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President’s Forum: Four Years Since the Onset of COVID-19

Operating in the “New Normal”

PHADA President Mark Gillett.

We will soon mark the fourth anniversary of when the world effectively shut down because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Since those dark days, the situation has vastly improved. Still, the pandemic has created a “new normal,” changing the way we live, work, and interact with one another.

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that almost seven million people worldwide have died from the disease. In the United States, 1.2 million people lost their lives. Many of us have felt the impact personally, losing family members, co-workers, and friends over the last 4 years.


March 2020

In March 2020, schools, businesses, and government offices around the country closed, with many shifting to an online virtual mode. Many of us could not close our doors and maintain operations, delivering services to needy low-income seniors and families. The massive federal aid was invaluable in this effort.

President Biden lifted the federal emergency last spring. On a more recent and positive note, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is now loosening its covid isolation recommendations. Since most Americans have now developed a level of immunity because of prior infection or vaccination, the CDC is treating the virus more like the flu. Under the new recommendations, people will no longer need to voluntarily stay home if they have been fever-free for at least 24 hours and their symptoms are improving.


Inflation, Declining Revenue, and Other Factors Still Affect HAs

Notwithstanding the improved environment, things are quite different now in many communities. Escalating Tenant Accounts Receivable (TARs) have had a significant financial effect that has raised concerns about the fiscal solvency of some HAs. This is one of the main reasons PHADA strongly objects to HUD’s misguided rule on the 30-day notice for non-payment of rent. The rule will make the financial situation even worse for some agencies.

Inflation that drove up our operating, insurance, and other costs has cooled in recent months, but it still poses challenges. In addition, finding and retaining quality staff remains a problem in the post-pandemic era for many employers including housing agencies.

The way we interact with state, local, and federal government partners has changed too. Most HUD staff are no longer working in their offices on a regular basis. We now tend to meet with HUD remotely as opposed to in-person. While this approach has some benefits, many believe it is inefficient and has been detrimental to the working relationships between some field office staff and HAs. The bottom line is our operations have been impacted in a major way over the last 4 years.


Economic Impacts of Remote Work

Remote work has also had a significant impact on some communities that have seen an economic downturn in their business districts. Moody’s Analytics recently noted the national office vacancy rate rose to a record-breaking 19.6 percent in the fourth quarter of 2023. If low occupancy in office buildings persists and owners are unable to generate enough rental income, more owners will be in danger of defaulting on their loans. Widespread loan defaults in the commercial real estate sector could have a cascading effect on the broader banking system.

This dynamic not only affects local banks, but also other service-oriented businesses (restaurants, drug stores, dry cleaners, etc.) and the tax revenues local governments collect. Further compounding problems, some cities such as Washington, Boston, and New York have seen public transit systems lose large numbers of commuters and revenue because more people are teleworking.

There are other effects that are difficult to quantify. We often hear colleagues recount how their residents and workers suffer from post-covid depression, probably stemming from time in isolation. Recent surveys show that Americans have never been more anxious about their own lives or more depressed. Teenage depression and hopelessness are at record highs. Not coincidentally, crime rates have risen significantly in some areas.

On a brighter note, office building vacancies provide an opportunity to address housing needs in some areas of the country. More owners and cities are looking at the viability of converting office buildings to housing. It is too early to tell whether this approach may bear fruit, but it is certainly worth exploration considering the vast need.



There is no disputing that our world changed dramatically 4 years ago. As we mark this latest anniversary, it is important to remember those we have lost. At the same time, it is also important for the federal government to acknowledge that the challenges mentioned above are still real for many HAs. Accordingly, PHADA will continue to press the Department and Congress to afford agencies more local discretion as we attempt to navigate our way through the “new normal.”

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