As the coronavirus crisis develops and its scope widens, community concerns have sprung up, especially in residential spaces.
Because of the “cluster” nature of the virus, communities must not only protect residents, but also limit public spread, both on the part of the property—whether an association or board, developer or owner—and residents and tenants. Any community is susceptible, from apartments to communities for retirees, and areas with dense high-rises, like New York City.
Addressing cleanliness is necessary, experts say. If a case in the community is uncovered, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend closing the common spaces that were visited; cleaning and disinfecting those spaces, but only after at least 24 hours pass, if possible, to curb exposure; and opening windows, to provide ventilation. To disinfect surfaces, the CDC advise cleaning them with EPA-sanctioned solutions, which include Clorox products, and arming cleaning crews with disposable gloves and gowns.
Like sanitized surfaces, air cleanliness matters, as well, according to Whitney Austin Gray, of the International WELL Building Institute, who gave guidance in a recent Urban Land Institute webinar. In buildings with HVAC systems, Gray advised increasing the rate of ventilation, as well as cleaning the components of the system, such as cooling towers, filters and vents, and adding HEPA-rated filters.
“You may need to think about recalibrating the system,” Gray said, adding that, “when you do install these higher filtration devices, that you’re not decreasing outdoor air ventilation,” as this can counteract mitigation strategies.
Consider the humidity levels, as well. Too low, and it could heighten risk.
“Keep humidity above 30 percent,” Gray recommended. “As it gets warmer, this will naturally happen in buildings—but at 10 percent-20 percent humidity, the mucous membranes dry out more, and that can increase susceptibility.”
In addition to addressing the HVAC, consider immediate interventions. Gray advised looking into standalone air purifiers, which are “an immediate option people can use directly.”
If possible, also consider separating stairwells into ascending and descending, Gray suggested, to cut down on interactions.
Cleanliness, however, is just one of several strategies. On the same webinar, Susan Bazak, of Bazak Consulting, emphasized the importance of a management plan, covering everything from evacuations to information-sharing to supplies.
“The commercial real estate industry has a critical role in mitigating the effects of this pandemic,” Bazak said. As an owner or stakeholder, ask yourself: Do you audit your cleaning program, and are your products safe? Do you have an inventory of surfaces? Are your staff trained and updated? Further, are you engaging residents? How are you communicating with them, and are you listening to their needs?
According to Bazak, in emergency situations, fear is natural, so dialogue is key. Avoid communicating conflicting or inaccurate information, and keep your leadership messages united.
“Make sure you anchor all public health messaging using credible sources, like the CDC, WHO, local public health authorities and trusted industry leaders,” Bazak said.
Delivery drop-offs, for example, have raised some unease. (According to a New York Times report, although packages present risks, the danger is low compared to other methods of transmission.) As a manager or owner, awareness of common concerns, like deliveries, helps you help and protect your residents.
Additionally, when communicating with residents, be cognizant and comply with fair housing regulations. The Community Associations Institute advises communicating your mitigation plans in writing, as well as consulting with a lawyer to address board meetings (challenging to hold virtually, because they often require voting). If authorities have banned gathering in groups, abide by that mandate, CAI urges. On the property, consider offering sanitizers or wipes, as well.
On the flip side, for apartment dwellers, distancing yourself is tricky, especially in laundry or mailrooms. If doable, go at off-peak times, advises Brian Carberry, managing editor of Apartment Guide.
“Many apartment communities are closing certain common areas like gyms, pools or clubhouses, but other areas like laundry rooms and mailrooms will likely still be open,” Carberry says. “If you visit these areas during off-peak hours, like early in the morning or late at night, you have less of a chance of running into a neighbor.”
In addition, if there are elevators (and you have to use them), be cautious.
“If you need to share a ride up or down, try to stay in your corner and face a different direction than your neighbor,” Carberry says. “Press buttons with a handkerchief, napkin or your elbow, and wash your hands immediately when you return to your apartment. This is also a great time to take the stairs instead of the elevator. It’s a good way to get in a quick workout. Just make sure you don’t touch the handrails.”
Another consideration is paying rent—a fear for many now, with job security uncertain. Just in New York City, close to 40 percent of renters are unable to afford an extra month of rent if their incomes or jobs were lost as a result of the virus, according to a PropertyNest survey.
For multifamily owners, the Federal Housing Finance Agency announced forbearance relief, on the condition that they cease evictions for those facing financial hardship as a result of the virus, for the duration of the forbearance period. This applies to borrowers with Fannie Mae- or Freddie Mac-backed loans, which FHFA estimates includes 27,000 properties.
According to Doug Bibby, president of the National Multifamily Housing Council, forbearance “is a necessary step,” and “most property owners are small businesses, and they are committed to working with public officials and residents to keep families safe during this national crisis.”
If they have not already done so, Bibby and NMHC encourage firms to implement their own relief strategies, including ceasing evictions for impacted renters for 90 days; creating flexible payment plans; and halting increases in rent, also for 90 days.
In a positive update, many have begun implementing measures to mitigate spread, as well as address concerns on the financial front.
“We are actively monitoring updates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and complying with state and local orders aimed at slowing the spread of the novel coronavirus by limiting physical contact,” says Eric Bolton, CEO and chairman of Mid-America Apartment Communities, a Memphis-based REIT with communities in the Southeast and Southwest. “Our regional and corporate associates are working remotely and our leasing offices, although closed to the public, are functioning virtually to both assist new customers and support our current residents.”
According to Bolton, “efforts are underway to provide flexibility on April payments with residents who are financially impacted by the pandemic.”
“We are in constant contact with the CDC and state and local health officials for the most up-to-date information on how we need to care and protect our senior residents and their caregivers,” says Luis Serrano, CEO of Sunshine Retirement Living, based in Bend, Ore., which is comprised of 32 communities in 16 states.
Among steps taken, Serrano points to “hiring and training more staff, especially among those who may have recently lost their jobs…” and a mandate that “all tours will be conducted digitally.”
Above all, whether an owner, resident or tenant, be calm, but communicative and vigilant, experts say. If you’re an owner, create safe spaces, and keep yourself and your residents updated. If you’re a resident or tenant and you fall ill, communicate with your landlord, and be mindful of their policies—they’re for your and the public’s well-being. As authorities have stated, in begins, ultimately, with you.
As the coronavirus and its impact on the industry unfold, RISMedia is providing resources and updates. Get the latest.
Suzanne De Vita is RISMedia’s senior online editor. Email her your real estate news ideas at firstname.lastname@example.org.