Housing Accreditation in the Time of COVID-19

Preparing to submit the accreditation application

Keene Housing’s Director of Administration, Amy Wright was totally organized and ready to submit the organization’s application for accreditation in late March. As they were preparing to finalize and hit “Submit” in the Affordable Housing Accreditation Board’s (AHAB) accreditation portal, states were starting to buckle down to “flatten the curve” as experts called it and governors across the country were issuing stay at home recommendations in order to contain what looked like to be the beginning of a worldwide response to COVID-19.

Juggling the organization’s application and ensuring the safety of staff, residents and the community-at-large with the Keene Housing Executive Director, Josh Meehan, and the rest of the executive team, Ms. Wright submitted the application then pivoted with the leadership team to do what they have been cultivating for years – learn, communicate and act. In the midst of applying for accreditation and responding to a national emergency, the executive team and staff leaned on their decades of expertise and understanding of operating a diverse inventory of housing for seniors, families, veterans and individuals from all walks of life who are eligible for housing assistance.

Meeting Community Needs

The Keene Housing team and board of directors adopted stay at home guidelines for staff and a no-eviction policy for residents prior to HUD providing affordable housing organizations guidance to deal with the coming economic hardships and logistical frustrations of continuing operations during the national response to the virus. Keene Housing enacted policies regarding cleaning common areas in senior housing communities, schedules for staff to socially distance when coming into the main office to address work that could not be completed remotely, and communicated clearly, consistently and often to staff and residents about how to resolve issues, obtain supplies, and deal with emergencies.

The uniqueness of Keene Housing’s response, wasn’t so much the content, as it was the promptness, thoroughness, thoughtfulness and compassion that was clearly evident in their actions. When we conducted our review of the organization, we found that their COVID-19 response was very similar to the way they always run the organization. Keene Housing has the most thorough and clear Employee Handbook I’ve ever seen, and I’ve worked in many private and public sector organizations. Their preparation using intuitive data driven planning, and communication with their community at large is exemplary. With regard to planning, they had taken professional photography of their housing portfolio, including internal photos of units, back in December and January, which assisted the AHAB reviewers in our evaluation of the organization’s conformance with the standards.

Keene Community Participates in Accreditation

The AHAB Directors worked with me swiftly to adopt a policy along with procedures to conduct virtual site visits during any type of national or local emergency that may prevent an in-person site visit from occurring. Ms. Wright worked with AHAB to develop a framework for the virtual meetings, but in the end, it was her organization skills that got everyone together to complete the virtual site visit. “Scheduling webinars for our board members, our residents, our staff, our stakeholders, and even our mayor was time consuming”, said Ms. Wright, “but everyone understood becoming nationally accredited was a priority for us.” Executive Director, Josh Meehan knows how his team is dedicated to its mission of providing and advocating for affordable housing in the whole Monadnock region. “Our team worked hard on the application, but we also knew we wanted to demonstrate to AHAB and the industry that we meet the standards for a well run affordable housing organization, and just as important, in the middle of a national health emergency.”

Meehan’s characterization of his organization’s dedication and planning expertise was echoed time and again by community stakeholders and residents during the AHAB virtual site visit. Tim Murphy, Executive Director of the Southwest Region Planning Commission in New Hampshire, emphasized planning for housing needs is essential to economic development, “Keene Housing’s voice in understanding demographics around youth and aging is critical to our planning for resources in our region.” John Manning, with Southwest Community Services stated Keene Housing’s collaborative spirit and innovative ideas help with short term problem solving while not being disruptive to long term goals, and says everyone knows Keene Housing as “community collaborators”. Maryann Ferguson of the Monadnock Collaborative describes the team as “inquisitive, supportive” and Keene Housing staff “triage solutions quickly and effectively” for people.

Achieving National Accreditation

After the site visit, we completed the detailed report of the organization’s operations reflected in the 47 guidelines that make up the adopted industry standards. On May 28, 2020, the AHAB directors voted to award accreditation to Keene Housing.

Asked how Keene Housing is going to utilize accreditation for their organization, Josh Meehan stated, “We won’t ever stop advocating for affordable housing, and we believe accreditation is the best way to demonstrate we know and care about what we are doing.”

Meehan also serves as the AHAB vice chair, and was a founding member of the board. He does not vote on, nor is present for the vote on his organization’s accreditation decision by the AHAB directors. “We’ve got the right accreditation process down that’s rigorous, yet clear, understandable and achievable,” he said. “We’d like to see AHAB accreditation used more widely across the industry, as it evaluates an affordable housing provider to make sure we are walking the talk of our mission and fulfilling the purpose of what we were meant to do – advocate for and provide quality housing in our community.”

As for AHAB accreditation, we are pleased that the whole Keene, NH community participated in the process to allow us to really know Keene Housing and evaluate them against the standards. The participants unanimously agreed that the accreditation process was beneficial to their organization in a post site visit survey. We had already been working in a virtual environment, with our online portal for reviewing applications prior to COVID-19. Our existing accredited organizations already described affordable housing accreditation as an effective and holistic evaluation tool. With COVID-19, moving our site visit to be conducted remotely was a challenge, but in the end, keeping true to our system of evaluation even in a virtual environment remains a valuable process for the industry and for every organization striving to provide quality affordable housing.  Visit www.keenehousing.org and www.housingaccreditation.org/resources for more information.