On Friday, April 23, HUD Secretary Marcia Fudge sent a letter to public housing authority Executive Directors (EDs) and Multifamily housing owners and property managers announcing that REAC will conduct “increased inspections” of its portfolio beginning June 1. In the letter, Secretary Fudge writes that the Department’s priorities are for the health and well-being of residents, and that “REAC will conduct inspections using protocols informed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) guidance that will help ensure safety and minimize the risk of COVID-19 transmission among residents, inspectors, and property staff alike.” The Department uses the term “increase” to reflect that since REAC inspections were largely paused in early 2020, the Department has reserved the right to conduct inspections when critical issues are brought to staff’s attention, and indeed, some inspections have been carried out.
Additional information has been provided in an email from Public and Indian Housing’s General Deputy Assistant Secretary (GDAS) Dominique Blom. That email focuses exclusively on public housing properties. At the time this article was written, the Office of Housing had not yet released guidance for the Multifamily program. In her email, GDAS Blom echoes Secretary Fudge’s message that the health and safety of all stakeholders – residents, inspectors, and property representatives – is critical and broadly outlines the Department’s plans. REAC Deputy Assistant Secretary Ashley Sheriff sent a memo to public housing and Multifamily program owners and managers on April 28 with additional details and REAC issued Inspector Notice 2021-01 amending prior guidance. Additionally, an FAQ has been posted to the REAC website. DAS Sheriff’s memo identifies which properties will be inspected this calendar year
PHADA’s Advocacy Generates Results
REAC first announced its “Return to Operations” (RTO) plan in August 2020. That plan defined the parameters for resuming inspections with a primary focus on health and safety; the REAC “heat map” was developed to designate which states and counties were deemed safe enough to conduct inspections. Coronavirus transmission rates never reached levels that enabled widespread inspections to commence, thus, HUD has developed a new plan that places less emphasis on coronavirus transmission and gives more deference to guidelines on the use of mitigation tools such as testing and the use of personal protective equipment (PPE) and relies on the fact that vaccinations are now widely available.
At the time that the 2020 RTO plan was announced, PHADA members were deeply concerned that resuming REAC inspections would counter efforts to prevent, prepare for, and respond to coronavirus. PHADA wrote a letter to then-Deputy Assistant Secretary for REAC David Vargas detailing the overwhelming responses from members on several fronts: residents were wary about inspectors entering units and buildings, HAs were keeping their focus on maintaining safe environments for residents and staff and had not yet resumed normal maintenance operations, and the then-current guidance about the resumption of PHAS scoring in 2021 was unreasonable. PHADA is pleased that this feedback was largely received by the Department: residents will have the ability to opt-out of unit inspections, and PHAS scores will only be advisory until April 2022. Additionally, in recognition that routine maintenance operations have not fully resumed, public housing inspections this year will focus on using the NSPIRE standards to identify life-threatening deficiencies that must be remedied within twenty-four hours. Importantly, HAs will receive twenty-eight days of advance notice prior to their scheduled inspection date. This time period was not in REAC’s 2020 RTO plan and is a welcome, common-sense adjustment given the conditions under which public housing properties have operated for the last 13-plus months. The focus on life-threatening deficiencies is reasonable as HAs have been conducting emergency maintenance throughout the pandemic in accordance with the requirement to provide safe housing.
NSPIRE Standards Seem Daunting but are Manageable
The list of life-threatening deficiencies under NSPIRE has increased by more than forty compared to the list under UPCS. This is in large part due to the much narrower definitions under NSPIRE. For example, under UPCS, a smoke detector had one observable deficiency: “missing/inoperable,” whereas under NSPIRE there are separate deficiencies for each of those conditions. There are relatively few NSPIRE life-threatening deficiencies that are not also life-threatening under UPCS. In fact, the almost 60 new individual life-threatening deficiencies can be collapsed into 13 item categories, and most of the deficiencies are listed under more than one observable area. As an example, in the “Unit” inspectable area there are four life-threatening deficiencies associated with sprinkler assemblies (obstructed, painted, head missing, and cover plate missing) which are repeated in both the “Inside” and “Outside” inspectable areas. The result is that what was one non-life-threatening deficiency in one inspectable area under UPCS is now 12 life-threatening deficiencies among three inspectable areas. Clothes Dryer Exhaust Ventilation also accounts for 12 life-threatening deficiencies under NSPIRE. Other newly designated life-threatening deficiencies include:
- Call-for-Aid System, System does not function properly.
- Carbon Monoxide Alarm, Carbon monoxide detector is missing, not installed, or not installed in a proper location.
- Exit Sign, Exit sign that clearly identifies the emergency exit is missing or obstructed.
- Heating, Ventilation, and Air Conditioning (HVAC), Outside temperature is below 68 degrees Fahrenheit and the resident is unable to maintain a minimum temperature of 68 degrees Fahrenheit through a safe heating source.
- Toilet, Only 1 toilet was installed, and it is damaged or inoperable.
The full list of NSPIRE life-threatening deficiencies is available at: https://bit.ly/3aPxRqA. The challenge of using the NSPIRE standards seems to fall more heavily on inspectors. Given that contract inspectors have not been trained to conduct inspections under NSPIRE, REAC is expected to use its in-house inspectors, a move that foretells the steep learning curve that contract inspectors will face.
PHADA urges the Department to remain cautious, transparent, and communicative as it executes its plan. While months have passed since REAC last attempted to increase inspections and much of the nation is dealing with “pandemic fatigue” and desperately wishes to move past the days of coronavirus, the national 7-day average of new coronavirus cases was higher at the writing of this article than it was when REAC announced its RTO in August of 2020. Just like then, new infections are currently trending downward but the future is unknown. It would behoove the Department to consider PHADA’s recommendation to adopt remote video inspections for REAC inspections, an idea which was put forward in a September 2020 Advocate article. At the time we wrote, “Implementing remote inspections for public housing would have required the UPCS protocol to be pared back to focus specifically on critical health and safety items relevant to each property based on data from previous inspections and other information.” That advice is not only still suitable, but even more applicable as REAC is already adopting a strategy to limit the inspection and will consider risk factors to prioritize properties.
Complimentary NSPIRE Session for ALL PHADA Members
PHADA encourages HAs to attend the May 18 session, “The New NSPIRE Rule and Implementation Plans,” during the upcoming Virtual 2021 Annual Convention & Exhibition. The session will feature Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary of REAC Ashley Sheriff, to whom attendees will be able to pose questions directly. All conference programming is free for executive directors, staff, and Commissioners from PHADA member agencies. Register today.