that meetings do not require a plane trip anymore. We believe this year has forever changed our perspective on the old ways and traditions (‘this is always how it has been done’). Ultimately, this should make our industry more efficient, be able to more quickly identify site issues through technology that does not fail, and have the ability to review construction and management in virtual real time.”
The biggest lesson was “how to operate our properties during a pandemic,” says Henry Flores, vice president, Madhouse Development Services.
“Being a smaller family office, we didn’t have a pandemic playbook put together for this situation, so it forced us to implement new operational procedures to ensure we could still operate on a high level and provide our residents with the same customer service and safety they expect and deserve,” he says. “We had to be nimble and learn new things like various sanitization methods that had to be implemented across the portfolio.”
The Texas-based firm also had to be creative when it came to material specifications and lead time for delivery of materials for projects under construction. “On some projects, different manufacturers and/or plant locations were carefully selected to ensure that we had adequate materials to keep our projects moving forward on schedule,” Flores says. “We also had to purchase items like appliances, cabinets, electrical, and plumbing fixtures much further in advance than in the past to ensure we had the materials when we needed them. As an example, one manufacturer suggested that we order appliances eight months prior to needing them on site to ensure adequate delivery.”