Photo credit, iStock

With the coronavirus pandemic projected to potentially get worse before it gets better, multifamily property managers and owners are responding to the virus. They are paying special attention to the disinfection of buildings, closing fitness centers and other common amenity spaces, and encouraging residents to help keep themselves and neighbors healthy by adhering to social distancing guidelines.

“All rental housing providers should take a proactive approach and have a plan in place,” urges Amy Groff, senior vice president of industry operations for the National Apartment Association.

But when a resident is under quarantine — because of COVID-19 exposure, infection or suspected infection — additional considerations come into play. Here are five questions to ask if you have a quarantined resident at your property, and some strategies for how to handle the situation effectively.

1. How will management, and residents, know someone is quarantined?

“We are asking tenants to report to us if they were diagnosed,” says Michael Khesin, CEO of Intempus Realty, which manages close to 2,500 units in the San Francisco Bay area and in Indianapolis. “We have to put a notice out to make sure people are aware.” Reports of suspected or confirmed infections will also reach property managers via medical personnel.

However, privacy law compliance must be top-of-mind when spreading the word. “The information provided should not identify the name or location of the resident,” says Groff. Yet, she adds, “identifying information may be shared with key employees on an as-needed basis” — as long as those employees maintain confidentiality.

2. How can maintenance needs be minimized and addressed?

The goal, Groff explains, is taking “actions that limit direct staff-resident interaction while still ensuring resident and staffing needs are met.”

The National Multifamily Housing Council, known as the NMHC, recommends suspending routine maintenance, repairs, and inspections when a resident is under quarantine. Local public health agencies would provide guidance on whether additional cleaning of common areas or the apartment may be recommended or required.

Bozzuto Management Company encourages residents to submit online requests for maintenance, and only essential service problems such as HVAC outages, water issues, and electric and life-safety issues are currently warranting a response, says Stephanie Williams, president of the firm’s management company, which manages 77,000 apartments along the East Coast and in Chicago, Boston, Miami, and the Northeast.

Khesin’s property managers are mainly attending to real emergencies, too. “Smaller fixes, like adjusting doors, can be handled later. We’re only limiting [maintenance] to real habitability issues,” he says.

Communication to Intempus residents also involves preventing emergencies. For example, flushed tissues cause drain system blockages; tissues in garbage cans do not. “We’ve seen a great problem with this lately,” Khesin says.

Both maintenance staff and outside providers who enter a unit with a quarantined resident (or any unit) should follow CDC guidelines for social distancing and sanitization procedures, as well as Occupational Safety and Health Administration regulations, Groff advises.

3. Should property managers and owners offer quarantined residents additional services?

Finding ways to provide empathy and support to quarantined residents, while restricting close contact, can go a long way during this challenging time, notes NMHC guidance. This could mean offering trash removal, grocery delivery (left outside the apartment), laundry, or even dog-walking services.

Such supportive measures are voluntary, says Groff.

Intempus has offered tenants help with getting food delivered. “We are somewhat limited on resources to be able to sustain the demand, but we have been doing some of that for tenants who are at higher risk,” says Khesin, even if they are not technically under quarantine.

Property managers can also be flexible about scheduled move-outs and move-ins for residents under quarantine or those with coronavirus concerns, Khesin says.

4. What role could vacant units play in helping to avoid additional infections?

Family members needing to distance themselves from someone who is ill may benefit from a vacant apartment down the hall, though granting use of it would be up to the property owner, says Khesin. “We haven’t gotten such requests, but I think it’s a very good idea.” He could envision the government stepping in to help subsidize such an arrangement, which would eliminate the ability to show the empty unit.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development advises verifying the need for a vacant unit occupancy request with written communication from a medical health professional or the local health department.

Local counsel can “ensure a lease contract is in place to govern the temporary stay,” Groff says. Upon move-out, she reminds, that unit would need proper disinfection.

5. Who can provide guidance about obligations and potential lease modifications?

Since the coronavirus pandemic is fluid, property managers should seek ongoing guidance from the CDC, health experts, government officials, legal counsel, and the multifamily industry associations. Bozzuto’s Williams says an executive task force with leaders from across the company has met daily since early March “to review updates to policy, local laws, and information from local and national health experts.”

“The COVID-19 environment is rapidly changing and uniquely challenging for rental housing providers and residents alike,” Groff says. “This is unprecedented and legal issues may arise.”

Some property managers and owners are putting mid-transaction addendums on leases. Although legislation could void any signed lease, says Khesin, it’s important to consider getting tenant protections in place such as being able to postpone or cancel while a city is under a shelter-in-place or stay home order.

“A lot of this is unchartered territory, for sure,” he says. “We kind of have to guess what some of these new laws will be and some of the consequences of these new laws, and create our own guidelines. It’s not fully spelled out. It has a domino effect and it’s across the board.”

Author Credit: Melissa Ezarik, Loopnet