As COVID-19 has spread across the county, public housing authorities (PHAs) have had to make rapid adjustments to their operations to continue serving their residents, many of whom are disproportionately older, disabled, and people of color, leaving them most at risk of serious health complications from the coronavirus. In our conversations with PHA directors across the country, many described the creative ways they are adapting to meet resident needs while working remotely.
Most directors also spoke to the reality that, barring increased federal assistance, they face long-term funding shortfalls. Many PHAs need additional assistance soon, or they will be forced to cut back on services. To ensure PHAs can continue meeting the needs of their residents and providing long-term financial stability, federal policymakers should consider allocating additional funding as quickly as possible.
How PHAs have responded to the COVID-19 pandemic
PHA staff described how they have adapted their operations to prioritize residents’ health, food and financial security, and social integration. Within their communities, PHAs are taking preventative measures, such as closing gyms and other common spaces, to help encourage social distancing and prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
But social distancing measures can lead to isolation, which presents its own dangers for residents. Richard Monocchio, executive director of the Housing Authority of Cook County, told us that in each senior building, at least one staff person both lives and works in the building. He has daily calls with those staff members (usually maintenance staff) to get updates on how everyone in the building is doing and who might benefit from a wellness check.
George Guy, the Executive Director of Fort Wayne Housing Authority in Indiana, said his agency initially prioritized reopening its voucher waiting list because Fort Wayne–area families have seen their incomes declining, and a lack of stable housing compounds risks associated with the coronavirus. Other housing authorities we spoke with reported adjusting rent without residents coming to the office (which used to be a requirement), ending or severely limiting evictions, and increasing payments to private landlords.
For PHAs, adapting often means relying on community partnerships, in addition to ensuring resident’s health and well-being. Many PHAs reported scaling up food delivery, either in house or by relying on community partnerships, to help residents who have been laid off or who are sheltering in place.
The Chicago Housing Authority relied on its nonprofit arm, Springboard to Success to raise money for college students, many of whom have had their studies interrupted by the pandemic. The money raised enabled CHA to purchase Chromebooks for a small group of students who most needed this support, which helped them secure access to technology to continue attending classes remotely. The structure of these partnerships vary, but they all require intensive investments of staff time, coordinating resources, and direct support from the PHAs.
How policymakers help PHAs best serve their residents
With all these new and changed services, PHAs urgently need additional resources. Many reported dipping into reserves to provide the best possible response.
Prior to CARES Act funding, CHA reprioritized existing resources. But every additional dollar allows us to broaden our thinking to the meet the needs of our residents during this crisis.
— CHA’s newly appointed CEO, Tracey Scott
PHA staff said they hope policymakers will replenish the resources they are spending so they can keep serving residents. It’s clear PHAs cannot sustain these enhanced services and accommodations on their own. Soon, PHAs will need additional resources and regulatory flexibility to cover costs.
The Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions (HEROES) Act, passed by the House of Representatives in mid-May, includes funding that could help PHAs, such as $4 billion to support tenant-based rental assistance vouchers. This money could restore depleted voucher funding administered by PHAs and help protect the millions of low-income individuals and families who use rental vouchers. The bill also provides an additional $2 billion in public housing operating funds to support property owned directly by PHAs. The Senate has not taken up the bill.
PHAs will need guidance from the US Department of Housing and Urban Development and researchers about how to implement their waivers, as well how best to leverage any new funding to preserve housing and protect the residents. These interviews with PHA staff and previous evidence show why PHAs urgently need their budgets replenished to continue their current levels of assistance to those in need and to meet the increasing demand for subsidized housing caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.