“The pandemic has created an opportunity for our agency to engage the community and develop operations that effectively intersect public housing with public health” says Melissa Sanzaro, Providence Housing Authority Executive Director, whose passion for the health and well-being of those she serves is contagious. She continues – as she speaks of the PHA’s Phase 4 Special Operations Plan – “It has become overwhelmingly apparent that Rhode Island’s well-being is reliant on the health of condensed, low-income communities hit hardest by this virus. The PHA’s role and relationships in the community has never been more important. We are fully committed to look beyond being a just a landlord and providing access to testing and services with dignity and respect.”
PHA Issues PHASE 4 Emergency Operations Update
PROVIDENCE – The Providence Housing Authority released its latest set of updates for the community on its COVID-19 response. While PHA has had significant ongoing communication with its public housing residents and Section 8 participants during the COVID-19 crisis, it also wants to ensure that the broader community is aware of the forward thinking work and behind-the-scenes advocacy efforts underway to serve those most at-risk in the COVID pandemic. This phase coincides with changes put into place as part of the most recent wave of COVID cases surging through Rhode Island.
1) Non-essential visitors are still prohibited from PHA High Rise Buildings due to the pandemic. Social gatherings in all developments are prohibited so long as the state is limiting gatherings to a single household.
2) COVID-19 screening is required for all work orders and PHA Facilities Management is responding to emergency and health and safety work orders only to protect resident and employee safety and limit the spread of the virus.
3) PHA offices remain open but closed to in-person meetings. Staff continue to be available on site for contact by residents and landlords via phone or email. Drop boxes at the PHA’s administrative offices, inside high-rise buildings, and outside all family development management offices remain an option for residents and landlords to drop off paperwork. Property management staff are available on a limited basis to meet in person with residents outdoors, and by appointment only.
4) PHA has established a more regular free COVID-19 testing to residents and plans to coordinate vaccination in early 2021 for public housing residents.
5) Residents who have tested positive for COVID-19 are encouraged to call the PHA’s COVID-19 hotline at 709-1848 to help the agency track the spread of the virus and to gain assistance with needed resources.
6) PHA has increased its Housing Preservation program over the last several months and has assisted more than 100 households in accessing emergency rental assistance to date.
7) The emergency food box program has been scaled down to focus on emergency need and PHA is assisting residents in accessing other food resources.
LEADING THE WAY TO TESTING
The PHA has been and continues to be an innovative leader in the safe testing of its residents and a model to other local and regional housing authorities. In Phase I, we began our testing endeavors working with the Department of Health and National Guard. They then connected us to Lifespan for continued assistance in testing. Phases 2 and 3 of our COVID Special Operations Plans included that partnership with Lifespan Community Health Institute to conduct on-site, outdoor testing for PHA residents.
As the temperatures shifted, so too did the PHA’s testing strategy. Working again with the Department of Health and National Guard as well as the RI Disaster Medical Assistance Team (DMAT), the PHA on December 12 began door-to-door model of testing for their elderly and disabled high rise developments using BinaxNOW rapid tests and following up with PCR testing as needed. Armed with new outreach materials explaining the importance of regular testing in the fight against COVID and dressed in full personal protective equipment, teams of PHA staff and DMAT volunteers are going door-to-door testing residents at each of the six PHA high rises.
In January, we began piloting indoor on-site testing at our family developments. We hope to continue offering this convenient, effective preventative measure for all residents in rotating fashion until most residents receive a vaccine, and even beyond if resources permit while the virus continues to spread in the state. The PHA is working closely with state officials as well as partners from Walgreens and CVS to provide vaccinations to its high-risk tenants and plan to utilize their safe testing model as the basis of this work. Continued rapid testing and vaccination planning and implementation are integral parts of our Phase IV plan.
HOUSING OPERATIONS CONTINUE WITH SAFETY ADAPTATIONS
Property Management, Facilities Management and Security Operations staff are working hard to maintain all public housing management functions as much as possible while continuing to use emergency adaptations to protect the safety of residents and employees. Like many workplaces, PHA has been hit hard with large numbers of employees having to miss work due to COVID-19 infections and quarantines. Most infections and quarantines are not traced to the workplace, due to the substantial protections and changes around how PHA has put in place to allow employees to work on-site safely.
Staff are working as hard as they can to provide residents the high-quality customer service they deserve and to complete work quickly but thoroughly with sometimes reduced person-power. PHA continues to prioritize work orders by emergency status and is not addressing some work orders which are non-emergencies given both staffing challenges and the challenges of working inside occupied units safely during the pandemic. Where necessary, work in occupied units is proceeding only after thorough COVID-19 screening occurs. All employees continue to have temperatures taken and complete mandatory COVID-19 screening at the beginning of every workday.
While PHA did begin working during the summer to fill vacant units in high rise buildings with new safety protocols, the intense surge in COVID-19 cases from fall into winter led the agency to evaluate on an ongoing basis informed by testing outcomes. The PHA has now developed safety protocols which limit in person contact between new tenants and employees, and which has allowed the agency to return to leasing to new tenants in both family developments and elderly/disabled developments. In addition, our facilities team continues to turnover vacated units authority wide.
A number of major facility improvement projects restarted or began over the fall and early winter, including elevator modernization and sprinkler system updates at multiple high-rise buildings, and roof replacement projects. Interaction between contract workers and residents is limited wherever possible and employees of all contractors are required to conduct daily COVID-19 screening for all employees who are working on any PHA site.
SERVICES FOR RESIDENTS
Protocols developed early in the pandemic for conducting resident and participant wellness checks continue as PHA staff reach out regularly. Calls, text messages, emails, and mailings from the organization continue, as we want to make sure our residents know that we are here with them, even as we continue to limit face-to-face meetings to keep our community safe.
PHA is continuing to maintain the COVID-19 hotline to assist residents who have tested positive for COVID or others who are in quarantine with accessing food and other essential resources.
In Phase 4, the PHA continued to expand its offerings of online resident services. New programs offering resident Bingo, health and wellness resident meetings, recovery and domestic violence survivor support groups, and much more are now offered via Zoom. One-on-one meetings are conducted via phone, email, and Zoom to meet our residents safely. This is just one way our Resident Service Department continues to maintain a high-quality approach to serving the community.
Two additional programs launched virtually in Phase 4. The first is our Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) program, which provides paid workforce development and education for out-of-school youth. The program is open to those in the Providence community ages 14 to 24. The other is ramp up of the PHA’s Wellness Resource Center, which now has a fulltime mental health professional on staff in addition to a fulltime community health worker and specialized staff who work with victims of crime including domestic assault , as well as an opioid addiction and substance abuse specialist. Given increases in community and household violence and drug use, and the impact of trauma including the COVID pandemic on the community, the PHA is using funding from the RI Foundation to increase access to wellness services to provide residents with confidential comprehensive care, support, and referrals.
Finally, as the year came to a close, one of the PHA’s signature COVID programs – our Food Boxes for high rise residents – shifted course to meet the changing needs of our residents. Funding from Amica, the Rhode Island Foundation, the City of Providence and many others allowed us to maintain the program for all residents of eight high rise buildings and developments from April 2020 through the holiday season and we will continue to offer roughly 100 food boxes of shelf stable food a month to those who contact their Resident Service Coordinator with emergency needs. We also connected residents to local food pantries and programs to supplement any loss they may face from our program ending. And we continue to partner with the RI Community Food Bank to safely deliver food boxes from the Senior Box program monthly to about 175 tenants at three high rise buildings who are enrolled in the program.
When COVID hit, many working families suffered from loss of wages and struggled to pay for even the most essential items, including their rent. Even after the moratorium on evictions ended, the PHA continued to hold off on eviction filings for nonpayment. Instead, the PHA organized a cross-department task force to look at this issue and to work with households to prevent evictions from nonpayment, including tenants who had nonpayment cases filed against them before the courts closed in March. As the eviction moratorium went on, the PHA shared information with other Providence landlords about the limitations and how to utilize rental assistance programs to overcome lost revenues and help protect hard-hit tenants from eviction. Then it continued its work with tenants themselves, making sure rent subsidies and adjustments were correctly based on reduced income and then engaging PHA residents and participants with repayment plans and other assistance as needed to help them get back on their feet.
When the Safe Harbor rental assistance program was launched by the United Way, the PHA knew it could do even more. It worked with the United Way team to package applications from PHA tenants. Likewise, it provided technical assistance to PHA Section 8 landlords and tenants to also apply for assistance. In the end, the PHA worked to assist 109 tenants with applications for assistance. Near $140,000 in assistance is expected to maintain organizational operations and bring tenants current, preventing eviction for nonpayment during a national disaster As of this writing, 93 tenant households have been approved for up to six months of rental assistance with an average in back rent paid being over $1,150.
EXPANSION OF AFFORDABLE HOUSING
The PHA is not only working to preserve housing for existing tenants, it has also ramped up its efforts to expand affordable housing access in the Capitol City. In 2019, PHA worked with owners of 43 units of affordable housing to provide affordable housing subsidies for these units for 20 years, and will provide long-term subsidies for seven additional new units being constructed now by ONE Neighborhood Builders, which are expected to be completed in spring and summer of 2021. In addition, in October the Board of Commissioners authorized PHA to provide long-term housing subsidies for eight units to the Joseph Caffey Apartments, a redevelopment of the former Barbara Jordan II housing development. Now, the PHA is working to issue an additional request for proposals to provide additional long-term subsidies through project-based vouchers, knowing that Rhode Island’s hardest hit by the pandemic need affordable housing more than ever.
During its Phase 4 Operations, the PHA is working to bring 90 new vouchers to the community providing rental assistance to those in need so they could afford to rent on the private market. We are on expanding vouchers through our MainStream (MSV) program for nonelderly disabled households experiencing homelessness as well as some non-elderly disabled individuals seeking to leave institutional settings. The PHA applied and was awarded 75 additional vouchers this holiday season with subsidies scheduled to be available starting April 1. Including another noncompetitive award of 15 MSVs earlier in the year from CARES Act funds, PHA’s Mainstream voucher program has grown from zero to 140 vouchers in the last two years.
The PHA is supporting landlords in the private market as part of our plans to expand access to affordable housing. The Housing Authority hosted four technical assistance webinars for landlords this fall. Sessions provide these small businesses owners with support around common legal issues, connect them to renovation and repair resources, and built stronger connections within the community. In addition, the PHA is offering incentives to landlords leasing to our new MSV recipients, as well as for units located in high opportunity neighborhoods, and for landlords who are working with the PHA for the first time. These limited time incentives aid local property owners and, combined with participant move counseling, help get vouchers out in the community. This program is funded in part by a grant from Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Rhode Island and landlords interested in getting involved can contact Caroline Holguin Rosa at email@example.com or 401-270-1457.
MAKING IT THROUGH THE HOLIDAYS
Throughout Phase 4, the PHA focused on distribution of materials and supplies to its residents to help prevent the spread of COVID in the community. Over the past several months, the organization distributed over 50,000 masks to the community. We also prioritized youth and families with help from the Department of Health, who provided funding to the PHA to create and distribute “Crush COVID Kits for Kids”. The kits hit on all aspects of the pandemic from mask wearing to maintaining mental health. Materials provided resources and guidance on staying safe during major holidays. Combined with testing, the PHA works tirelessly to share messaging and resources with residents and partners alike, as we are all battling this pandemic together.
During the holiday season, we provided turkey baskets for 167 public housing families thanks to support of Stop & Shop and the Boys and Girls Club of Providence, as well as the efforts of PHA staff who volunteered their time to safely deliver the food baskets to our residents’ doors.
Despite or perhaps because of the pandemic, we had our most successful toy drive in years, receiving more than a dozen cash donations from corporate and community partners and a number of donations of toys to support holiday gifts for children in our developments. We put out a call to families to sign up if they needed assistance with gifts this holiday, originally stating that we would select families based on a lottery. But because of all the generous support we received, we were able to provide a toy or gift to all 495 children whose families had signed them up.
In such difficult economic times, the PHA continues to be grateful to our partners and donors who provide support to our residents, who represent some of the most vulnerable residents in the state. The generosity shown to both the PHA and our sister nonprofit, the Providence Community Opportunity Corporation (PCOC), have been greatly appreciated and needed as we continue to provide resident support through the pandemic. Continued donations can be sent to the PHA c/o PCOC 100 Broad St. Providence, RI 02903.
WHAT IS NEXT AFTER PHASE 4?
At the forefront of the PHA’s mind is COVID prevention. We will continue to distribute supplies such as masks to prevent the spread and conducting on-site testing of our residents. Within the upcoming months, the PHA also hopes to provide residents with the vaccine.
While we are hopeful and optimistic that widespread vaccination is coming to the state this year, we also expect to be dealing with the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic for years to come. In particular, the extremely low income and disparately impacted residents we serve will face long-term challenges even if and when the worst of the pandemic recedes.
PHA is planning to revisit our strategic plan and put into place strategies to ensure that the lessons we have learned and the capacity we have built are lasting, to best ensure the health, safety and well-being of the residents we serve. We expect on site testing to continue for some time, and to have to maintain COVID-19 emergency operations for an extended period.
At the same time, we are balancing the need to continue these emergency efforts with the need to address where we fell behind in our pre-COVID operations and find ways to permanently adapt to a new way of conducting business while getting back to our regular operations. As an example, we utilized an outside vendor to disinfect our high-rise buildings throughout the pandemic, and are we are now in the process of bringing that capacity back in-house to our Facilities Management team members. A large portion of our next steps will be to evaluate and test new staff deployment strategies to safely bring these types of services back in-house and to redefine the “new normal operations” for the PHA in light of the pandemic’s on-going impacts.
When ED Melissa Sanzaro is asked about the Phase IV Operation Plan and what is next for the organization as the pandemic continues, she replies, “We will continue to tirelessly advocate for our residents and participants to make sure they have the resources they need to not only survive but to thrive through this pandemic. We all understand that the impacts of COVID are long-term, longer than we ever expected originally. The PHA’s talented team plans to continue to build capacity in all areas of the operations, and to become experts in COVID prevention and response while maintaining close connections to our residents as we face a new future ahead of us together.”
“We will continue to tirelessly advocate for our residents and participants to make sure they have the resources they need to not only survive but to thrive through this pandemic. We all understand that the impacts of COVID are long-term, longer than we ever expected originally.”
Media Inquiries on Phase 4 of our COVID-19 Special Operations Plan
Contact: Peter Asen, 401-709-1102 (o) 401-516-0651 (c) or firstname.lastname@example.org
About the Providence Housing Authority
Founded in 1939, the Providence Housing Authority (PHA) provides and develops quality and safe affordable housing opportunities and services to address the needs of Rhode Island residents. They operate 2,606 public housing units in Providence and administer more than 2,700 units of Section 8 rental assistance, that allow low-income families to rent in the private market or project-based units throughout Providence. In total, the PHA serves over 12,000 Rhode Islanders with housing and social services.