Coronavirus Crisis: A Multifamily Guide
for Safety, Communication, and More
Now that coronavirus (COVID-19) has sparked a national emergency in the United States, housing operators are racing to figure out: how should multifamily react? HappyCo explores strategies for safety and communication — including on-the-ground insights from a multifamily CEO.
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Whereas handling the spread of coronavirus (COVID-19) seemed to fall on the shoulders of mayors and governors for weeks, President Donald Trump is now weighing in significantly — urging every American to avoid groups of more than 10 and stop dining out at restaurants, in addition to recommending that “older Americans” stay home altogether.
Indeed, with coronavirus cases totalling more than 195,000 worldwide and nearly seven million people in the Bay Area affected by a temporary shelter-in-place (closing all but “essential” businesses), social distancing is becoming the new normal. Consequently, housing operators are racing against the clock to figure out what this will mean for multifamily.
For now, this much is clear: there’s more pressure than ever before for operators to maintain safe conditions and increase operational transparency. To this end, HappyCo covers key challenges facing multifamily right now: from assembling a crisis team and leading a remote staff to developing safety checklists and communicating effectively with staff and residents alike — all while weighing legal risks. Finally, HappyCo paints a picture of how this all takes shape from a property vantage point, sharing insights from a multifamily CEO.
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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.” corporate suite, risk management, human resources, legal, information technology, and operations.”
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 trash removal, 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.”
Prepare to lead differently in a remote workplace.
Above all, in coordinating their efforts, it’s important that multifamily crisis teams follow an essential recommendation from the CDC: to “use video conferencing for meetings when possible” and “when not possible, hold meetings in open, well-ventilated spaces.” 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.
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.”
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 corona continues to spread, it’s essential that crisis teams coordinate with maintenance supervisors and third-party custodial staff to ensure these high-priority items are inspected with appropriate frequency.
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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:
–common study/recreation rooms
–common bathrooms (lobby, etc.)
On this last inspection area, should multifamily operators decide that the safety risk is too great to keep on-site fitness centers open, they might 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.”
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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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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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
–Take some time to unwind
–Talk with people you trust about your feelings and concerns
Communicate conscientiously about rent delays.
Importantly, as the coronavirus outbreak is spurring financial uncertainty worldwide, multifamily operators should be particularly mindful in their communications surrounding rent payments when April 1st arrives. Indeed, even as NMHC works with elected officials to try and secure federal financing for people affected by the outbreak, the organization 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.”
From there, 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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For weeks, Steve Boyack has been working tirelessly to address the many “what-if’s” corona 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 are placing 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, as well as anywhere big groups congregate.” As Boyack is keeping a close eye on university closures, he stresses: “we’re not seeing huge numbers of people in our gyms right now, but if universities really do start closing for good and people who would’ve congregated in those public spaces come back and use ours, we may have to decide to close these shared spaces for safety reasons.”
Indeed, Boyack puts it frankly: “I don’t think large social gatherings are a good idea right now.” To that end, his teams are urging residents: “limit the number of people in your unit and avoid gathering in large groups in common areas.” Naturally, Boyack’s teams are being agile about allowing access to these spaces, as: “this is all happening on a day-by-day basis.”
Along these lines, 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.”
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 corona 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.”
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We want to support you as you work to ensure the health and safety of your communities. Please reach out with any questions, ideas, or feedback. We look forward to collaborating in these challenging times.