Housing Authority of the City of Austin Shares Its COVID-19 Processes
This article is part of an occasional series of interviews with NAHRO member agencies who volunteered to share their COVID-19 processes. If you are interested in being interviewed for one of these articles, please contact email@example.com.
Lisa Garcia, Vice President of Assisted Housing at the Housing Authority of the City of Austin (HACA), shared with NAHRO how her agency is dealing with the COVID-19 crisis. HACA employs 243 people serving roughly 5,500 families through the housing choice voucher program and provides homes to 1,817 residents in Project-based Rental Assistance (PBRA) units converted under the Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD) program.
One of HACA’s biggest challenges before the COVID-19 pandemic, Garcia noted, was navigating Austin’s increasingly popular housing market, which has pushed up rental costs in the city and deterred potential HCV landlords from accepting vouchers. The economic fallout from COVID-19 has increased HACA’s need for rental assistance, emergency housing/services, and homelessness prevention funding.
The agency has used its CARES Act funding mostly for existing administrative expenses and technology enhancements. NAHRO’s Operations Survey found that its member organizations averaged a 90.51% rent collection rate in May 2020, and Garcia said HACA will require additional Housing Assistance Payment (HAP) funding if employment rates remain depressed in the coming months. Garcia added that the City of Austin’s Neighborhood Housing and Community Development department partnered with HACA to provide $1.2 million, through its housing trust fund, to provide one-time rental assistance for 1,680 families for May or June rent. Over 10,000 families applied, suggesting a much greater need than current funding can meet.
After the COVID-19 crisis struck, HACA was able to move its 243 employees to a virtual workplace with virtual private network (VPN) access within two weeks, thanks in part to a pre-existing effort to make its voucher program paperless. Although the City of Austin is beginning to reopen, Garcia said HACA is taking a cautious approach to protect both residents and employees. The agency has suspended in-person meetings with residents in favor of online orientations. HACA is reviewing and plans to implement recommended COVID-19 return to work strategies to ensure a safe work environment for its employees when they return to work. HACA’s Community Development Department is also looking at ways to connect residents virtually and has publicized on its website a call center using a software suite called Grasshopper to provide customer service and emotional support.
HACA’s property management offices remain closed to in person contact. Property management staff work from home, with one staff member coming to the office each day to pick up mail and address issues. Staff perform lease enforcement and respond to resident concerns via phone, email or written communication. Social distancing techniques and virtual videos show vacant units to prospective residents. Maintenance staff are required to wear protective gear and to prioritize emergency services over routine maintenance. Garcia said HACA implemented virtual inspections methods, but also conducts in-person inspections using protective gear if the unit is vacant.
HACA has adopted numerous HUD-issued waivers to relax income reporting and unit inspection requirements. Garcia has suggested making permanent waivers allowing more time for interim inspections; permanently waive the community services (CSSR) requirement, and allow for income hierarchy flexibilities and to extend waivers allowing delayed 5-year and Annual plans and extend HQS inspection waivers through the end of 2020.
Garcia said COVID-19 has forced PHAs to become more nimble and efficient, and hopes to continue learning from other PHAs about the most innovative ways to serve HACA’s residents while protecting public health.