Editorial: Let's Protect Elderly & Disabled Tenants from COVID-19

Storm clouds loom over apartment building

Has public and subsidized housing been spared by the epidemic?

COVID thrives and people die when we pretend it does not exist and when we don’t even look for it.

The conditions in public and subsidized housing share many of the factors that have already led to tragedy in the Holyoke Veterans Home, nursing homes, and assisted living facilities. Affordable and market rate housing also present risk for staff and tenants.

COVID does impact staff and tenants in multifamily housing. Media and word-of-mouth reports confirm that public and subsidized housing is not immune to COVID. In Essex County, there are unofficial reports of current cases of COVID-related deaths and illness in public and subsidized housing.

This as just the beginning of what can swiftly become a statewide disaster unless there is rapid and immediate implementation of protocols based on best practices and enforcement of public health rulings.

We can prevent such a disaster if we enlist everyone in the housing policy community and the public to support a realistic and effective policy based on implementing good public health methods. Unfortunately, many of the leadership in the elected and advocacy world have given in to the demands of the housing providers. Although these leaders are good and well-meaning public servants, they have gone astray. So the challenge is serious. But if it were easy, it would already have been done. Let’s get to work, together!

Surveillance is essential

The lack of timely, site-specific information coupled with resistance and barriers to gathering and distributing this information, demonstrates a callous disregard for the health and well-being of staff and tenants alike in subsidized housing for elderly and disabled, as well as market rate and affordable housing.

We need reliable information based on testing and collection of data on COVID-related illness and death. Surveillance is a keystone of public health.

...Successful prevention and control of infectious diseases is built on a foundation of disease surveillance. Surveillance shows what diseases are happening, where they are taking place, and who is getting them. Surveillance data can also show how effective our efforts are in controlling disease. — http://blog.mass.gov/publichealth/health-of-massachusetts/on-the-trail-of-infectious-disease/

A recently passed law Acts (2020) Chapter 93, https://malegislature.gov/Laws/SessionLaws/Acts/2020/Chapter93 was designed to collect and make available data on infections and deaths due to COVID in elder facilities, including public and subsidized housing for elderly and disabled, as well as covering nursing homes, assisted living, rest homes, market rate, and affordable housing.

Protection is being denied

Instead of fixing defects of that law as it applies to public, subsidized, market rate, and affordable housing, the Governor, many advocacy groups, and the legislature are working to cancel the provisions that are the only state effort to protect elderly and disabled tenants through effective public health methods.

Surveillance information, however imperfect it may be, is available if we look for it. It may already exist, but no one can access it. If we but collect, analyze, and distribute surveillance information in a timely way, landlords, staff, and tenants can mobilize to protect their community. Public health officials can crack down on landlords and tenants who fail to follow the protocols for protection. We should eliminate the legal and other barriers to use every possible method to carry out ongoing surveillance.

Although several advocacy groups that profess to speak on behalf of tenants have expressed concern about COVID, they have objected to including public and subsidized housing under the requirements of Acts (2020) Chapter 93. This effort may serve to protect landlords from this obligation to protect their tenants. But without surveillance data, we are exposing staff and tenants to illness and death.

In Massachusetts, groups that advocate for tenants and housing managers are seeking funds to prevent infections. They express “grave concerns about the potential for deadly COVID-19 outbreaks in public housing communities across the commonwealth.” — https://www.wbur.org/news/2020/05/06/advocates-fear-potential-covid-19-outbreaks-in-public-housing

The Governor has asked the legislature to eliminate the requirement for reports about public and subsidized facilities. Meanwhile, and in defiance of the law, landlords, the Governor, and the Department of Public Health have failed to implement the collection and distribution of COVID data for public and subsidized housing.

At this time, a revised bill to remove the reporting obligation of providers of public and subsidized housing is before the Senate Committee on Ways and Means. We do not support eliminating this obligation, which however imperfect, might provide at least partial information that could then be shared with tenants. And to date, the legislature has not acted to provide alternative ways to do the essential surveillance.

The justifications for denial are weak

Rachel Heller, Chief Executive Officer of the Citizens’ Housing and Planning Association (CHAPA), represents a wide range of housing partners, and CHAPA is an influential and authoritative voice on Beacon Hill. Addressing the Joint Committee on Public Health, Heller asserted that tenants may be distressed to learn of COVID in their residential setting, especially since there is no support provided.

Local boards of health and DPH already have access to the information that the law requires housing providers to report. This includes the names, numbers, and location of COVID-19 cases and deaths. However, DPH and the local boards of health cannot share this information with housing providers.
Housing providers for seniors and persons with disabilities asked local boards of health and DPH to share information about cases to allow the providers to better respond to the needs of residents and to participate in contact tracing. To date, that information is still not able to be shared to housing providers. — Heller, CHAPA Testimony Supporting S.2753, An Act to Ensure the Collection of COVID-19 Data

The new bill (An Act to ensure the collection of COVID-19 data https://malegislature.gov/Bills/191/S2840) is actually an effort to prevent the collection of information.

Once again, the interests of landlords have won over the needs of tenants. Information and support are essential to enable a community to survive the threat of this epidemic. Tenants do demonstrate they can be resourceful agents to protect their neighbors. And the Commonwealth should be providing resources and support to tenants and staff to help them navigate the social and emotional issues as well as infection control.

We need to examine and reject the weak excuses

Heller asserts that fulfilling the duties of the landlord to report would diminish their ability to actually protect residents. Alas, the fact is that many landlords, while claiming they act to protect tenants, fail to do what they have promised to do. And every housing provider, even if they claim they are not expected to provide services, has an obligation in laws and the lease to assure the safety of all tenants, including for peaceful enjoyment. Landlords recognize this in many ways, for example, by forbidding access to common area as a means of protecting tenants from infection. Even in a time when most evictions are prohibited, surely a tenant who ignores the obligation to wear a mask and maintain social distance, and who thus poses a potential threat to the safety and life of others, can be sanctioned and possibly evicted. Some landlords are diligent in protecting their staff and tenants.

Let us now create greater safety for elderly and disabled tenants

We have proposed that the legislature should enable the Department of Public Health to collect information from a variety of other sources, thus relieving landlords while providing the surveillance information. And the data should then be made available in a timely fashion by public health departments to landlords, staff, and to all tenants to guide remedial and preventive actions.

We urge all—tenants, staff, and landlords as well as our colleagues and coalition partners—to join in our effort to work with the legislature to immediately fill the gaps in the collection and sharing of information.

We who live in all multifamily settings for elderly and disabled people deserve the protection that comes with information, support, and guidance to deal with the threat of COVID. We seek significant oversight over the social and health conditions in housing, not only in public and subsidized, but in private community settings.

We must protect staff and tenants in public and subsidized housing with surveillance and followup interventions, including oversight and accountability for landlords and tenants alike.

Jerry Halberstadt