A Critical Need for Resident Services

8 min read

Building Community While Addressing Stability

At affordable housing communities across the nation, residents receive more than a safe place to live; they are provided resident services ranging from wellness nurse visits to financial literacy courses to job search skills. The services are often as varied as the residents themselves.

Tax Credit Advisor spoke with two leaders in resident services to learn best practices in the field, as well as how the delivery of services is changing. Both Washina Ford, vice president of resident services and community engagement at Beacon Communities, LLC, and David Nargang, president of McCormack Baron Management, say that providing a broad range of services to residents in affordable communities is more critical now than ever.

“These services are greatly needed,” says Nargang. “Having these services well-funded and available is vitally important to the success of our communities. Our communities are gauged by how well we provide services in order for our folks to thrive.”

From Blood Pressure Checks to Cooking Classes
The range of services offered at affordable housing communities is broad and depends largely on the mix of residents, say Nargang and Ford.

“It is no cookie-cutter approach,” Ford says of how Beacon determines which services to offer. “Each community is unique. The core of our work revolves around housing stabilization and making sure our residents are stably housed.”

Ford says ensuring stability requires looking at and addressing the barriers to stability. Barriers can be a lack of access to stable employment, food, technology or education. In a senior community, it can be issues around health and wellness. Ford says her company’s resident services coordinators (RSCs) may work with partners in communities to address these issues, but Beacon employees often provide many services themselves.

At many of Beacon’s senior-focused communities, nurses come in and conduct wellness clinics, providing blood pressure checks, vaccines and other screenings. At a community in Philadelphia, RSCs partnered with the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine. The school conducted a study on the Mediterranean Diet, bringing its students into senior communities to teach residents about the diet and healthy food choices.

“Students are coming into our Park Towers site to educate residents around healthy choices so they actually know how to make a meal and shop. It builds their confidence,” says Ford. “Food security across the board is something we are looking at at all of our sites.”

Beacon’s Ocean Shores community in Massachusetts did a New Year’s program around goal setting that focused seniors on making choices to get active and out of their apartments. The session also helped seniors look for volunteer opportunities.

“Our goal is to make our seniors lively, more active and get out and about,” she says.

Nargang says McCormack Baron will often hold meetings with incoming residents and neighbors to query them on what type of services should be provided.

“In most instances, we are redeveloping in areas where residents come back,” he says. “We also poll community leaders and public partners on what they want to see (offered). It depends on the needs of the area. There is never a one size fits all.”

“When we go into the initial development stage, we bring everybody to the table, including service providers, to make sure we have adequate space and amenities to accommodate the services,” Nargang says.

Nargang says that the residents’ needs can be financial planning, services for children, wellness checks for seniors, supportive services around COVID, and especially rent relief, which has become a vexing problem since the pandemic.

“Over the last couple of years, we’ve interfaced with local governments, as well as state and federal agencies, to work so the rent needs are met in terms of our residents,” Nargang says.

Some affordable communities are tailored for people with special needs, Nargang adds.

“We are one of the more aware providers of affordable housing regarding individuals with special needs. We have various tailored programs. In DC, we have North Capitol Commons for homeless veterans,” he says.

McCormack Baron works with third-party partners to provide services through the Veterans Administration to make sure residents receive veterans’ benefits.

In St. Louis, McCormack Baron operates a uniquely designed project for disabled residents.

“Every unit is disabled accessible,” says Nargang. “We have other developers who come to visit the community to look at the design.”

Different Models of Service Delivery
Beacon and McCormack Baron deliver services to their residents using different models. Beacon provides most of its services directly through 65 resident services coordinators (RSCs) and eight area resident services managers. Beacon trains its RSCs using training materials developed in-house and from industry leaders in the field, such as the New England Resident Services Coordinators (NERSC). The training focuses on effective program delivery, partnership development, care coordination, conflict resolution, resource building and other areas of impact. Many of the area resident service managers have backgrounds in social work, mental health and/or many years of experience being a resident service coordinator.

“We have RSCs at 54 of our properties,” says Ford. “Some of our larger, more complex properties have multiple RSCs.”

Beacon is a for-profit company, so it is not eligible for some of the grant monies or other state, local and federal monies available for select services at other nonprofit communities. Ford says funds for services come out of each community’s operating budgets, although in some communities Department of Housing and Urban Development funds are used.

McCormack Baron uses third parties to provide residents services, usually the company Urban Strategies or in some cases, the public partners on the project who say they prefer to provide the services.

Nargang says he can’t recall an instance where they had to replace a third-party provider.

“We have such a close collaborative relationship with our third-party providers if there ever is a concern we can get to the table very quickly,” he says. “I have never seen an instance where someone dropped the ball.”

“At all of our properties, we like to have frequent town hall meetings with residents to make sure they are getting what they need so we can adjust accordingly,” he adds.

Nargang says most of the services provided in McCormack Baron communities are mandated by a Qualified Allocation Plan, but the firm generally goes “above and beyond the QAP.”

“This is why we are here. This is our mission as an organization,” he says of creating and maintaining vibrant, services-oriented communities.

The QAP requires providing services for the entirety of the tax credit period, but Nargang says McCormack Baron typically goes beyond that period.

Nargang adds that the services are often funded through public-private partnerships, using state or local government funding.

Resident Participation
Ford says COVID impacted residents’ participation levels in community service programs. Service providers are still working to bring participation levels back up, but they are improving.

“After COVID, we had a hurdle to get past residents’ isolation,” explains Ford. “We had to increase the engagement by going door to door and floor to floor to encourage residents to get out of their units and engage in fellowship. We had to get residents to feel safe again. Now we are having more residents come back and participate in programming.”

Nargang says the participation levels of residents vary widely among projects. In places of low participation, residents may not understand the specifics of the services.

“There may be some skepticism around what exactly the services are,” he says. “Our third-party providers then work to gain our residents’ trust and give them information. They show them the benefits of the services. Once we break down the barrier of the unknown for residents, it is amazing to see how they become advocates for the other residents on participation…it only takes a couple of residents to break down that barrier and then it is a fast-moving process.”

Ford says COVID did not just impact residents’ participation in services, it impacted residents’ mental health.

“COVID changed the landscape of resident services and as a result, it caused residents to experience emotional instability,” she says. “We started to see all kinds of mental health concerns and had to figure out what we needed to do to address it.”

Ford says Beacon worked to identify local partners who could provide mental health support and care coordination.

Role of Technology
During the strictest lock-down periods of the pandemic, technology played a key role in resident services, Ford says.

“Our goal was to link residents with services, whether it be through a laptop or tablet,” she says.

Beacon worked with various partners to increase residents’ digital connectivity to health services. Keeping residents, especially seniors, linked with family and friends through their smartphones and tablets also was important.

“We held workshops so residents could gain independence on how to use their devices,” she says.

Beacon also is using the federal Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP) to enroll residents in affordable internet and cable services.

In McCormack Baron communities, service providers use technology to track participation levels in programs and register residents.

Nargang stresses that the services provided to residents in affordable communities are key to their well-being. He cautions, however, that those services can’t be provided if the communities themselves aren’t built. This is increasingly difficult amid escalating construction costs and other mitigating issues.

“Hopefully, these issues will subside so we can get back to developing more projects that include services that are so desperately needed,” he says.   

Pamela Martineau is a freelance writer based in Portland, ME. She writes primarily about housing, local government, technology and education.