Brooke Bayer ran through her mental list of must-haves as she searched this fall for an apartment to share with her boyfriend. They both needed office space. Their building had to welcome Hazel, her miniature schnauzer. And their new place had to be serious about pandemic safety protocols.
Policies at Southstar Lofts in Center City, where she lived until last month, had made her feel as safe as she could feel while COVID-19 cases skyrocketed and she called a multifamily building home. The apartment has increased cleaning in shared spaces, asked residents not to ride elevators with people from different households, and removed chairs from the lobby to discourage lingering, among other policies. Signs remind everyone that masks are mandatory, and people should keep their distance.
“There’s been a culture they created where people know to follow the rules, and people in the building are incredibly respectful,” said Bayer, a 32-year-old senior manager for customer experience design at Comcast. “It feels like a safe culture, and they’ve taken the right precautions to keep everyone safe.”
But she’s visited friends in other apartment buildings where employees weren’t wearing masks, she didn’t see any signs about COVID-19, and groups of maskless people were free to gather in shared spaces. Restaurants, stores, gyms, and other businesses have enforceable occupancy limits and other safety mandates, but Philadelphia has no specific guidelines for multifamily buildings. They’re not businesses like gyms or restaurants that health officials could shut down for pandemic protocol violations. Depending on the apartment or condo manager, pandemic policies vary from strict to laissez-faire.
“It’s shocking. I’m surprised they have so much leeway to kind of improvise on how they’re handling this,” said Bayer, who now lives at the Park Towne Place apartments off Benjamin Franklin Parkway, which she said met her safety standards.
Multifamily buildings reflect the difficulties local and state governments face around pandemic policies. For the most part, property managers have to rely on residents to choose to follow protocols. Landlords who operate in more than one jurisdiction may have to juggle different rules. In the absence of strong guidance from property managers, residents decide for themselves what’s safe, and some take more precautions than others in spaces residents are forced to share.
Across the region, landlords have installed hand sanitizer stations in lobbies, limited occupancy in shared spaces, and canceled community events. They clean surfaces more often. Some ask residents to limit guests. They have adjusted the availability of amenities such as gyms according to local and state restrictions.
Rental industry groups have shared best practices with members. Marlynn Orlando, chief executive officer of the Pennsylvania Apartment Association, said landlords’ responsibilities under the law regarding COVID-19 protocols remain to be seen. Property managers will learn more “if and when any lawsuits start to come up,” she said.
In November, Gov. Tom Wolf vetoed legislation that would have shielded the multifamily housing industry and many other businesses from liability in civil lawsuits related to COVID-19.
Orlando said property owners and managers can help protect themselves as well as their residents by following state and local guidelines and recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“I think anybody that does a good-faith effort to do that will be ultimately protected in the courts,” she said.
But what property managers consider good faith efforts varies. Some are limiting capacity in elevators, while others don’t. Some are asking residents to take the stairs if they can. Some are marking their floors to keep people apart.
Others consider additional cleanings to be enough. Some have safety policies on paper but don’t consider enforcement of mask wearing or social distancing in common areas to be their responsibility. Some kept their gyms open while the city and state ordered them closed.
Many property managers are encouraging virtual and self-guided tours, closing offices to walk-ins, and allowing employees to work from home if possible. Many are limiting the amount of time workers spend in units, giving them gloves and masks, and using plastic barriers at front desks.
“The one thing we want to convey is that we have been on the front lines of this crisis since the beginning,” said David Brogan, executive director of the New Jersey Apartment Association. “Our employees are essential workers.”
In addition to cleaning more and separating staff into alternating shifts, the Society Hill Towers had employees and contractors go through COVID-19 safety training through the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, said Brett Scioli, the condo community’s general manager.
The condo has restricted outside contractors. Residents are no longer allowed to rent out the lounge. Mask requirements at the pool and fitness center have deterred some residents. Attorneys, insurance carriers, and the condo’s board all weigh in on safety measures.
“We’ve absorbed a lot of material relating to the pandemic and transmission and what’s required of us to keep the building clean and the residents and employees safe,” Scioli said.
In November, Society Hill Towers told residents they faced a $100 fine if they violated the mask mandate after receiving a warning. The few people who weren’t wearing masks got on board, Scioli said. Visitors and contractors without masks can’t enter the buildings.
In talking with managers at other buildings, Scioli said he’s found that how strict a property’s protocols are can depend on the demographics of the building. Some with mostly younger residents are more lax, he said.
Jessica Scully, president of the Scully Co., which manages nine apartment buildings in Philadelphia, said the company has “always chosen the ‘err on the side of caution’ approach” to the pandemic. The company screens employees for COVID-19 symptoms and has closed some common areas. Early in the pandemic, the company had hand sanitizer made and gave it to residents. It has put up “tons and tons and tons” of signs.
“We’ve had to be responsive to the numbers and the surges and what’s happening in the local markets where we operate,” she said.
The St. James in Washington Square, which the Scully Co. manages, set up a table near the front desk where residents can pick up food deliveries. It restricts access to the lobby from the outside. Since it had to cancel its annual holiday party with open bar and live music, employees delivered a bottle of prosecco and a box of cookies to each apartment.
Protecting residents has to be the priority, said Brogan of the New Jersey Apartment Association. Most of the discussion about the pandemic and housing pits tenants against landlords, but the pandemic is hurting both in different ways, he said.
“The enemy,” he said, “is the virus.”