As the COVID-19 outbreak continues to rock the nation, the multifamily industry continues to grapple with the new reality while reducing risk and disruption for its residents, employees, and businesses. In a period where it’s anything but business as usual, it’s critical that industry stakeholders arm themselves with guidance and resources that will accurately inform important business decisions.
By now, apartment firms’ senior-level crisis teams should be in the throes of putting their COVID-19 response plan to work and adapting it as needed to the ever-changing circumstances. However, many questions continue to surface as apartment firms pick their way through these uncertain times. To assist companies in their efforts, the National Multifamily Housing Council (NMHC) offers this list of suggested apartment owner preparations and ongoing considerations.
1. Monitor and Communicate with Government Officials. At this point in the virus spread, most apartment firms are operating in affected communities. Firms should have established and be maintaining regular contact with local and state health departments and disaster management authorities. They should know how to access and use those public resources and designate individuals to maintain these relationships. These individuals will be responsible for providing your community with the most up-to-date information about a pandemic, the recommended procedures, and the mandatory activities.
2. Communicate with Employees and Residents. Accurate, timely, and regular communications with employees, residents, suppliers, and even the media are critical throughout the balance of this crisis. This is more challenging in an era where on-site staffing is severely limited and alternative work arrangements are in place. It’s critical that relevant contact information for staff, residents, and suppliers be readily available across a variety of platforms in case contact is disrupted.
3. Prevent the Spread of COVID-19. While the common-sense approach to infection control—practicing proper cough etiquette, washing your hands frequently, and staying home if you are sick—is our most important defense, there are enterprise-wide practices apartment firms can institute to protect their communities as much as possible. There should be a strong focus on sanitizing work areas, public places, and commonly touched elements (door handles, elevator buttons, etc.) on an ongoing basis and placing hand sanitizers in common areas. Most firms have canceled all resident events in the name of social distancing and closed amenities like pools and fitness centers; however, amenities like laundry rooms, pet relief areas, and playgrounds may require a different strategy.
4. Establish Protocol for Employee Leave, Telework, and Travel Policies. Apartment firms should develop an employee leave policy that includes telecommuting, staggered schedules, and liberal leave. In addition to testing telecommuting plans, firms should establish protocol for employee/supervisor communication and begin to cross-train staff in case of long-term absences.
5. Craft a Plan for Potential Lapse in Services and Supply. With the potential loss of staff and on-site personnel, most apartment communities will need to scale back or curtail services. Service calls, trash collection, security, maintenance, and move-ins/move-outs will require another look in a severe outbreak. Fitness centers, pools, and community rooms may need to be closed.
6. Understand the Legal Liability, Privacy Protections, and Other Obligations. The spread of COVID-19 is raising a host of legal issues that must be analyzed in advance to reduce company liability. Consider liabilities surrounding resident illness, employee virus exposure, employment and leave obligations, renter hardships, and evictions. Apartment firms should consult with counsel and review applicable local, state, and federal laws and regulations on what is required of your firm during an outbreak to ensure you’re in full compliance.
7. Consider Rent Payment Flexibility. Create open lines of communications with their residents to address financial, health, and other hardships that can make it difficult to cover expenses like housing. While there’s been a move to enact widespread moratoriums on evictions, many apartment providers across the country are proactively working with residents to figure out rent reductions and alternative payment plans to keep residents temporarily impacted by the virus disruption.
8. Evaluate Ongoing Liabilities and Insurance Needs. Experts recommend companies continue to evaluate their insurance coverage for incurred and potential revenue losses or damage, check in with affected residents, revisit human resources policies regarding back-to-work issues; identify any need for Employee Assistance Programs or counseling; and evaluate reopening common areas and services.
The broad array of company types, sizes, and geographic locations that make up the apartment industry discourages a one-size-fits-all approach to planning, but these takeaways are a broad jumping off point for firms as they consider the best plan of action. NMHC recommends firms seek expert and legal consultation to ensure comprehensive coverage.
Given the fast nature evolution of this situation, firms need to stay up-to-date on best practices. NMHC continues to update its “Coronavirus Resources for Apartment Firms” landing page with new information, including important links to resources from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the World Health Organization, the Department of Labor, the Environment Protection Agency, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and other organizations.
We also encourage industry stakeholders to sign up for NMHC’s Emergency Preparedness Listserv, which is online community of multifamily owners and operators where they can ask questions and learn from what other multifamily firms are sharing.