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Housing Perspectives

Research, trends, and perspective from the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies

Housing with Services Kept Older Adults Safe During the Pandemic

During the COVID-19 pandemic, policymakers, housing and healthcare providers, community-based organizations, and grantmakers mobilized to provide older adults with stable and safe housing, as well as much-needed services to those sheltering in place. Our forthcoming report Advancing Housing and Health Equity for Older Adults: Pandemic Innovations and Policy Ideasto be released on October 6 – draws broad themes and lessons from a range of responses to the crisis. It is the culmination of the COVID-19 RECAPP project (Review of Equitable Community-Based Aging Policies and Practices), a collaboration with The Hastings Center.

One of the responses we highlight comes from a nonprofit affordable housing provider for older adults in the Greater Boston area. At the height of the crisis, 2Life Communities significantly scaled up its services and took steps to safeguard its residents. These efforts are the subject of “Planning for the Extraordinary Requires Close Attention to the Ordinary: 2Life Communities’ Efforts to Protect Low-Income Older Adults During the Pandemic,” a new working paper by Tufts Professor Emerita Rachel G. Bratt, who is also a member of the COVID-19 RECAPP advisory network.

As described in the paper, 2Life Communities’ response exemplifies key lessons from our RECAPP research. Prior to the pandemic, 2Life’s senior management was a finely tuned team that had built valuable relationships with service providers and funders that allowed it to quickly roll out meal delivery, COVID-19 testing, and other programs and services for all residents. It had also taken steps before the crisis to strengthen its financial reserves despite strict federal regulations for nonprofit housing providers. The organization’s ability to overcome administrative barriers enabled it to act quickly when the pandemic hit and helped fund some of the additional expenses incurred.

During a period of widespread lockdowns, staff members, including Resident Service Coordinators, were also crucial points of contact for residents. Before the pandemic, staff had built trust through regular visits and being responsive to residents’ problems. During the crisis, they increased their outreach, provided public health updates, launched in-house testing and vaccination programs, and helped expand services to include free deliveries of meals, groceries, and personal care items. 2Life was also sensitive to the cultural diversity of their population. Staff offered information in multiple languages and developed mechanisms for residents to become directly involved in promoting the health and safety of the overall community.

Seen in a broader perspective, the paper explores an institutional effort outside the healthcare system to meet older adults’ needs during a public health crisis. 2Life’s approach to supporting the wellbeing of people where they live offers insights not only for the housing field, but also public health professionals. 2Life’s efforts underscore the need for a comprehensive set of supports for older adults, particularly those with limited incomes. Policymakers, practitioners, funders, and researchers can learn from 2Life Communities’ pandemic response and help older adults navigate the many interlinked challenges they face.