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President’s Forum: The Two-Year Anniversary of the Pandemic

Situation is Much Improved in a World Changed Forever

PHADA President David A. Northern, Sr.

It is now two years since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Sadly, we will soon surpass one million American deaths with about six million persons worldwide perishing from the virus. Obviously, with effective vaccines and better treatments, things today are much better than the darkest days of 2020. Still, the pandemic is the greatest public health crisis the world has faced in the last century. Its impact will be felt for decades to come.

The novel coronavirus was discovered in China in late 2019 and first widely affected Americans in mid-March 2020 when U.S. schools started shutting their doors and the National Basketball Association suspended its season. HAs in the most impacted areas closed offices and some housing professionals and many other government offices and businesses have worked remotely since. Over the past two years, many of us contracted COVID-19 and witnessed the illnesses and deaths of relatives, friends, co-workers, and neighbors.

 

Need for More Resources and Flexibility

 

From the outset, PHADA worked to secure additional financial resources and flexibility for HAs to address the crisis. Some funds are still available including billions of dollars in emergency rental assistance money that went to state and local governments (see the new Advocate for more on this topic), and emergency housing vouchers that many HAs have put to good use.

I am not sure we really understood and appreciated in March 2020 that some of the waivers and new policies would still need to be in effect two years later. PHADA continues to maintain that because we are still feeling the pandemic’s repercussions – agency revenue losses, resident illnesses, staff shortages, supply chain issues, inflation – it is essential that HAs be relieved of HUD’s normal regulatory structures.

To some degree, the Department has been responsive to our concerns, recently announcing that it would give HAs until April 1 to extend some waivers that were first made available in 2020. Frankly, HUD should do more.

Many HAs have absorbed a significant financial hit because of the eviction moratorium and the fact that many residents could not (or would not) pay their rent over the last 24 months. This has affected many HAs’ overall income, their tenant account receivables and had other negative consequences. This is why we were disappointed that HUD recently announced it would start scoring most HAs under the Department’s assessment programs as if things are now “normal.”

 

Professional and Workplace Changes

We have seen major changes in the workplace during the last two years. Most federal agency workers, including HUD’s staff all over the country, are continuing to telework. Similarly, some HAs, private businesses, state and local government agencies and others are teleworking or operating under new hybrid work policies.

These changes hold many implications for communities throughout the United States. What will happen to core downtown areas, for example, if workers never return, or only commute to work just a few days per week? How will local businesses, restaurants and hotels survive if people commute and travel less? Can some vacant or underused office complexes be transitioned to affordable housing? The answers will impact our employees, residents, and entire communities.

When I speak with colleagues, they often recount the difficulties around retaining and recruiting staff because of the “great resignation” that has occurred during the pandemic. Our industry was already undergoing rapid turnover in the leadership at individual HAs and the pandemic has hastened the pace. This creates voids at agencies and in the leadership of national organizations such as PHADA that need to be addressed.

There is a cliche that “necessity is the mother of invention” and we all have had to become accustomed to new ways of doing business through Zoom, MS Teams, and other virtual platforms. Like so many other organizations and businesses, PHADA had to postpone our in-person meetings in 2020-21, which forced us to explore new ways of providing information to members. In some cases, the pandemic has expanded outreach to members. For example, we will be presenting another virtual Washington Update for members via Zoom on March 16.

 

What Will be the New Normal?

Many of us have appreciated the opportunity in recent months to get back to in-person meetings. PHADA has been an industry leader in this regard, conducting successful conferences last September and this past January in San Diego. Things are much better now compared to even just a few weeks ago when omicron was raging in the dead of winter.

The pandemic will have long term financial, societal, and educational impacts on our communities, and we will all need to address many new challenges stemming from it. It is still unclear what the “new normal” may look like when the public health threat recedes. Nevertheless, I am confident that I will be able to write about more good progress on the third anniversary this time next year. In the meantime, I hope all members remain safe and healthy.