Vulnerable communities: How Pittsburgh-area low-income housing providers are responding to COVID-19

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A 2017 photo of the Bedford Hill Apartments in Pittsburgh’s Hill District. Bedford Hill is owned and managed by the Housing Authority of the City of Pittsburgh. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

A 2017 photo of the Bedford Hill Apartments in Pittsburgh’s Hill District. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

Update (3/24/20): The Housing Authority of the City of Pittsburgh will hold its monthly board meeting at 10:30 a.m. Thursday, March 26, remotely. Members of the public can join and listen to the meeting by calling 646-558-8656 and entering 669381214 followed by a #, and can submit comments in advance here.

Update (3/20/20): The Housing Authority of the City of Pittsburgh on Thursday evening closed its offices and scaled back its operations to comply with guidance on the novel coronavirus crisis coming from health and public safety officials. Authority employees will continue to "provide remote services" by phone and email, according to a press release.

Most social services provided by the authority or by organizations on its behalf are on hold, as are tenant meetings. Common areas in its communities are closed.

The authority board's March 26 meeting will be held remotely and will be streamed online. Instructions on viewing the meeting are to be posted Monday on the authority's website, according to the release.

The Allegheny County Housing Authority has similarly indicated, on its website, that its offices and community rooms are closed, and it is "restricting" gatherings in its residential building lobbies. Authority staff are still answering phones, emails, faxes and mail, and on any given day 30 to 40 employees are cleaning and sanitizing. The county authority’s board has canceled its March 20 meeting.

The COVID-19 coronavirus is believed to be especially dangerous to the elderly and people with chronic health conditions, and that has public housing providers worried. Resident leaders are concerned, too, about the effect of the shutdown and resulting anxiety on their communities.

"Northview's been in extreme poverty for a long time," Marcus Reed, president of the tenant council in Northview Heights, said Monday. The complex is the city’s largest public housing community, and he noted that a big part of the population consists of refugees. "[T]he virus does place stress on the community because we're already short on the things we need. This makes it even shorter."

Public housing communities include concentrations of some of the poorest households in the region, and many residents are also elderly, have disabilities or both. The Allegheny County Housing Authority, for instance, reports that, as of March 16, it houses 4,935 residents, among whom 1,420 are elderly and 1,402 are characterized as having disabilities (including 676 people who are both elderly and have disabilities). Its 12,280 voucher recipients, who live in properties owned by private landlords, include 1,137 seniors and 3,192 people characterized as having disabilities (and 814 people who are both elderly and have disabilities).

The county authority on its website promises “to work with our residents who may have their working hours reduced due to the COVID-19 crisis.”

That pledge is consistent with guidance from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development [HUD] that authorities continue their usual practice of adjusting rents to accommodate changes in income.

The guidance also indicates that HUD “at this time” isn’t increasing rent subsidies, paying for COVID-19 testing for housing authority residents or employees or covering expenses related to the creation of emergency plans. HUD's guidance says emergency plans can cover short- and long-term quarantines, use of protective equipment, connecting residents to grocery delivery services and other measures.

All of the area housing agencies reached for this story said they’re upgrading cleaning and disinfecting activities. None are locking down buildings, as some nursing homes are. “There are always home-care aides and social workers who come to the buildings for the benefit of the resident,” explained Frank Aggazio, executive director of the Allegheny County Housing Authority, and there would be consequences to shutting off those services.

They are taking other steps to keep the coronavirus at bay while meeting residents’ needs. Here’s what we know about measures other local low-income housing providers are taking to reduce the risk from COVID-19. We’ll update this as information comes in.

  • The Housing Authority of the City of Pittsburgh is restricting access to community rooms. The authority is also working with the Pittsburgh Public Schools to provide food in Northview Heights, Allegheny Dwellings and Glen Hazel, and is continuing to work with 412 Food Rescue to ensure ongoing deliveries to all of its communities, according to Michelle Sandidge, its chief community affairs officer. The authority has also suspended evictions, except for those with “serious public safety implications.” (The authority's communities house, as of mid-March, 5,801 people, including 2,929 who are elderly, disabled or both. The authority provides housing vouchers for another 13,066 people, including 3,401 who are elderly, disabled or both.)
  • The Allegheny County Housing Authority has placed posters describing preventive steps throughout common areas of senior housing buildings, Aggazio wrote in an email. "There will be no evictions for rent related issues for at least the next 30 days," he added. "I do not see a scenario in which someone will be displaced."
  • The McKeesport Housing Authority has taken steps to minimize contact, including asking residents to conduct all business with the administration by phone and limiting maintenance visits to emergencies, said its Executive Director Steve Bucklew. He said he’s most concerned about the authority’s three elderly high-rises, with a total of 352 units. So far, he hasn’t ordered the closure of common areas, but he has instructed staff to focus on cleaning and on preparing vacant units in case they’re needed.
  • ACTION-Housing, with around 1,600 housing units, indicates on its website that it has canceled all community events, closed all community rooms and eliminated all meetings that aren’t emergencies. While deliveries, service providers and caregivers are allowed in, other visitors are barred, said Kyle Webster, general counsel of ACTION-Housing. All non-urgent work on units is being delayed “until at least April 15,” according to the website. So far, the nonprofit agency has not run low on supplies or money, but, said Webster: “If we’re still here [in crisis] April 15, this would be a very, very different story.”
  • Allegheny Housing Rehabilitation Corporation, which has around 1,500 low-income housing units in the region, is working with its nonprofit partner, I Dream a World, "to disseminate information to help residents stay safe and secure necessities such as meals, groceries and prescriptions," wrote AHRCO CEO Lara Washington. I Dream a World is also keeping in touch with senior residents who have expressed feelings of isolation. Common spaces are closed and residents have been asked to limit visitors. AHRCO has temporarily suspended all late fees and evictions.
  • The Housing Authority of Butler County has 568 apartments for the elderly among its 681 total units, said its Executive Director Ed Mauk. "So obviously they are a concern to us because of the way this virus, as we understand it, attacks seniors more severely than others," he said. He does not, however, believe he can close his nine elderly buildings off from the outside world, as some nursing homes have done, because many of the residents rely on food deliveries and visiting health service providers. "To lock that down would create a different kind of problem."

Update (3/23/2020): This story was updated to include information on AHRCO's response.

Update (3/20/2020): This story was updated to include new information from local housing agencies, and resident demographic information from the Housing Authority of the City of Pittsburgh.

Update (3/16/2020): This story was updated to include new information from local housing agencies.

Correction (10/2/2020): A photo caption for this story misidentified the manager of the Bedford Hill Apartments.

PublicSource will update this story as other housing agencies report on their efforts, and as responses to the crisis evolve.

Rich Lord is PublicSource’s economic development reporter. He can be reached at rich@publicsource.org or on Twitter @richelord.

Develop PGH has been made possible with funding from The Heinz Endowments.

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