A Common Goal  

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Robust Resident Services Are Key to Cohesive Communities

Robust resident services within affordable housing developments are key to transforming individual units and renters into a cohesive community.

These services vary in type but are generally any formal program offered by an owner or operator of a housing development that goes beyond the building’s ‘brick and mortar’ necessities.

“Resident services are essential,” Julianna Stuart, vice president of community impact at Preservation of Affordable Housing (POAH), tells Tax Credit Advisor. Such services ensure that “residents remain stably housed, can access new opportunities to enrich their lives and can achieve financial independence.”

Though they are intended to impact residents, the benefits of well-considered programs and services very often flow back upstream toward property owners and operators. These returns can often be dramatic. For example, one Midwestern service provider, CommonBond Communities, found in a 2018 review that their wide-ranging programs aimed broadly at eviction prevention returned $4 for every $1 spent. This financial and social lift was fairly evenly distributed amongst a broad array of stakeholders, including residents, property investors, government and the wider community.

Though resident services as a component of affordable housing development have existed for decades, technological advancement in recent years has drastically reshaped how organizations and individual service providers deliver these vital resources to residents. For example, Stuart says that advances in remote connectivity have allowed POAH to scale their services, such as their Family Self Sufficiency program and financial coaching “much faster, dramatically reducing the amount of time to launch a new program and make it available to more residents. We think remote services are a great opportunity for certain programs, particularly to supplement in-person engagement.”

Challenges for Resident Services Today
Though resident services have the potential for transformative impact, successfully deploying the types of life-changing programs that developers want and that residents need comes with many challenges.

Chief among those challenges is the need to find funding for services. There are four ‘classic’ sources for this funding—organizations’ operating budgets, state and federal government dollars, nonprofit foundations and private donors—though other, more creative sources of funding exist and are available as well. Each of these, whether used alone or in tandem, can be inconsistent, and there is often an added cost of time and labor in fundraising and grant writing in order to cobble together a package that will successfully fund a desired program.

The lack of federal funding for these programs has, over time, become the main inhibitor to the widespread adoption of resident services. One impactful 2022 study on resident services, “Resident Services Funding & Delivery Models Among Affordable Housing Nonprofits,” authored by Mel Miller of Harvard University’s Joint Center for Housing Studies, concludes that “with limited and inconsistent sources available at the federal level, organizations have little guidance in figuring out whether and how to fund resident services.”

Indeed, it is exceedingly difficult to convince individual ownership groups to do the legwork to both secure funding and set up full resident services programs when there is no immediate incentive to do so. “Too often,” explains Andrea Ponsor, president and CEO of Stewards of Affordable Housing for the Future (SAHF), “it is a below-the-line expense.” Despite the myriad benefits of resident services, “we’re not appropriately valuing it in how we’re putting together financing stacks. We know it provides benefits to people and properties, and it’s not really being valued that way.”

Such funding issues are compounded by a problematic trend affecting nearly every sector of America’s post-COVID economy: staffing shortages and high turnover. These staffing issues have hit resident services programs particularly hard. “We have seen [a more] dramatic uptick in turnover and volume than we’ve ever had in our history in the last year and a half,” says Ellie Fanning, the executive director of Portfolio Resident Services.

“Our turnover rates and ratios went from being relatively manageable… to almost tripling.”

Such turnover goes beyond simple wage increases and speaks to the unique needs that service coordinators have within a demanding field, says Fanning. “Resident services is an industry as a whole that prides itself on being passionate and meeting the needs—whatever they are—of a whole community. And that can be quite a daunting task.”

Beyond the funding issue, the field of resident services continues to deal with the sustained social impacts of COVID-19. Stuart, of POAH, explains that “the pandemic put enormous pressure on frontline staff, who continued to do their jobs while also helping residents navigate the ever-changing Coronavirus and its impact. It highlighted some gaps but also allowed us to get creative – for example, there are many tasks that used to fall on frontline staff that they simply could not take on considering everything they already had on their plate. So, we looked for things that we could centralize with our central office team and let frontline staff focus on building and maintaining strong relationships with residents.”

Industry-Wide Solutions for Industry-Wide Problems
In an industry that is used to confronting seemingly intractable issues, there are several solutions already being developed to try and place more resident services in affordable housing.

One of the larger-scale solutions was the creation of the Certified Organization for Resident Engagement & Services (CORES) certification process. A program of SAHF created in connection with a partnership with the federal Fannie Mae loan organization, CORES puts prospective organizations through a robust set of qualifications in order to set a standard for how resident services are done in an effective, resident-centric manner. SAHF’s Ponsor says that CORES was initially created to help organizations, like Fannie Mae, identify housing operators who have “what it really takes to consistently build the capacity and commitment to resident services,” while also opening wider pathways for “dedicated funding streams getting to that scale and consistency.”

Those funding streams came in the form of Fannie Mae’s Healthy Housing Rewards Program, whereby CORES-certified organizations become eligible for appealing loan-related pricing breaks for both building loans and preservation transactions, meant to, in the end, supplement the funding for resident services. As well, CORES Certification has now been adopted on Low Income Housing Tax Credit Qualified Allocation Plan applications in six states—Indiana, New Hampshire, Georgia, Maryland, Ohio and Virginia—further expanding avenues for resident services funding at a statewide level.

Beyond serving as a checkmark for an increasing number of government funding sources, Ponsor says that CORES has become “a symbol to a wide range of partners,” such as equity investors, tax credit investors and other lenders, “that you have a well-designed and consistently implemented system and way of thinking about and providing for services.”

To wit: Stuart says that for POAH, CORES has been “a fantastic resource. The application process is a great exercise in auditing the key elements of your resident services system. The CORES Resource Library and webinars have been a great tool for us as well, particularly on how to think about measuring impact in service-enriched housing.”

Yet another solution, and one that has sprung up nearly hand-in-hand with the expansion of resident services, is the use of third-party companies either in whole or in part to take care of resident services programming within a development community. This has proved particularly popular, with Miller’s report finding that a majority of organizations rely on a third party in at least some capacity to deliver resident services, whether in whole or in part.

Third-party organizations bring a degree of latitude and expertise where individual organizations might have blinders or inexperience with certain issues relating to resident services. “The reason a third-party organization that services many clients could be a benefit to owners is that sometimes you’re blinded if you only certify your own deals,” says Fanning, whose Portfolio Resident

Services organization is one of the largest third-party service providers in the country. “By working with different owners, we would know and be privy to things that we need to sidestep or hurdle while working with different property needs across the country,” providing a broader perspective to ownership groups that might be more local or regionally based.

Finally, something that has developed in more of a grassroots manner in the last ten years, is the increasing willingness of various independent organizations to come together and share knowledge. One example of this is Fanning’s organization, which has recently partnered with five other large third-party service providers to convene quarterly and collaborate about the many unique issues they are facing right now, and how to overcome them. This collaboration has “really brought together some of these key players… to help each other out, and get through this because we’ve got bigger metrics to achieve.”

No matter whether it is today’s problem of employee retention or tomorrow’s problem of unknown scope and proportion, the meetings are critical, says Fanning. “Let’s get together and share resources, and open our books, and bring leaders to the table who can prevent all of us from struggling with the same concept in our own homes, in our own entities, but be a resource to one another and explain this didn’t work for me, so don’t consider spending your resources on it.”

Many other forms of this peer-oriented knowledge sharing exist—via organizations like NeighborWorks, the American Association of Service Coordinators and even SAHF itself—in order to bridge the gaps between competitors with the common goal of service and community uplift. Each one is crucial to solving the problems that face resident service providers, and affordable housing more generally. As Fanning says, “Affordable housing is an industry in which people feel compelled, or called, or are people who have hearts of servants wanting to give back in some capacity to the world in which we live. And so where we’ve seen silos in the past…, we are now coming together as a more comprehensive, open-armed group and community to have these discussions about what we are going to do to fix it.”

Abram Mamet is a freelance writer based in Washington, DC, whose work focuses primarily on the social histories of the community. He currently works as the assistant editor for CapitalBop.