Building Up Residents, Not Just Housing

A symbiotic relationship exists between an apartment building and its residents. The building needs residents to keep it vibrant, advise the staff about maintenance needs, and support the operations through their rent. And people need a home base from which to grow and thrive.

As awareness grows about the value of supporting residents’ broader needs and goals (and models for making added programming work), resident services are going mainstream. On-site services are no longer limited to community amenities at luxury properties or case management in housing for vulnerable populations. Top-tier affordable housing developers and owners are incorporating services for families with kids, older adults, singles—everyone.

“Housing is the base that supports everything,” says Stephen R. Whyte, managing director and founder of Vitus Group, a for-profit affordable housing developer headquartered in Seattle. “When you have housing that’s affordable and families can anticipate living there for some period of time, you’re giving that family more stability.”

When the base is stable, Whyte says, people can focus on getting the services they need: health care and wellness programming, food and nutrition, financial and computer literacy, job training, educational programs, and community events, such as health fairs, voter registration, and volunteer service opportunities. With those services right in their neighborhoods, residents are more likely to take advantage of them and gain better health and education while feeling right at home.

Whyte and others say that providing service-enriched housing requires a commitment of time and resources on the part of property managers. To make sure that commitment is valuable, the services need to be meaningful and have a measurable impact.

Focusing on five priorities can get a new resident services program off to a good start.

1. Safeguarding stability. Valerie Agostino, a senior vice president at the national nonprofit Mercy Housing, says that her organization’s property management and resident services staff work together to help people be successful. To that end, they take steps to boost residents’ practical living skills and housing stability.

“Sometimes, people who have been on the streets for a while haven’t a clue about how to take care of an apartment, what it will take to comply with a lease agreement, how to use a vacuum cleaner,” Agostino says.

Resident services staff also help residents find emergency funding when they cannot make their rent and make sure they’re able to make payments on time, improving their likelihood of being able to stay put and use the property’s services.

2. Finding the right partners. To tailor its services to each community in which it works, BRIDGE Housing—a nonprofit developer, owner, and manager of affordable housing on the West Coast—carefully chooses local social service providers.

“It’s important to have people in that community work with us because they have greater understanding of needs and greater access,” says Susan Neufeld, BRIDGE Housing vice president.

3. Measuring outcomes. Vitus Group looks for partners who not only can provide the services residents need but also are good at demonstrating the difference their programs make.

“We work with providers that have strong systems to design and measure their impact,” says Sara Wall, a social impact manager. “That’s an important criterion.”

Neufeld says BRIDGE Housing is working to create a “robust outcomes system” that measures its services impact on residents. The organization is part of Stewards of Affordable Housing for the Future, a network of affordable housing providers that has identified several outcomes to track, including residents’ income and asset growth, children’s educational progress, community engagement, and health indicators.

4. Promoting health. Mercy Housing partners with seven health care systems to provide health and wellness services. Its residents are more likely to have routine checkups and fewer emergency visits after a year of living in its properties.

On-site health services can be added early in planning a mixed-use development, as was the case with the Paseo Verde development in Philadelphia. Yet, many examples—including a health clinic at Beacon Communities in Richmond—show that partnerships can also grow to add services using existing community space well after a property is on line.

5. Focusing on children and families. Vitus Group, Mercy Housing, and BRIDGE Housing all have programs and initiatives that strengthen children’s mental and socio-emotional well-being. These programs not only strengthen children’s opportunities to succeed, they can also alleviate parental stress and support greater labor force participation.

Vitus Group offers tutoring, science programs, field trips, summer camp, and other enriching activities. Seventy percent of children who participated in Vitus Group after-school programming three times a week or more showed positive achievement in reading and language arts grades, according to Wall.

Mercy Housing has also seen positive effects on children enrolled in KidzLit, an evidence-based after-school program that teaches reading skills.

The Healthy Generations program at BRIDGE Housing’s Potrero Hills Terrace and Annex property promotes five factors shown to protect children from trauma and reduce the impact of stress: good nutrition, positive activities, nontoxic environments, nonviolent communication, and education. A substantial part of the program focuses on building parenting skills to get kids off to a good start. And if it helps to build a community among parents in the meantime, that is an added plus.


Photo credit: Incite Partners