As the COVID-19 crisis emerged, the Wellesley Housing Authority’s (WHA) first concern—beyond health-related ones—was about residents’ rent calculations.
“We knew that a lot of our residents would be affected by COVID-19 due to loss of hours, or possibly loss of jobs,” said Executive Director Sean Barnicle, sharing his report at the most recent WHA board meeting. “So we took the proactive approach of talking to residents and making changes [to their rents] without specific requirements for backup paperwork… We were able to have them put their requests in writing through us.”
This enabled the authority to adjust rent amounts without having to wait for letters from employers confirming changes in jobs or collecting several pay stubs for proof, said Barnicle, who started his job at WHA in April.
“We wanted to try to give them some solace that we’re trying to work with them through this unprecedented time,” he said.
While a significant number of residents, particularly in family units, have lost jobs or hours during the pandemic, others—including those on the front lines—have gained shifts and hours. Rules put in place by the country, state and WHA have helped to ensure that these residents are able to pocket gains, including stimulus checks. Rents were frozen March 1 and will stay that way through the end of July, and monies such as stimulus checks and enhanced unemployment aren’t being factored into income that rent calculations are based upon.
“The money should go to the residents, it shouldn’t then be portioned back out to the local housing authority, which then goes out to the state and federal coffers,” Barnicle said. Things can be re-evaluated as the new normal presents itself.
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Working during the COVID-19 crisis
WHA has also taken care of its staff, and as a result its residents, by moving to a work-at-home system early on, and that will largely continue, with some employees trickling back to the office on a rotating basis. It also works closely with the town’s Board of Health, which considers the public housing community in Wellesley one of its priorities.
Facilities workers have largely been kept out of residents’ units, with work focused outside when possible, including landscaping, refurbished flower boxes and other beautification work where employees are able to divide and conquer.
One way WHA has made sure to stay in close touch with residents even from afar is by launching a new Wellesley Housing Authority website, said Jackie Sullivan, deputy director. Sullivan’s goal had been to get the site up by June, but she launched it earlier when she realized electronic communication was going to be the norm during the pandemic. The site features resources on the new coronavirus, WHA announcements, and fun stuff like a jelly bean counting contest.
Looking ahead, as the COVID-19 threat hopefully subsides, WHA has residential improvements planned. These include a $250K window replacement project at its Washington Street units near the police station. The bidding process for that work, which includes the replacement of old crank-out windows that are tough for residents and maintenance to deal with, is getting underway.
Another project in the works is a refurb of the Barton Road complex office. While having two big projects going at the same time will be a handful, Barnicle is also hopeful that this will be a prime time to get good deals out of contractors hungry to get back to work.
Barnicle lamented that he had to be the bearer of bad news to some residents who had rolled out kiddie pools as the weather heated up. They’re too much of a liability concern to allow. But the town has come to the rescue with a good alternative. Through the Wellesley COVID-19 Relief Fund, a few dozen splash pads/sprinkler mats are being supplied to residents and other families in need.