icon Breaking Ground

Gilbert Winn, CEO, WinnCompanies

12 min read

New Approaches to Cutting Evictions

Fourteen months after the first meeting, in January 2020, WinnCompanies launched its Housing Stability Program (HSP) and established a goal to cut eviction rates in half across the company’s owned and managed national apartment portfolio over a five-year period, starting with a 25 percent reduction in 2021.

Based on a strategy of education and intervention, the company’s program has helped more than 15,000 struggling households that normally would have faced eviction proceedings stay in their homes. The program’s success convinced WinnCompanies to offer it as a national blueprint for other owners and landlords.

Tax Credit Advisor sat down with Winn to discuss the finer details of the HSP and other important issues and trends.  

Tax Credit Advisor: What was the motivation behind the adoption of the HSP?

Gilbert Winn: As the nation’s largest operator of affordable housing, this was an issue of leadership. Housing evictions affect every town, every city across the country. Our experiences gave us the insights to come up with a strategy that could serve as a toolkit and maybe a roadmap for others to reduce evictions. We invested time and internal resources to create and execute a plan that worked for our portfolio but also could be used by other owners, large or small. It was a natural for us because of who we are. We’re an owner. We’re a developer. We’re a property manager. We do market-rate housing and affordable housing. Our working group on housing stability includes a person who specializes in community programming and resident services. Another member works onsite as a property manager overseeing lease applications and income recertifications. We also had a tenant attorney whom we’ve worked with for 30 years that understands quite well all the obstacles for tenants facing eviction. I participated to provide a business perspective – “Yes, we can’t go that far, but we could go this far.” We were uniquely positioned to put this together. The result was a program that not only staves off evictions but also allows us to meet our payroll, operating and real estate tax obligations.

TCA: In a nutshell, what makes your approach to eviction prevention so successful?

GW: There’s not one solution; rather there are a dozen steps along the way that can be followed precisely or can be used individually as tools, based on the circumstance. As an example, we try to intervene with a struggling household at the first sign of financial difficulty. We don’t want an eviction notice to be filed in the courts. We do things upfront, like financial counseling. We meet with tenants before their issues mushroom, so that we can understand what services they need. If they are behind on their rent, the property manager is trained to follow a series of pro-active steps: Did you meet with the tenant? Was there financial coaching? Did you try to set the tenant up with rental assistance? Have you tried to work out a payment plan? These are all actions taken well before anything is filed in court. That’s what makes our approach unique. Another example is the payment agreement. In years past, you would go to the tenant and say, “Pay your rent,” and they would say, “I need a few more months.” And it wouldn’t do any good to give them three months on a monthly payment amount that the tenant couldn’t afford to begin with. To address this, we’ve given our property managers leeway to go out nine months, which is beyond the industry standard. Ours is a holistic approach. We’ve not only trained our property managers, but our lawyers as well, to make them partners in our approach. We’ve told them if you can end up with a successful payment agreement or a successful rental assistance agreement, you’re going to get a similar incentive commission that you would have gotten a year ago had you facilitated an eviction. Making stability the prime directive and incentivizing it as a priority should help change attitudes.

TCA: You have offered this program as a blueprint to other property owners. What distinguishes your approach from what other property owners are doing to keep evictions low?

GW: The industry has done a good job overall at staving off evictions, where possible. What differentiates us is that we include the entire toolkit in our approach, whereas some landlords might pick and choose elements, for better or worse. Given our size and our experience over 50 years, we’re in a good position to bring all solutions to bear. If you interviewed a small landlord, they might be doing the rental assistance applications for their tenants, but they may not be doing sustainable payment agreements or vice versa. We’re doing it all because we have the will, as well as the capability to do it all. That said, the multifamily world becomes more complicated every day. It is an unrealistic expectation and unfair burden to assume small landlords can deal with all these new rules and application processes. We have to be more thoughtful as to what we require of landlords when they might only own ten units and not have the staff or bandwidth to do what we do.

TCA: You participated in a White House Eviction Prevention Summit this summer to share your successes with HSP. What was that experience like? Do you think the summit will have a major impact on promoting eviction prevention best practices across the affordable housing industry?

GW: It speaks loudly that the White House, with so many things going on in the world, would have a seminar on evictions. It demonstrates this is a national priority. I think where the summit will really help is not so much the panel I spoke on, but the break-out sessions that happened afterwards, where housing administrators from communities across the country got to speak with experts about what they can be doing in their locations. It was training for hundreds of professionals, and it was invaluable because it doesn’t happen every day. The break-out sessions and ongoing working sessions not only brought the eviction issue to the forefront but also gave them the tools to pursue change and implement solutions.

TCA: When you say housing administrators do you mean landlords, or nonprofits or some other officials?

GW: I am talking about a housing office of a small town in Montana or an economic planner from a large city in Colorado. These are the folks charged by their mayors to help prevent evictions. It may never have been part of their job pre-COVID, but now it is, and they had access to White House staff, federal officials and national nonprofits to learn what tools they can implement.

TCA: You started working on the HSP in November 2019 and within five months the nation was on lockdown mode. How did that impact your efforts?

GW: We did not have a holistic plan in March 2020, but there was enough work that had been done to guide us on next steps. It led to Winn’s decision not to evict people and it changed our mindset to make this a national blueprint. We knew it was going to be completed in the next year, so we decided to take a leap in order to take a national leadership role as we worked through the final details of a complete program. Philosophically, it started much earlier, but the eviction diversion process is complex. It required an in-depth research and planning process to create the strategy and tactics. Once we came up with a detailed outline, we made sure to test our approach with various property managers across the country and to get feedback, so it was an 18-month process.

TCA: Thank you for those insights. Now I’d like to focus more broadly on WinnCompanies. How would you describe your business model today versus pre-COVID?

GW: Our business model has not changed. What has changed is the breadth of what we’ve been doing. More cities and more towns across the country are viewing affordable housing as a necessity at this point, as opposed to a luxury, because its role in the quality of life and in local economies has become apparent. The pandemic made the need for more affordable housing crystal clear and dramatically accelerated the pursuit of solutions. Our business model is that we’re expanding. We’re in 23 states and Washington, DC now. Pre-COVID, we might have had 20 projects in process. Today, we have double that number. More cities and towns are requesting help. We’re seeing more joint ventures because there’s more funding at the city and state levels than there ever has been before. When there are opportunities for WinnCompanies to make an impact and have a long-term successful project, we will expand our geography. Prior to the pandemic, we often had to create our own opportunities by convincing a city or a town that affordable and mixed-income housing was right for them. Now we’re getting phone calls from local officials asking us to come meet with them.

TCA: Concerns over the Delta variant have arisen lately and the impact it could have on the elderly, even those who have been vaccinated. What precautions are you taking to protect your tenants and your employees?

GW: Since February 2020, our approach has been to default toward safety for our tenants and employees. We adopted the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommendations as a baseline and layered on top of them the more restrictive protocols being imposed at a city or state level. We default to the more conservative approach for health and safety. Unfortunately, it appears we may have to re-implement mask requirements and other restrictions. Even as COVID cases went down in the late spring, our on-site employees had the authority to require tenants to wear masks if they wanted to meet face-to-face. We gave onsite property managers the power to say, “I’m happy to do this over the phone, but, if you want to come to the office, I would feel more comfortable if you wore a mask.” We have supported our employees on the front lines. We had just started opening common areas; now, with Delta, we need to seriously consider shutting some of those down again. We have not required our employees to get vaccinated; that’s not a step that we’ve taken, but I’m not ruling it out at a later time.

TCA: Have you encouraged your tenants to get vaccinated?

GW: Yes, in a very big way. But it’s more as a gatekeeper or facilitator for the cities and towns that have asked us to play that role. We’ve run dozens of vaccine clinics, especially at elderly and Section 8 properties, where we’re bringing in vans to administer vaccinations through our Connected Communities platform, which is our resident service program. We’ve partnered with local pharmacies and healthcare providers for on-site clinics, and they’ve been very successful.

TCA: Looking ahead into 2022, what do you believe will be the biggest issues you will need to contend with?

GW: Tenants being able to pay their rent. We have had an eviction moratorium nationally and within our company. We have rental assistance that’s robust from various city, state and federal programs. What happens when the eviction moratorium ends and the rental assistance funds dry up? I’m asking this as a developer, as much as I am as an owner. Will there need to be new underwriting standards for tax credit developments? Are we going to plug-in the normal five to seven percent vacancy rate that we always used to underwrite deals, or will we need a whole new expectation of low-income folks falling behind on rent, to the point where we need to assume a ten percent economic vacancy rate? Will we need larger operating reserves? These are all challenges, because they are moving targets in uncharted territory. As an affordable housing developer, the biggest problems we face are the unknowns. We don’t have the visibility we are used to having. I think there could be some developments that fall onto hard times because they underwrote to one rent collection expectation and have now ended up with another. That’s frightening. But I also feel that given our industry’s history, the government and developers will figure it out.

TCA: Thank you for your time. I have one final question. Who is Gilbert Winn?

GW: I am a problem solver. With everything we do at Winn, I think about its applicability to society or the real estate industry as a whole. We try to be leaders. We try to create national models. The problems we deal with on a 100-unit apartment complex are the problems that are occurring a thousand times over in every city and state in America. I enjoy tackling big problems and coming up with the best solutions. On a personal level, I’m a father, a son and a brother and I enjoy spending time with my family. I find it rewarding that creating quality homes is what I do for a living. Nothing is more important to me than my home and my family so, if I can make people’s lives better in the same way, that’s about the most rewarding thing I could do in my life.


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.