Housing is Health – So Is How We Talk About Paying Rent

April 28, 2020 - This Friday will be May 1, and the rent will once again be due. Millions of people affected by the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting economic crisis are struggling with how they will pay their rent. Some will benefit from unemployment insurance; but for many that help has not yet arrived, and for others it never will. Temporary eviction moratoria protect some residents for a few months, and many more housing owners are seeking creative solutions to ensure that their residents can remain in their home, but a national rent crisis looms and threatens our individual and collective health. 

A quality, stable home is well documented as a foundational determinant of health. Never has this been more evident than in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. We cannot collectively recover from this crisis if every person doesn’t have a safe and stable place to live. More broadly, we know that even brief periods of homelessness have significant negative impacts on health outcomes. The research also tells us that being unable to pay rent can have similar long lasting effects for physical and mental health. People fundamentally want to provide a home, food, and other necessities for themselves and their families. In April most people did pay their rent – by April 19 only 5% fewer households had paid their rent than in March. May will likely offer a different outlook. Millions of people have now faced weeks of unemployment, prolonged wage reductions, and potential increased costs related to the public health crisis.

It is critical that we recognize that emergency measures like eviction moratoria must be accompanied by swift and effective solutions for providing housing assistance to those in need and to protect the affordable housing stock. While advocates and policymakers work to find the best solutions, the rent is coming due again at the end of the week. May 1st will bring traumatic stress for millions of renters who face impossible choices about how to spend limited money on rent, food, and healthcare, while also navigating the isolation and uncertainty of this public health crisis. Property managers and other frontline staff will confront their own stressors as they engage in difficult conversations with residents to find solutions that support housing stability, like emergency assistance programs, repayment agreements, and even discounts.

Housing providers, management agents, and resident service coordinators can’t mitigate all the stresses of this crisis, but with empathetic communications they can help support resident stability, health, and well-being in these challenging times. Drawing on research, the experience of SAHF members, and a growing body of research, SAHF’s Health and Resident Outcomes teams have assembled a Communications Tip Sheet for front line workers. Key strategies include:

  • Recognizing that residents are anxious; staff should use language to communicate support, validate residents’ experience, and establish trust. Staff might use validating or normalizing language to communicate that you understand or empathize with what someone is going through.
  • Providing information clearly and directly. New or updated policies should be provided both verbally and in writing (and translated in multiple languages, if relevant for your community of residents). Define any acronyms used in written communications.
  • Explaining “Why” new policies and procedures are being implemented. This helps to establish a sense of consistency and predictability.
  • Allowing opportunity and space for residents to ask questions. It is difficult to absorb lots of new information and change when people are experiencing increased anxiety and loss. Ask residents if they have questions about the information being provided.
  • Where possible, providing options and choice. This provides an opportunity for residents to regain a sense of control in their lives.

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought enormous health and economic challenges to millions, especially to people of limited economic means and communities of color. How we respond to the problems magnified by this crisis also brings an opportunity for us to create healthier, more equitable communities. How we communicate in these challenging moments is an important step towards building that future.

- Andrea Ponsor, President and CEO, Sandra Serna, VP Health & Housing, and Alexandra Nassau-Brownstone, Director, Resident Outcomes & CORES