Staff members from the Housing Authority of the City of Austin and CommUnityCare, including ULI member Rodolfo Rodriguez at far right, near one of the city’s facilities.

COVID-19 has hit many communities hard, often in disproportionate ways. Individuals and families who live in public and affordable housing are generally more at risk for contracting and dying from this disease due to previously inequitable social determinants of health conditions; they are also being affected economically.

Often working low-wage jobs with little to no benefits or protections such as paid sick leave, these individuals are either faced with unemployment or with being forced to choose between their health and financial stability.

In one of ULI’s recent webinars on confronting the impact of COVID-19, Dr. Megan Sandel with the Boston Medical Center explained that adequate housing is critical to fostering social equity and promoting overall well-being. Safe, healthy, affordable, and well-located housing can be thought of as a vaccine, protecting residents from health issues that arise from poor housing quality and location—this is even more critical as people are spending more and more time in their homes.

Other social factors, including access to food and supportive services, also affect overall health. These factors have been exacerbated during this pandemic, as social isolation in an era of physical distancing and economic uncertainty abounds. This is felt strongly in already vulnerable communities.

In Austin and Atlanta, ULI members are fighting to protect the residents they serve and support from impacts of the pandemic. These actions can be adopted and adapted by anyone who builds, operates, and manages housing units in the United States and elsewhere.

As a response to meet the needs of high-risk residents who need access to COVID-19 tests but face transportation challenges, Rodriguez’s team partnered with a local health care provider to deliver door-to-door on-site testing at their largest senior public housing community.

New Programs to Fight COVID-19 in Austin

The Housing Authority of the City of Austin (HACA) in Austin, Texas, provides housing stability to nearly 20,000 residents who live in deep poverty through an array of housing programs like traditional public housing and housing choice vouchers. Through a collaboration with the University of Texas at Austin Dell Medical School, HACA launched a Community Health Needs Assessment at three of its 18 sites in late 2018, which revealed that 76 percent of residents self-reported one or more chronic health issues—this automatically puts them at higher risk of mortality or complications from COVID-19.

ULI member and Health Leader Rodolfo Rodriguez is the founding director of Health and Wellness Ecosystem at HACA, whose first-of-its-kind role was designed to improve the health and wellness outcomes of public housing residents at the individual, community, and systems levels. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Rodriguez secured a grant from the St. David’s Foundation, led the design of the Bringing Health Home Pilot Program, and intentionally recruited, trained, and hired HACA residents as state-certified community health workers (CHW). The team of resident CHWs conducts virtual outreach to their neighbors across HACA sites. Using guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, they assess their peers over the phone in their preferred language for COVID-19 symptoms, reinforce preventative measures, link them to medical care, refer them to testing sites, and connect them to other available resources.

Since the launch in early April, the team has assessed over 500 residents for COVID-19 symptoms, and recommended 13 residents for testing, of which nine cases came back positive. As a response to meet the needs of high-risk residents who need access to COVID-19 tests but face transportation challenges, Rodriguez’s team partnered with a local health care provider, CommUnityCare, to deliver door-to-door on-site testing at their largest senior public housing community; 85 elderly residents participated in the on-site testing and 90 percent of residents gave consent to share test results with HACA in an effort to help limit spread.

“We are trying to prevent COVID-19 deaths, contain the virus, and protect public housing residents by identifying households impacted by COVID-19 and support the full recovery of positive cases as they quarantine by meeting their basic needs through relief packages,” says Rodriguez. Those COVID-19 relief packages meet basic needs like groceries, disinfectant supplies, laundry service, medical supplies, and personal protective equipment. Rodriguez has been presenting on this replicable and scalable model with peer cities, such as Denver, that are interested in launching their own version quickly. Rodriguez and his team, including a public housing resident, also virtually presented at the 2020 “Housing Is” Summit encouraging other housing authorities across the United States to take similar steps to join the fight against COVID-19.

Supporting Homeowners in Atlanta

President and CEO of Atlanta Habitat for Humanity Lisa Y. Gordon. Gordon also serves on the advisory board for ULI’s Terwilliger Center for Housing and as district council chair for ULI Atlanta.

Atlanta Habitat for Humanity, which supports around 1,000 owners of single-family homes and manages the Atlanta Habitat ReStore, has quickly pivoted their approaches to support their residents and the Greater Atlanta community during the pandemic and beyond. President and CEO of Atlanta Habitat for Humanity Lisa Y. Gordon, who also serves on the advisory board for ULI’s Terwilliger Center for Housing and as district council chair for ULI Atlanta, described four values the organization has adopted as its operations change due to the pandemic: maintain the safety of employees and volunteers; adapt, evolve, and be flexible; minimize fiscal impact to operations; and look at ways to adapt its existing model. “Habitat’s model is to build with volunteers,” Gordon explains, “but if that is dangerous, how do we evolve? Currently we are building with small crews of two to three contractors, without our usual volunteers.”

With nearly 400 people on the waiting list for a Habitat house in the Atlanta area, the organization feels the urgency of getting back to building. “We normally build 50 homes a year,” Gordon says, “but we are thinking it will probably be 30 to 35 homes this year, depending on corporate sponsorship, grants, individual donations, and earned revenue.” Habitat is also looking to new technology to bring efficiencies into its homebuilding process to supplement the loss of volunteer labor, including using prefabricated walls.

Atlanta Habitat is helping its homeowners navigate the pandemic in other ways as well. Gordon notes that about 10 percent of its 1,000 mortgage holders have been affected in some way. They are helping directly with alleviating food insecurity, have implemented a series of classes with homeowners about crisis budgeting, have set up a mortgage relief fund and raised over $100,000 in three weeks, and have staff members proactively calling homeowners to check in with them. The organization is learning many lessons as a result of changes to how they operate and support residents.

“Atlanta Habitat has increased our communications with homeowners, providing timely and purposeful information focused on helping them through this crisis. We see our additional role as being a resource to our homeowners, but not inundating them with emails every day,” Gordon says. “We have been very intentional about when we send mail. Strategic communication is most effective right now; too many emails are becoming noise.”

Atlanta Habitat has also quickly been able to get its popular ReStore online—with a touchless payment system—to continue bringing in revenue to the organization in support of new home builds through the sale of home furnishings and appliances. “We had conversations about an online ReStore for several months. Then, we received an analysis for launching an online store shortly after the pandemic began. Sometimes things can be slow to change, but when an emergency comes up like a pandemic, all of a sudden we got it done,” Gordon says. “Within two weeks, our staff was working with a consultant, identified the right software and solutions, and had the online store implemented.”

The ability of both HACA and Atlanta Habitat for Humanity to be creative and nimble, while always thinking first about the needs and safety of their residents, is resulting in new strategies and protocols that will support their residents now and into the future.

If you are a ULI member interested in sharing how your community is helping those struggling with the impacts of COVID-19, please email us at health@uli.org.