Harris County, home to Houston, is still struggling with high rates of COVID-19 infections. Though as of August 29, Texas Medical Center (TMC) reported a 6% positivity rate on all tests, the nine-county Greater Houston area remains around 10%. This is well above the sub-5% rate TMC hopes to see over a two week period in order to slow the spread of disease, and ICUs throughout the system are at 94% capacity, as reported in Community Impact. It’s an ongoing crisis, and it continues to impact everything – including the management of multifamily properties.
Many people living in multifamily residents, particularly larger apartment buildings, have expressed a range of concerns about the potential for virus spread, even as research suggests that surface transmission rates are low. For landlords and property managers, though, these concerns represent a significant issue. Luckily, more than six months into this crisis, there’s plenty of information and support that can help Houston property managers navigate property management issues despite ongoing pandemic pressures.
HVAC And Virus Transmission
Houston is notoriously hot and humid, which means central HVAC systems are the norm – and ordinarily, that’s a good thing. However, because COVID-19 is transmitted by aerosolized droplets, many people have raised concerns that HVAC systems could potentially spread the virus. What’s the real risk, and what should property managers tell concerned tenants?
The scientific consensus is that, while it may be theoretically possible, it’s highly unlikely that HVAC systems could spread COVID-19 infection across housing units. According to MIT Medical, if someone coughs in one apartment, the droplets would likely break apart before they could be picked up by the HVAC system. And even if droplets were drawn into the vents, it would be almost impossible for those particles to make it through all the vents and filters, become mixed with fresh air, and make it into another unit.
If tenants raise concerns about virus spread, one thing property managers can do to reassure them is to install high-efficiency filters, rated MERV 13 or above. Given the limited amount of aerosolized virus likely to make it into the ventilation system (this isn’t a hospital setting where people are being intubated, after all), these filters should be more than sufficient to eliminate any virus particles.
Managing Common Areas
In addition to potential viral spread via HVAC systems, another top concern among multifamily residents is picking up COVID-19 in one of the common areas – elevators, lobbies, and other shared spaces. Depending on the size of the building, these areas can easily become crowded, especially if people are leaving for work or school at the same time, and there’s a real chance of disease transmission when people are clustered in these spaces, even if they’re wearing masks.
As a landlord or property manager, there are several steps you should take to reduce infection risk in common spaces, even if the likelihood of viral transmission via surfaces is unlikely. That includes frequently wiping down front door handles, elevator buttons, and other high-touch surfaces, placing no-touch hand sanitizer stations in lobbies, and limiting elevator capacity. It’s also wise to section off lobbies and other waiting areas so that tenants can ensure they remain six feet apart while waiting for the elevator.
While it’s generally easy to negotiate social distancing in lobbies and similar areas, some more fraught areas for multifamily properties are onsite gyms, coworking spaces, and other amenities. Tenants pay added fees to access these spaces but many of them present increased infection risk. With this in mind, property managers should keep indoor spaces like gyms closed and consider reducing any facility fee charges included in the rent.
Gyms may represent a high risk of disease transmission, but other common spaces may be able to continue operating. This includes coworking spaces, which are in high-demand during ongoing remote work policies. The key to operating these spaces? Appropriate restrictions. Space out work stations, limit capacity, and require mask-wearing. Similarly, outdoor amenities like pools, onsite walking trails, and dog runs can be reopened based on management’s discretion and local virus spread.
One of the most significant challenges property managers face in addressing COVID-19 spread within multifamily properties is in regards to maintenance: what happens when a tenant needs repairs? At a time when everyone is concerned about contact with people outside of their “bubble” or “pod,” having a maintenance person who’s been in many different apartments walk through the door is many people’s worst nightmare. It can’t always be avoided, though, which is why it’s your responsibility as a landlord or manager to minimize risk as much as possible.
When a tenant reports a maintenance issue, the first thing property managers should do is to gather as much information as possible, either over the phone, via email, or through the maintenance portal. The goal should be to eliminate the need for face-to-face interactions between maintenance staff and tenants. If tenants must be onsite during repairs (likely, since so many are working from home), encourage them to close themselves in a separate room. Equip staff with N95 masks and disinfectants and encourage residents to perform a second round of disinfecting on the area once maintenance staff leave.
Some forward-thinking property groups have proposed using tele-maintenance in the short-term for select problems, as a way of minimizing interactions. Unfortunately, this only works for relatively simple repairs, and even then, many apartment dwellers don’t have many tools, but tenants should be encouraged to prioritize repairs. Given current conditions, anything that can wait with minimal consequences, should be delayed until exposure risk is lower.
The Market Is In Crisis – But Your Property Shouldn’t Be
COVID-19 will have a lasting impact on the Houston housing market, but just because the pandemic has left so many people scrambling, that doesn’t mean your tenants should suffer. Instead, get the support you need to guide your tenants through the time and minimize virus spread at your multifamily properties, with help from Green Residential.
Green Residential has over 40 years of Houston area property management experience and, while COVID-19 may represent a new challenge, our team has the skills to keep things running smoothly. Contact Green Residential today to learn more about our services and find out how we can support your properties. Don’t go it alone when things get complicated. Instead, get help from Green Residential.