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Housing and Covid-19: Frequently Asked Questions for Housing Associations

The ICSH will continue to provide our member organisations with the most useful and up-to-date information that can assist them in carrying out their operations over the course of the COVID-19 crisis.

On Friday 27th June, the Government agreed to make an Order to extend the emergency period to 20th July 2020. The measures were initially introduced under the Emergency Measures in the Public Interest (Covid-19) Act 2020, which was enacted on 27 March 2020. It had been due to end on 27 June, however in the interests of public health, the Government has decided to extend these protections. The full detail of Phase 3 of the Roadmap for Reopening Society and Business can be found at: https://www.gov.ie/en/campaigns/c36c85-covid-19-coronavirus/

Housing Management

Can rents be increased/reviewed at this time?
Is rent collection and rent assessment being affected?
How should rent arrears be dealt with?
Can evictions take place at this time?
What about tenancies where the NOT has already been served?
How does this affect Part 4 rights?
Are the RTB dispute resolution processes continuing during the Emergency Period?
What are the timeframes for the dispute resolution services at this time?
Should allocations still take place?
Can pre-tenancy training continue?
Should AHBs still carry out repairs?
How can we make tenants in our multi-unit development aware of the advice on Covid-19?

Sheltered / Supported Housing

Insurance

Some of our units are void pending refurbishment – do we still need to do weekly inspections?
Is separate insurance required for employees working from home?
Can the annual servicing of gas boilers be postponed if they are due during this emergency period?
Are there insurance implications if properties are allocated for health service staff or as self isolation units as requested by the  authorities?

Human Resources

What Protocols and policies do we need to have in place before returning to work?
Does there need to be a designated staff member responsible for the implementation of these protocols and measures?
Is there training required for returning to the workplace?
Is there guidance around travelling to and from work?

Further Information

RTB guidance
Housing Agency Regulation Office guidance

Housing Management

Can rents be increased/reviewed at this time?

Under the Emergency Measures in the Public Interest (Covid-19) Bill 2020, no increases of rent are permitted during the emergency period. If you have already issued letters prior to the crisis advising tenants of a rent increase (as per the annual rent review) which will fall due during the emergency period then you can advise them any increases will not take effect during the emergency period. The emergency period currently is in place until 20th July 2020 but can be extended by government order if necessary.

Rent reviews that were due to start during the emergency period are paused until the Emergency period ends – currently extended to 20th July 2020.

Is rent collection and rent assessment being affected?

Door-to-door rent collection or receiving rent payments in person is relatively rare however AHBs should contact tenants that make rent payments in person and encourage them to make their rent payments through other means for the duration of the restrictions. This is a time of considerable financial uncertainty for many with the slowdown in economic activity having a knock-on effect on some employment. We would advise members to deal sensitively with any tenants facing such worries or uncertainty. The ICSH advises its members to:

  • Encourage tenants to approach them at an early stage if they are worried about their finances
  • Assure tenants on differential rents that any changed income will be factored into their rent calculations, while being realistic that these calculations may not be done immediately and may take some time to resolve
  • Keep tenants informed of social welfare assistance available to them

How should rent arrears be dealt with?

Under the emergency legislation, the period of warning in a case of rent arrears is increased from 14 days to 28 days. Tenants should be assured that should they fall into arrears as a result of income decreases from the Covid-19 restrictions, they should engage with you as soon as possible and their situation will be handled sympathetically and with understanding.

If a tenant falls into rent arrears, a warning letter can still be served and a case can be referred to the RTB for rent arrears. A NoT for rent arrears cannot be served during the emergency period.

Can evictions take place at this time?

A new notice of termination cannot be served until the Emergency period ends – currently extended to 20th July 2020. Where a Notice of Termination was served prior to the 27th March, there is a pause on the notice period until after the emergency period ends. If a Notice of Termination was served prior to the 27th March and expired prior to the 27th March, the tenant is required to leave only on foot of a DO from the RTB.

What about tenancies where the NOT has already been served?

A tenant who has been served with notice of termination and who has rIf a landlord has served a notice of termination before the emergency period, any days that fall within the emergency period do not count towards the required notice period. The only exception to this is where a determination of an adjudicator has been made under subsection (4) of section 97 of the Act of 2004, or where an appeal from that determination is brought, the tenant is required to vacate the dwelling in accordance with a determination of the Tribunal under section 108 of that Act. For example, a tenant with a 2-month notice period remaining on the first day of the COVID-19 emergency period under this Act, will still have a 2-month notice period remaining at the end of the COVID-19 emergency period.

How does this affect Part 4 rights?

A person’s Part 4 rights or ability to acquire Part 4 rights are not affected by them being in situ during the emergency period.

Are the RTB dispute resolution processes continuing during the Emergency Period?

From the 16th March, all face to face hearings for RTB Adjudications and Tribunals were adjourned. Telephone Mediations are continuing as normal. Paper Based Adjudications (where an adjudicator reviews the case files without a hearing and liaised with all parties remotely) began in April and Telephone Tribunals resumed in June. The RTB are currently working towards virtual and a safe return to face to face hearings for both Adjudication and Tribunals.

What are the timeframes for the dispute resolution services at this time?

Due to all RTB staff working from home and the government restrictions, cases have not been scheduled for a number of weeks leading to a backlog. As a result of this, the RTB have advised that there could be a delay of 6 to 8 weeks on top of the usual timeframes for their dispute resolution services.

Should allocations still take place?

Allocations are now able to continue with strict adherence to the HSE guidelines to ensure the safety of both staff and tenants is protected. Details can be found here.

Allocations are essential in order to move people out of homelessness or otherwise unstable, unsuitable or unsafe accommodation. With any allocations you may have concerns about, consult with the relevant local authority to determine if there are additional measures to be considered when organising an allocation.

Housing associations should risk assess before carrying out any interviews for allocating new or void units in person and minimise the need for face to face interaction as much as is possible. Creative ways of carrying out interviews should be considered such as over Skype or other video messaging or over the phone. Consideration should also be given to the fact that new tenants may still find it a difficult time to move with reduced family/friend support and still a somewhat reduced access to goods or services. Each case should be looked at independently, having regard to the safety and stability of an applicant’s current housing situation and whether or not they are in an at-risk group. A full risk assessment should take place and social distancing and strict hygiene protocols should be followed at all times if carrying out interviews in person or during all aspects of the letting process.

Click here to download a guide on current practices being adopted by AHBs to ensure that they can continue allocating properties to priority households whilst maintaining safe social distancing practice (Dated 24th April 2020)

Can pre-tenancy training continue?

Pre-tenancy training can now resume whilst adhering to the HSE guidelines on hygiene protocol and cannot exceed the current limit restrictions that cannot exceed 50 people indoors. All pre-tenancy training, should allow for physical distancing of 2 metres and have adequate ventilation if taking place indoors. Housing Associations should be mindful that people are being asked to limit the number of people they come in contact with and to keep the meeting timeframe to a minimum to reduce the possibility of Covid transfer. Details of all those present will be required for the purposes of a log and can serve as a contact tracing tool if someone present should become ill. It is however acknowledged that these guidelines could be difficult to follow in any organised indoor setting and other methods of pre-tenancy training should be explored where appropriate, such as online information sessions or delivered by post.

Should AHBs still carry out repairs?

With the move to Phase 3, most trades and services are able to resume their services whilst adhering to the HSE guidelines on hygiene and social distancing allowing many Repairs and Maintenance services to resume. Some companies however, may have some work to do around implementing these new measures such as PPE acquiring and training or have other considerations such as childcare, be responsible for a vulnerable family member or even be at risk themselves, so we would advise you to speak with contractors to gauge your own capacity to deliver these services. You should signpost your contractors to the current government guidance available before providing a service to the AHB. Contractors must ensure they are following the guidelines for social distancing and hygiene and should also carry out a risk assessment of the situation and act accordingly. Details can be found here.

For the past number of weeks many AHBs carried out emergency only repairs so there may be a number of jobs to work through to bring repairs up to date. If a repair is required in a property where there is a suspected or confirmed case of Covid-19 or where someone is self-isolating, then the HSE should be contacted regarding best practice and in relation to protective equipment for any tradespeople. The HSE Live number is Callsave 1850 24 1850 / 041 6850300 and is manned 8am – 8pm Monday to Friday and 10am – 5pm Saturday and Sunday or via their website.

How can we make tenants in our multi-unit development aware of the advice on Covid-19?

AHBs should consider putting up HSE posters in common areas with advice on social distancing and preventing the spread of COVID-19. These posters are available from the HSE website. Communication by notices posted to letterboxes, or posters erected in lobbies, halls, lift cars, and carparks may be most effective.

As tenants return to work and other activities in line with the Phase 3 reopening, it might be worth reminding tenants of the House Rules, and that respect and consideration for neighbours will continue to help communities to continue to effectively move to phase 4. Email or written communication would be the most appropriate format for such a reminder.

Sheltered/Supported Housing

Who should be considered vulnerable / at risk tenants?

The term ‘Cocooning’ is no longer included in the Government’s guidance for Phase Three. However, those who are over 70 or considered medically vulnerable are advised to use their judgement to “decide how best to apply” health guidance in a number of circumstances.

 This includes staying home as much as possible, maintaining social distancing with visitors, using face coverings in certain situations and shopping during allotted times.

From 29th June, indoor gatherings of up to 50 people can take place once you maintain social distancing and follow public health guidance. However, if you are over 70 years or medically vulnerable, please use your judgement to decide how best to apply the public health guidance:

  • stay at home as much as possible
  • you may welcome small numbers of people to your home, but maintain social distancing
  • for shopping, please use the times specially allocated by retailers and observe social distancing. It is also advisable to wear a face covering.
  • if you are visiting someone who is over 70 years or medically vulnerable, please be extra vigilant

The HPSC has updated their guidance in relation to cocooning accordingly. Click here to access the updated guidance on cocooning (dated 26 June 2020).

What guidance is available for vulnerable group settings in the Covid-19 crisis?

The Health Protection Surveillance Centre (HPSC) issued a guidance document that gives general advice about preventing the spread of COVID-19 in settings for vulnerable groups such as people experiencing homelessness, Travellers, refugees and asylum seekers, as well as housing for women and children experiencing domestic abuse (dated 15 April 2020).

The measures outlined in this document still apply and are mainly focused on congregated settings or facilities managed by staff. There is useful information on the following areas which can be applied to sheltered housing schemes:

  • Advice on general measures e.g. hygiene, cleaning etc
  • How to manage a symptomatic resident / service user
  • How to manage a resident / service user who has been diagnosed with Covid (who is well enough to be managed outside of Hospital)
  • Environmental cleaning/disinfection of self-isolation facilities whilst the resident is in their room
  • Environmental cleaning/disinfection of self-isolation facilities when person leaves facility
  • Cleaning of communal areas and laundry
  • Managing rubbish
  • How to manage a close contact of a confirmed case of COVID-19
  • How staff can protect themselves

Responding to domestic violence

The Garda National Protective Services Bureau (GNPSB) is overseeing the implementation of ‘Operation Faoisimh’, a proactive initiative, commenced as part of An Garda Síochána community engagement response to COVID-19, to ensure victims of domestic abuse are supported and protected in this extraordinary time. The initiative utilises the Garda Victim Services Offices nationwide to facilitate phone contact with previous victims of domestic abuse to ascertain any existing issues of concern and to ensure the protection of families. Any concerns will be immediately responded to by An Garda Síochána. An Garda Síochána is available to help and support anyone who is a victim of the crime of Domestic Abuse, they should contact their local Garda station or in an emergency call 999/112. More information on Operation Faoisimh is available here.

Safe Ireland is the national social change agency working with 38 domestic violence services across the country. Details of these services, inlcuding the freephone national helpline, are available here. https://www.safeireland.ie/get-help/where-to-find-help/

Should we be providing any additional services to our tenants?

Many AHBs are still providing additional services, where possible, to ensure their vulnerable tenants remain well and safe, for example grocery / prescription delivery, delivering meals, regular telephone contact, provision of hand sanitizer in communal areas etc. This is dependent on the availability of staff and resources in the AHB and guidelines for social distancing and hygiene should be strictly followed. Some AHBs have reported that their tenants are now starting to venture out and do their own shopping, however there have been many reports of mental health issues arising due to isolation and restricted movement and these tenants should be supported as much as possible.

If older tenants are not cocooning, is there any way we can enforce it?

What is best practice if one or more of our older tenants (in one complex) are diagnosed as positive for Covid-19?

If you are notified of a tenant being diagnosed as positive for Covid-19 and they require your assistance, HSE and HPSC guidance should be adhered to. The HPSC guidance for dealing with Covid-19 in settings for vulnerable people sets out the following.

If the person feels unwell with symptoms of COVID-19 (e.g. cough, shortness of breath, difficulty breathing, high temperature) then they should:

  • Isolate themselves (i.e. stay indoors and completely avoiding contact with other people or at least 1- 2 metres distance away from them)
  • Testing should be arranged for them by contacting their GP. If they do not have a GP the ambulance service should be contacted on 112 or 999 to arrange testing. (The HSE is currently working on a streamlined care pathway to prioritise testing of patients in vulnerable groups)
  • They should remain in isolation until the test results are back.
  • They should not be visited by outside persons while they are in self-isolation.

AHBs that have confirmed cases of Covid-19 are generally carrying out additional services where needed by the tenant (groceries, prescriptions) and increasing the check in contact with the tenant while they are in isolation to ensure their safety and well-being. You may also want to consider additional cleaning of communal areas where the affected tenant may have been.

Should we notify other tenants that there has been a Covid-19 case in the housing scheme?

In cases where positive Covid-19 cases have arisen in AHBs, the AHB has generally notified other tenants in the scheme of the occurrence of a case, with advice to be extra vigilant in accordance with HSE guidelines to avoid the spread of the virus. The diagnosed tenant’s name and details should not be disclosed in accordance with GDPR.

Should we be carrying out additional cleaning services?

AHBs are continuing to be extra vigilant around cleaning in communal areas, particularly of frequently touched areas such as door handles, light switches and lifts, where applicable. Where possible, this should continue for the foreseeable.

Are we responsible for the cleaning of a tenant’s apartment who had Covid-19?

The current legislation does not specify if the landlord is responsible for this. ICSH is aware, however, of some AHBs who have arranged and paid for a deep clean of an affected tenant’s dwelling, as it is highly unlikely that a vulnerable tenant would be able to arrange/afford this. The approximate cost for this ranges from €200 to €300 per room. Deep cleaning of communal areas would be additional to this.

The HPSC guidance for settings for vulnerable groups (dated 15th April 2020) has further guidance on cleaning of self-isolation units and communal areas.

When can we re-open our day care centres?

In phase 3, which commenced on 29th June, ‘wellbeing’ services have reopened e.g. chiropractic, reflexology, acupuncture, hairdressers, barbers and nail salons; as well as restaurants and cafes etc. This means that Day care centre services can recommence once public health guidance regarding social distancing and hygiene are maintained. More information on businesses that are permitted to re-open in Phase 3 can be found here.

Should we impose visitor restrictions in our schemes?

Government guidance with regard to gatherings and social distancing should be adhered to at all times. From 29th June, indoor gatherings of up to 50 people and up to 200 people for outdoor gatherings can take place once they follow social distancing and public health guidance. However, where there are visits to over 70 years or medically vulnerable, extra vigilance and precautions should be applied.

What happens if our staff member(s) / Board Members need to self-isolate – how will we continue to support our tenants?

IIf an AHB loses staff members or volunteers due to Covid-19, it can leave some tenants in a very vulnerable position. Housing associations should provide tenants with several alternative staff or board member contact details so communications in areas such as repairs and support can be maintained. In addition to this, there are community supports available as below. You can also continue to check in on your tenants by phone or video call where possible.

ALONE, in collaboration with the Department of Health and the HSE, have launched a COVID-19 support line for older people. The National Public Health Emergency has established a Vulnerable People Sub-group and as a member organisation of the National Public Health Emergency COVID-19 Subgroup for Vulnerable People, ALONE is working in collaboration with the Department of Health and the HSE on a coordinated national response to support older people who have concerns, may be at risk or who have contracted COVID-19. Contact ALONE on 0818 222 024 (8am-8pm) if you have concerns about your own wellbeing, or the wellbeing of an older person you know. Further information can be found on www.alone.ie.

Local Authority Community Response Forums: each local authority area is coordinating work to help ensure all vulnerable members of our communities affected by the recent restrictions (e.g. cocooning) are appropriately supported to access food, medicines, and other needs, including transport for medical appointments. A full contact list of these fora is available here.

Where can we source Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)?

Many AHBs have sourced their own PPE through various channels. However, the HSE also have supplies of PPE. Please follow the steps below to put your order in which will then be couriered to you when completed.

The HBS Procurement COVID-19 Customer Service can be contacted by:

Once you contact HBS Procurement COVID-19 Customer Service, you will be required to complete a standard PPE Request Form available via the following link.

Further information is available on the dedicated HBS Procurement COVID-19 webpage.

Are there any Government supports available to assist us in returning to operational capacity?

The Government has announced a range of supports available to organisations listed here. Some AHBs have also reported that where their schemes are HIQA regulated that the they have been able to apply for Government funding to recover costs related to Covid-19 e.g. PPE costs.
 

Insurance

The following guidance has been provided by Allianz, underwriters to the ICSH Group Insurance Scheme. As such, this guidance only applies to units covered under this scheme.  Should you have an alternative insurer you should check directly with your provider about your cover during this time and any policy amendments that may be required.

Some of our units are void pending refurbishment – do we still need to do weekly inspections?

Under the group insurance scheme Allianz have agreed to provide full cover without the weekly checks being carried out. Where possible, the unoccupied premises should be secured.

Is separate insurance required for employees working from home?

Allianz have extended insurance policies to cover employees working from home.

Can the annual servicing of gas boilers be postponed if they are due during this emergency period?

Under the Rental Housing Regulations 2019 gas, oil and electricity installations should be maintained in good repair and safe working order. If your annual service was due to take place during the lockdown, under the group insurance scheme, it is acceptable to postpone them. However, any concerns or potential leaks should still be reported to the authorities and servicing should be prioritised as soon as possible after the lockdown ends. We will monitor this area should the lockdown continue for a longer than expected period.

Are there insurance implications if properties are allocated for health service staff or as self-isolation units as requested by the authorities?

If a property is being allocated as a self-isolation unit during Covid 19 at the request of the HSE, then the HSE should be providing the insurances for these units and providing an indemnity to the AHB.

Human Resources


What Protocols and policies do we need to have in place before returning to work?

The Government’s Return to Work Safely Protocol provides information and support to employers and workers to put measures in place to help prevent the spread of Covid-19 in the workplace: https://dbei.gov.ie/en/Publications/Publication-files/Return-to-Work-Safely-Protocol.pdf

In conjunction with this, the Health and Safety Authority has provided templates and checklists for employees and workers for a safe return to work: https://www.hsa.ie/eng/topics/covid-19/covid-19_coronavirus.html

All employers must prepare and put systems and controls in place before they reopen their business and workplaces.

Employers must:

  • Appoint at least one lead worker representative to make sure safety measures are in place and being followed.
  • Update business and safety plans, including the business COVID-19 Response Plan, the occupational health and safety risk assessment and the safety statement. Include how to deal with a suspected case of COVID-19 in the safety plans and appoint a dedicated manager in charge of dealing with suspected cases.
  • Develop, consult on, communicate and implement workplace changes or policies.
  • Send out a pre-return to work form to employees at least 3 days before their return to work. The form will ask employees to confirm they have not had symptoms of COVID-19 in the past 14 days, have not been diagnosed or suspected of COVID-19 in the past 14 days, have not been in close contact with someone confirmed or suspected of COVID-19 in the past 14 days and are not self-isolating or cocooning. You can get a return to work form template from the HSA website. Note: Employers should not directly receive any test results from the HSE. Rather, the results should be provided to the person tested, who should then pass on the outcome to his or her employer.
  • Provide COVID-19 induction training for all staff.
  • Put in place temperature testing in line with public health advice.

The Citizens Information website has more information here: https://www.citizensinformation.ie/en/employment/return_to_work/returning_to_work_and_covid19.html#l17a59

Examples of protocols and policies that AHBs have put in place include:

  • A return to Work form (to establish that the employee is healthy and well
  • A close contact log
  • Remote working / working from home policy
  • Using public transport for work related business policy
  • A workplace guide e.g. using the canteen, hygiene and cleaning measures
  • Updating of GDPR policies to reflect new types of data processing

Does there need to be a designated staff member responsible for the implementation of these protocols and measures?

Yes, an employer should appoint at least one lead worker representative whose role is to work collaboratively with the employer to assist in the implementation of measures and monitor adherence to the measures to prevent the spread of COVID -19. The number of representatives appointed will, ideally, be proportionate to the number of workers in the workplace and these key personnel will be clearly identifiable in the workplace.

Is there training required for returning to the workplace?

The person(s) undertaking the above role above must receive the necessary training and have a structured framework to follow within the organisation to be effective in preventing the spread of the virus. Employers will provide a COVID-19 induction training for all workers to help prevent and minimise the spread of Covid-19 in the workplace.

Is there guidance around travelling to and from work?

You should travel alone if using your personal car for work or at a maximum travel with one other passenger who should adhere to physical distancing guidelines as much as possible. Your employer should provide you with hand sanitisers and cleaning equipment for your work vehicle.

It is recommended to walk or cycle to work where possible. If you are using public transport, you should abide by social distancing rules and it is now mandatory to wear a face covering on all public transport.  All non-essential overseas work travel should be avoided where possible.

Further Information

RTB guidance

The RTB have provided a list of FAQs and a guidance document which is available on their website here: https://onestopshop.rtb.ie/guidance-document-on-covid-19-supports-for-landlords-and-tenants

Housing Agency Regulation Office guidance

The Housing Agency Regulation Office put together a guide with six key areas for Approved Housing Bodies to consider during the coronavirus pandemic. (Note: this document dates from March 2020).

Event

Webinar: Dealing with Challenging Behaviour

22/07/2020 @ 09:3012:00

This virtual classroom training is for individuals who deal with challenging behaviour and risks of abuse, threats and assaults, that could …