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Coronavirus Crisis: A Multifamily Guide for Safety, Communication, and More

Industry Insights

With more than 50,000 deaths linked to COVID-19 in the U.S. alone and millions of Americans experiencing social-distancing restrictions, the meaning of home has changed fundamentally. To help multifamily respond, HappyCo covers the most pressing industry issues, offering CEO insights.

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As of April 24th, the Center for Systems Science and Engineering at the Johns Hopkins University reports more than 2,700,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 across the world. Roughly 880,000 of those cases are based in the United States. Needless to say, the sheer magnitude of this pandemic is unlike anything we’ve faced before. However, the multifamily industry confronts a particularly difficult set of challenges, as millions of Americans have been forced to stay home for all but essential needs — or face hefty fines.

Indeed, with social distancing now the new normal, housing operators are racing against the clock to solve a range of problems: from coordinating internally and sourcing supplies to prioritizing safety and reassuring residents. To this end, HappyCo covers key challenges facing multifamily right now, in addition to offering a property vantage point perspective from a multifamily CEO.

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Building a crisis team, preparing for workplace changes.

device


Build a cross-department crisis team.
While the CDC provides a range of transmission and risk information on its main coronavirus site, the National Multifamily Housing Council is rising to the occasion to offer multifamily operators specific tactics to handle the concerns facing their day-to-day operations.

NMHC is encouraging operators to create a “crisis team” that includes senior executives who have “decision-making and spending authority.” To ensure that every potential community impact is taken into consideration, NMHC recommends that representatives from each sector of multifamily have a seat at the table, including “the corporate suite, risk management, human resources, legal, information technology, and operations.”

Critically, NMHC advises that these team members keep tabs on CDC, local, and state health department websites and social media accounts, as well as “regularly monitor and communicate with public officials and first responders.”

Expect supply chain issues.
Thinking ahead in the realm of cleaning products is especially important; NMHC warns that “supply chain issues” are a top consideration as hand sanitizer and other products face shortages. Relatedly, NMHC suggests operators should “anticipate high absenteeism at your suppliers and service providers that might create disruptions in…utility service, transportation or supply delivery.” Along these lines, NMHC advises multifamily crisis teams be prepared to: “seek alternative service providers and outsource options for IT.”

zoom call


Prepare to lead differently in a remote workplace.
For housing communities facing a shelter-in-place mandate and unaccustomed to remote work, multifamily leadership teams could consider these tips from Forbes: meeting more frequently to check in on pressing projects, establishing an agenda at the start of each call and ending with clear next steps, and asking yourself on the cusp of planning a meeting if the topic truly is valuable enough to warrant a group discussion.

Additionally, a separate Forbes piece recommends that leaders: develop an online communication framework of “openness and transparency, including sharing calendars that show when you may be away from your desk.” Also, with spontaneous workplace communication no longer an option, contributor John Winsor advises: “it’s important to communicate ahead of time about meeting agendas, or follow up after with meeting notes and deliverables.”

While Winsor argues Zoom, Slack, Google Hangouts, phone, and email can all fill the void of workplace interaction, the goal is to best suit your communication needs by ensuring: “the tools you select are aligned with work objectives versus generic collaboration objectives.”

Still, it goes without saying: from leasing agents to maintenance technicians, many in multifamily aren’t used to working from home. Thus, it’s critical for leaders to adapt quickly, seeking feedback and course-correcting early on should their initial attempts at online engagement miss the mark.

symptoms


Reconsider workplace pay policies in light of COVID-19.
That said, certain roadblocks may remain for multifamily despite even the best efforts from a leadership team. Indeed, NMHC pinpoints the potential for “employee absenteeism,” especially in the event of “infection, fear of infection or the need to care for affected family members.”

In the current COVID-19 climate, NMHC advises that operators work to establish employee leave policies accounting for: versus generic collaboration objectives.”

telecommuting
staggered schedules
generous leave

Additionally, NMHC stresses the value in setting protocol for employee-supervisor communication, as well as training staff to have cross-functional skills in the event of “long-term absences.” Importantly, NMHC stresses operators should engage with their legal counsel “on any federal, state or local legal requirements or regulations about mandating employees work during an outbreak or take leave without pay.”

Finally, with a response team assembled and workplace policy changes in mind, operators should focus on developing a checklist of key on-site safety risks. As the CDC is even instructing people on how to sew cloth face coverings, it’s clear the ease of COVID-19 transmission should spell major changes when it comes to high-touch areas at multifamily complexes. Here’s a sense of how cleaning efforts should change in the current climate.

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Cleaning measures: what to use and where.

disinfecting

Only buy cleaning products with an EPA registration number.
Fortunately for operators, the EPA has provided this comprehensive list of disinfectants for use against the SARS-CoV2, which causes COVID-19. The EPA advises that buyers check for a product’s “EPA registration number,” warning that “these products may be marketed and sold under different brand names, but if they have the same EPA registration number, they are the same product.”

In a frequently-asked questions page on the subject, the EPA states that each of these products has been deemed effective based on “demonstrated efficacy against a harder-to-kill virus” or “qualified for the emerging viral pathogens claim.”

What to clean: high-touch surfaces, group spaces.
The NMHC landing page on coronavirus responses notes that: “sanitizing work areas, public places and commonly touched elements” is key at this point in the rapid coronavirus spread. To that end, NMHC recommends paying special attention to these areas:

door handles
elevator buttons
common study/recreation rooms
common bathrooms (lobby, etc.)
fitness centers

With fitness areas closed at many complexes, operators could decide to follow in the footsteps of the YMCA of San Francisco in offering virtual classes. This could go a long way in retaining residents and helping them cope with the uncertainty COVID-19 presents. Indeed, the YMCA makes clear: “self-care is more important than ever — exercise, sleep, nutrition and stress management are keys to staying healthy.”

cleaner


When to clean? Safety tips to prevent risk.
Before multifamily crisis teams send their custodial crews to address these high-risk items, the CDC offers valuable insights on the safest time to clean. According to the CDC, it’s critical to “close off areas” used by anyone sick with COVID-19 and to “wait as long as practical before beginning cleaning and disinfection to minimize potential for exposure to respiratory droplets.”

Handling maintenance in self-quarantine cases.
Additionally, the CDC emphasizes that businesses of any kind: reduce “cleaning and disinfection of bedrooms/bathrooms used by ill persons to as needed.” To this end, NMHC offers valuable guidance in cases where residents are self-quarantining:

Suspend access to affected unit for regular maintenance, repairs, inspections
Enter affected units only for emergency repairs
Consider hiring a third-party cleaning crew
Leave packages outside the door of a self-quarantining resident; do not deliver in-person
Advise a vendor accustomed to providing service to the unit that “service is suspended to the apartment in question, without advising them of the reason”
Communicate empathetically with affected residents while setting expectations about the capacity to provide special assistance to them

In the realm of communication, it’s important to consider privacy risks and legal obligations before issuing sensitive communications regarding coronavirus. We’ll turn to these next.

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communication risks

Prioritize resident and staff privacy in any messaging.
Privacy will prove to be an especially thorny issue as multifamily operators navigate the need to keep people safe during the COVID-19 outbreak. In advising operators on “self-quarantining residents,” NMHC stresses: “information about the health and status of the self-quarantining resident or affected employee should not be shared with other residents or employees.” Indeed, a Multi-Housing News article on best practices during the coronavirus outbreak advises operators: “Consult with your attorneys and review local, state and federal laws to determine what is required of your firm during an outbreak and to make sure you’re in compliance.”

When it comes to navigating employee privacy in internal communications during the outbreak, NMHC advises that leadership teams review the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) site, as well as the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM). With this legal information in mind, we’ll turn to industry-recommended approaches to crafting coronavirus-specific communications.

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Industry recommendations for coronavirus communications.

typing

Secure accurate contact info; develop alternatives, too.
As an essential first step, Multi-Housing News advises operators to “make sure you have accurate contact information for staff, residents and suppliers and stay in regular communication.” Importantly, author Holly Dotton also recommends that operators: “develop alternative means of contact in case regular forms are disrupted.”

Ensure that you can communicate information across platforms.
In order to share critical information broadly, NMHC suggests operators have the capacity to communicate via: “corporate web sites, app-based notifications, text messaging, etc.” NMHC recommends operators relay information about prevention practices and changes to office and maintenance policy, as well as “post CDC resources in public areas to make residents and employees aware of the facts.”

Prioritize residents’ mental health — consider sharing wellness tips.
Interestingly, the CDC has taken the stance that too much media consumption may do more harm than good during a pandemic. Under its landing page on managing anxiety amid the coronavirus outbreak, the CDC recommends that people: “Take breaks from watching, reading, or listening to news stories, including social media” as “hearing about the pandemic repeatedly can be upsetting.”

Relatedly, multifamily operators could consider sharing these wellness tips from the CDC with residents and staff alike:

Take deep breaths, stretch or meditate
Try to eat healthy meals
Exercise regularly
Take some time to unwind
Talk with people you trust about your feelings and concerns

Communicate conscientiously about rent delays.
Although the United States has signed off on one-time stimulus checks and enhanced unemployment benefits as a financial response to the widespread consequences of COVID-19, multifamily operators should be particularly mindful in their communications surrounding rent payments.

NMHC is advising housing providers to “create open lines of communication with their residents to address financial, health, and other hardships that can make it difficult to cover expenses like housing.” NMHC recommends operators: “work with your residents on payment plans and agreements and be sure to put them in writing.” Additionally, it’s important that operators keep monitoring local and state legislative changes on eviction policy — as California’s governor has already issued an executive order to ensure financially vulnerable tenants are spared eviction through May 31, 2020.

Finally, to help multifamily owners and operators understand how leaders in the industry are addressing coronavirus challenges, HappyCo offers an on-the-ground perspective from Steve Boyack, CEO of CA Management Services.

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washing hands

For several weeks, Steve Boyack has been working tirelessly to address the many “what-if’s” the coronavirus presents for student housing and multifamily. From the outset, Boyack stresses: “the number one step for us (and for anybody in the industry) is to ensure the health and safety of your employees and residents. Your employees will be on the front line through this crisis and one of the best ways to keep them safe is to check with your materials suppliers to confirm that the products you are using to clean your properties are effective against the virus.”

Then comes the “what-if” of where to provide hand sanitizer on properties. Given the nationwide shortage of sanitizer, Boyack’s leadership team has seized on an idea from one of its own staff members: place hand sanitizer stations inside elevators, so residents on every floor have equal access.

Boyack makes clear: “we have placed orders for additional materials, but honestly it’s unclear even when these back orders will be filled because so much is selling out so fast.” Thus, Boyack admits: “for now, we’ve advised staff to find these supplies wherever they can — local stores, etc.” From there, his teams have placed hand sanitizer “in any area of large congregations — gyms, party rooms, etc.”

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Heightened safety protocol certainly doesn’t stop there for CA Management Services. On a portfolio-wide level, its maintenance teams and third-party crews are “focusing on all high-touch items: public bathrooms, door handles, countertops, sinks, etc.” Additionally, Boyack’s teams are keeping staff and resident communication top of mind. “We’re sending regular messages to residents, as many as are needed and relevant — about safety best practices and much more. We acknowledge too that we’re not health experts — so we’re pointing people to experts in our messaging: CDC and WHO.”

On a work culture level, Boyack says CA Management Services is working to coordinate closely and boost morale by “making sure our staff has access to leadership, and from the top down regularly encouraging people, expressing that we appreciate their hard work on the front lines.” Additionally, Boyack says his leadership teams are also coming up with plans should employees become sick “even with a normal cold — as we want to be sure we’re able to take the burden off them, and that they know they’ll be covered if they’re unwell.”

With respect to any additional hires during the crisis, Boyack says CA Management Services “uses third-parties for additional custodial staff, as they’re really the experts in deep-cleaning protocols and have the ability to flex up and down depending on the level of response needed.”

leasing tour


In the realm of financial uncertainty, Boyack is also mulling over this major student housing “what-if” — that “several universities have large international populations, and we have to now face the question: are these students coming when school starts this summer and fall? My hope is that we will have weathered this by then, but only time will tell.” Needless to say, Boyack and his leadership team are not alone in considering ways to replace those leases under the circumstances.

Fortunately, however, Boyack says his peers in the student housing sector are starting to share strategies during the coronavirus crisis — through listservs and other platforms. “We’re all in the customer service business, and it’s so heartening to see the industry come together around these issues — to not act like competitors, but instead allies.”

Boyack admits he’s glad to see the “seriousness” with which multifamily is now viewing the spread of coronavirus. “Given the number of companies who are not well-equipped and are now playing catch-up, it’s important to bring people together to make sure we’re all on the same page with the latest information.”

Updated on April 24, 2020


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Curious to hear COVID-19 strategies from other multifamily leaders?

On the Voices podcast, HappyCo has been asking multifamily leaders about the most pressing issues the industry now faces. Learn more about:

Maintenance challenges: Steve Duceatt, Director of Maintenance at RADCO
Senior housing concerns: Anne Sackrison, COO at CSI Support & Development Services
Leveraging tech, empowering staff: Steve Boyack, CEO at CA Management Services

About the author

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Glennis Markison
Content & Webinar Producer

Glennis is a writer/producer from San Francisco. Taking the city’s trains and buses with riders of all ages and backgrounds inspired Glennis to go into journalism and share people’s stories for a living. After graduating from Johns Hopkins University in 2013, she worked at CBS San Francisco as a program coordinator, public affairs producer, and ultimately full-time news writer for the KPIX 5 Morning News. She’s excited to enter the bustling startup world and tell HappyCo’s stories across channels.

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