icon Breaking Ground

Chris Jones, CEO, Housing Opportunities Unlimited

10 min read

Uprooting and relocating residents can be challenging and stressful if you don’t have the right people in charge to coordinate everything.

Boston-based Housing Opportunities Unlimited, which celebrated its 40th anniversary in November, specializes in providing relocation services.

Chris Jones became CEO in May 2021 when company founder David Connelly retired. Jones joined HOU in 2010 as a relocation coordinator at Oliver Hills Courts in Richmond, VA, where he facilitated on-site relocation activity for Winn Residential. Following that success, Jones was dispatched to Chicago, where he became relocation coordinator for St. Stephen’s Terrace, a 263-unit property redeveloped by The Community Builders (TCB).

Over the past decade, he has successfully helped implement many large-scale, temporary, in-place and permanent relocation efforts. Tax Credit Advisor sat down with Jones to learn more about how relocation works, and the factors involved to make it successful.

Tax Credit Advisor: You recently became CEO after the company’s founder David Connelly stepped down. What was that transition like? Were there any lessons learned?

Chris Jones: One of the things that I’ve learned while working at HOU is the passion we have for working with our residents. Although David has stepped down, I still speak with him to ensure that the values he instilled within our company continue as we move forward.

TCA: Do you have any goals or aspirations that you’d like to achieve while CEO?

CJ: Oh, yes, I want to continue to maximize the potential HOU has to offer, perfect our craft and build on our expertise in serving residents within our communities. I want to focus on expanding HOU’s services and show more clients the value of our expertise in redevelopment projects. We strive to be part of the solution for residents, specifically for affordable housing residents, to continue to have a safe place to call home. The work that we do within our communities is critical to successful redevelopment and relocation efforts. In recent conversations with colleagues in real estate, I learned that some developers are unaware that a company that offers relocation services like ours exists. With increased awareness of our services, we hope to expand the delivery of our services to more urban and suburban locations where we have yet to have an opportunity to offer relocation services and grow our capacity.

TCA: I’d like to learn more about your relocation services. When is relocation necessary? Is there a common scenario that you can share?

CJ: Relocation typically occurs when a resident must move from their home for any given time for the property owner to complete a rehabilitation, renovation, demolition or acquisition. Our focus is ensuring that residents residing in these communities are treated fairly, equitably and consistently throughout that process.

TCA: What relocation services does HOU offer vs. what is outsourced? How does that work?

CJ: HOU does not currently subcontract or outsource any of its services. Our business model presently covers all services required to carry out successful relocation efforts, including, but not limited to, pre-development consulting, relocation plan writing, relocation implementation and the delivery of resident services.

TCA: Where do you typically move people to? Are these properties that the developer client owns in the same area, or do you contract with other property owners?

CJ: Every project is different. Early in the relocation process, we collect and assess all data needed to ensure that we provide the necessary information to carry out a successful relocation that best supports a client’s project timeline. We have dedicated staff to conduct market surveys and analyses to determine the feasibility of moving impacted residents. With that information, we can deliver options to our clients that may be feasible within their project timeline, but most importantly, ensure that it supports the residents.

TCA: When are you brought into the development process?

CJ: We are brought into the development process in the early stages of the project when we can engage and support the client and their residents. It gives us a chance to understand the proposed scope of work and an opportunity to familiarize ourselves with the community and assess the needs of residents whom the proposed plan will impact.

TCA: What are some common best practices when planning out the logistics for a mass relocation?

CJ: Relocation can be a very stressful and anxious time for anyone who is affected by the changes that are taking place within their communities. Different types of relocation (temporary, permanent or in-place) may call for different types of preparation, and HOU recognizes the impact that this change has on residents and the importance of notifying residents of the proposed plans. HOU offers various services to help engage residents in the process, allowing them to acclimate with HOU and its partners. We offer resident workshops on preparing for moves, Q&A sessions about the entire relocation process and resident meetings to provide updates, and dedicated staff who will continuously work with residents from start to finish. Some additional best practices to prepare for relocation include engaging residents (and HOU) early in the process, being mindful of potential relocation costs that will be necessary to complete the project and developing a realistic timeline. Part of planning a successful relocation is being patient. There are potential delays in every step of the process, from securing funding and project closing to construction material delays, resident emergencies and depending on the location of your project, natural disasters. HOU can help to identify and prepare for these unforeseen circumstances.

TCA: How much does a relocation plan vary depending on project size, federal subsidies used in the project, and city, state and federal laws?

CJ: All those variables can affect how a relocation plan is strategized and vary based on funding sources and housing regulations at each governing level. We have seen some projects without federal funding that may still be subject to some housing relocation guidelines.

TCA: Your website refers to the Uniform Relocation and Real Property Acquisition Policies Act of 1970 (URA). What can you share about that?

CJ: The URA is a federal law that identifies the minimum federal requirements for projects that utilize federal money. Any project that includes federal funding involves regulations and guidelines that developers must follow while relocating residents and affected communities. State and local housing guidelines may add additional overlays on a project. For example, I’m from Richmond, VA. The minimum federal requirement to notify any resident of displacement on a project that will trigger URA is 90 days. Here in Virginia, we must provide at least 120 days’ notice. Understanding that some states, cities or local jurisdictions may require more notification time than the URA requires is an integral part of relocation. It is one of many examples of how federal law may differ from regulations on other levels.

TCA: What does relocation entail as far as the use of vouchers, units on the market, etc.?

CJ: Some factors that relocation entails include the availability of compatible units and different housing voucher eligibility requirements. As part of our planning process, we carefully review all the project details and provide pertinent information based on housing regulations and housing subsidy programs related to the proposed project. HOU staff are well-versed in affordable housing regulations and have expertise in housing voucher programs, contributing to the pre-implementation consultation we provide before a development project begins. That expertise and knowledge are critical to our work when we assess and collect necessary data to schedule and plan a relocation accordingly to support a client’s project timeline.

TCA: How do you prepare the residents for a relocation? How much lead time is commonly given to the residents to prepare? Do you have to prepare differently when moving elderly residents versus younger families?

CJ: There are several ways we prepare residents for relocation; we tailor our plans to support the unique needs of families with children and seniors and the reasonable accommodations requests of individuals with disabilities. Relocation can be stressful, so I emphasize the importance of getting HOU on board early on a project so we can prepare residents and answer their questions on relocation timelines, accommodation options, move preparation and available supportive services. HOU is a one-stop shop with pre-development planning, consulting, coordination and implementation of relocation plans. Our dedicated team of project managers and coordinators can readily address resident questions at community meetings and through resident assessment interviews and surveys to ensure residents feel as comfortable as possible from the start to finish of relocation.

TCA: How do you handle residents who are resistant to moving?

CJ: We counsel developers and residents to help them understand that if they must move, HOU is present on-site and readily available to ensure residents are treated fairly. Our dedicated teams will support their relocation safely with the utmost care. Some residents may be skeptical about moving because a change to their residence is outside their comfort zone, especially for long-time residents. Part of HOU’s early engagement is to establish a trustworthy relationship with residents to help them understand that we are present to support them and will offer guidance that best fits their needs.

TCA: Is your fee based on the number of residents that need to be relocated, or is there a flat fee? How does that work?

CJ: Our fee depends on a project’s scope of work and services, the timeline, the number of affected residents and other factors. In some projects, we are involved in the full implementation and spearhead the relocation process. But there are other projects where we only serve as consultants and provide guidance throughout the project.

TCA: Did COVID in any way permanently alter the way that you plan a relocation?

CJ: COVID has majorly impacted many areas of our work. One of my philosophies is to always try and find a silver lining, which helps us become more innovative in engaging and communicating with residents while delivering services safely and efficiently. HOU’s 40 years of relocation experience helped us identify early during the pandemic the risks and impact of COVID on relocation projects and everyone involved. We take pride in prioritizing the safety of residents and HOU staff, and it continues to be part of our work as we seek new and improved ways to best complete relocation activities as safely as possible.

TCA: I see you also provide resident services. What are your most popular programs?

CJ: Some of the most popular programs provide access to and include classes or workshops on financial literacy, credit repair, energy efficiency, community engagement, and mental and behavioral health support groups. As part of relocation services, we counsel residents moving to a new community on the positive changes of the new environment, ways to reach property managers, and available resources, including social services available in the new community. Resident services are essential in any relocation project, including post-relocation, to provide continued support and foster community building.

TCA: Are there any noteworthy trends regarding relocation strategies or resident services that you’d like to share?

CJ: Over the last two years, increasingly more developers are starting to understand the value and the need for our specialized services to ensure a successful relocation as part of their projects. We impress on developers that the care of residents and their needs contributes to the success of their projects.

Darryl Hicks is vice president, communications for the National Reverse Mortgage Lenders Association and a 24-year veteran of associations managed by Dworbell, Inc., the management company of NH&RA.