CORONAVIRUS

Condo residents, building owners adjust for social distancing

'You do the best you can,' Linn County public health official says

A hand sanitizer dispenser is stationed at an entrance to Water Tower Place in Cedar Rapids on Thursday, April 16, 2020.
A hand sanitizer dispenser is stationed at an entrance to Water Tower Place in Cedar Rapids on Thursday, April 16, 2020. Building managers have installed hand sanitizer dispensers in the building, posted signs reminding residents to maintain physical distance, and have increased cleaning in shared stairwells. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
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How does social distancing and self-isolation work when dozens of households share the same front door?

“You can’t force people to do the right thing, but I have wonderful group of residents,” said Kristina Link, who manages Water Tower Place Condominiums in Cedar Rapids’s NewBo District.

Residents and tenants of multi-unit dwellings add up to a good-sized town in both Cedar Rapids and Iowa City. Building owners and managers are adjusting their routines to keep those communities safe.

Dustin Hinrichs, safety supervisor for Linn County Public Health, has been fielding calls.

“I wish I had a great answer, but I really don’t,” Hinrichs said. “Each scenario is different and you do the best you can.”

Hinrichs directs landlords and property managers to the Federal Housing Administration’s guide on pandemic precautions, which includes information on applying for federal assistance under the CARES Act, at https://bit.ly/3bgQDFK.

Precautions include social-distancing reminders in lobbies and elevators, rescheduled maintenance, and closing some amenities.

“We’re trying to share with our residents and our staff all the guidance that’s been provided by the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), Iowa Public Health, and Linn Public Health,” said Darryl High, owner of High Properties.

The company manages 1,400 units at 25 locations in the Cedar Rapids area.

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“We’ve closed all non-essential common areas. Fitness centers, pools, hearth rooms, they’ve all been closed,” High said.

Cleaning and sanitizing of essential common spaces is on an “accelerated” schedule, she added.

“I’m over wiping down the elevator buttons at least once an hour,” said Jeff Garner, operations manager for Hobart Historic Restoration.

The company’s Metropolitan has condos and rentals, and its Mott Lofts and Chelsea are rental-only. All three are in southwest Cedar Rapids’ Kingston neighborhood.

“Our janitorial services are diligently cleaning the elevators and common areas,” Marc Moen wrote in an email.

His Moen Group owns apartment and condo buildings in Iowa City, including the Plaza Towers, Blackstone, Vogel House and the new Chauncey.

Moen properties are limiting common-area access to no more than 10 people.

“In elevators, the users are keeping a safe distance or using separate elevator cars.” Moen wrote. “In our larger buildings, we use special high-speed motors and we have multiple elevators, so it is not a time issue for users to take separate cars.”

“For all of us this is new terrain,” said Ryan Galloway, CEO of Perennial Properties Management. “It’s been a fast-moving story.”

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The Des Moines-based company maintains Hatch Development Group’s Brickstone apartments in Cedar Rapids’s Oak Hill-Jackson neighborhood.

Galloway’s staff sanitizes elevator buttons, door handles and other common-area fixtures at least twice daily. He’s also posted social-distancing reminders and closed some community rooms.

“It’s a reminder if you sneeze, don’t sneeze into your hand. If you’re sick, stay home,” he said. “We have not had any tenants yet that we know have been diagnosed.”

Precautions extend to maintenance staff who in normal times work in residents’ homes. High Property staff works staggered schedules, and employees work singly instead of with a larger crew.

“We’ve suspended any work orders on jobs that would require two people,” High said. “We’re not doing in-unit work orders unless it’s an emergency. We’ll make arrangements for the tenant not to be there, and we’ll glove up and mask up.

“We’re taking all steps to keep our residents and commercial tenants safe while keeping the staff safe.”

“Emergencies typically involve heating and cooling issues and plumbing,” Perennial Properties’s Galloway said. “Given the timing of this, we fortunately haven’t had any need to get into tenants’ units.”

Link cut her own office hours at Water Tower Place to two days a week. She’s posted social-distance reminders in common areas and hand sanitizer at each entrance.

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“More than three people in the elevator isn’t really compatible with social distancing, so please consider that,” she said.

The building’s rooftop garden — a popular spot for residents’ gatherings — will get similar treatment.

“When things get warmer and people want to go out there, we’ll probably post notices about that,” she said. “Everybody has their own balcony, so they can get some fresh air.”

Water Tower Place’s residents’ board and book club now conduct meetings on Zoom’s online meeting platform.

While condos usually have their own washers and dryers, apartment buildings’ laundry facilities generally are common areas.

“One of the more challenging parts is laundry rooms,” said Linn County Public Health’s Hinrichs, who advises landlords to post reminders in apartment laundries and to monitor their use.

“We don’t really want people sharing, but at the same time laundering is important.”

Precautions extend to prospective tenants and residents, too.

“I’m doing all virtual tours,” Garner at Hobart said. “I’m not taking anybody in until the previous tenant has moved out.”

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“We don’t have any walk-in traffic anymore,” High added. “We’re doing virtual tours.”

Property managers say tenants and residents are doing their parts.

“We’ve all got to be responsible for ourselves, too, and they have been,” Garner said. “Everybody’s been really good about spending (less) time in the hallways and the common areas. It’s the new normal, we can’t just flip the switch and this all goes back.”

“It’s a little different from the normal routine,” High said. “I think people have appreciated that we have a really good group of residents across the board. We appreciate that and we continue to work hard for them every day.”

“You’ll see a lot of residents wearing masks,” Galloway noted. “We’re hearing very few complaints. They realize we’re all in this together and the work orders can wait.”

“We are very fortunate to have responsible owners and tenants,” Moen wrote. “Many are involved in the medical field and are well versed on COVID-19.”

One of the unit owners at Water Tower Place has been making face masks, Link said, “and she’s putting them outside her unit for anyone who needs one.”

Other Water Tower residents also are pitching in to help their neighbors.

“We have several unit owners that would be considered high-risk,” Link said. “Over the age of 80, or they simply don’t want to go outside.

“We have been able to coordinate grocery runs or to the pharmacy, whatever they need. Other unit owners have volunteered to go out and run errands for other people, and I’ve been able to coordinate through my office.

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“This is a great community that really works well together.”

By the numbers

Multi-resident units as of Jan. 1:

Cedar Rapids

• 9,447 condos

• 9,915 apartments

• 1,064 duplexes

Iowa City

• 8,498 condos

• 7,887 apartments

• 1,538 duplexes

Source: Cedar Rapids, Iowa City assessors’ offices

Note: There are another 667 multi-resident conversions, defined as three or more units, in Cedar Rapids. Iowa City doesn’t break out this designation.

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Our most important Coronavirus coverage is free to the public.

If you believe local news is essential, especially during this crisis, please donate. Your contribution will support news resources to cover the impact of the pandemic on our local communities.

All donations are tax-deductible.