Resident Services: Are Your Property’s Services Hitting the Mark?

6 min read

Great resident services are good business at Crest Avenue Apartments, in Charleroi, Pa., a community south of Pittsburgh.

Since the owner brought in a package of health services in 2013, the vacancy rate for the affordable seniors property, which has a long waiting list, has dropped from nearly 10% to zero.         “It really does increase your occupancies and basically pays for itself,” says Jim Hott, Seniors Housing Director at the Redevelopment Authority of the County of Washington, the owner and manager of the low-income housing tax credit (LIHTC) property.

Property owners and managers as well as housing agencies know the power of resident services to make affordable housing communities more attractive to residents and stabilize their lives. These services can cause a chain reaction of positive effects, including lower resident turnover and reduced operating costs. More broadly, they can reduce the need for more expensive interventions like nursing homes and homeless shelters.

Choosing the Right Services

Resident services at LIHTC properties come in all forms: health monitoring; physical fitness and social activities; transportation; counseling; and education, such as after-school programs for children.

But in order for services to deliver the projected benefits they have to work. Owners and managers already pay a compliance officer to make sure they follow through on promises made when their properties applied for tax credits. The best managers do much more, though.

“We don’t want to just check the box,” says Susan Neufeld, Vice President of Resident Programs and Services for BRIDGE Housing, a large nonprofit housing developer and manager based in San Francisco.

To choose the right mix of services, owners and managers have to determine the needs at their properties, by communicating with residents, area leaders, and community groups, and identify the services that tenants are likely to utilize. These conversations can also help identify potential community partners that provide the services. Owners and managers shouldn’t miss an opportunity to partner with organizations that might be able to help their residents, say experts. The services available in the broader community should be available at your properties, says Erin Hart, Director of Health Benefit Services for Pittsburgh-based American HealthCare Group.

Managers can also learn a lot by counting the number of lease violations and move-outs at their properties and identifying the causes.

Services that address the causes of evictions can reduce turnover and improve the quality of life for residents. For example, a manager of a property with numerous evictions for poor housekeeping might partner with a community group that teaches these skills.     “Services focused on lease obligations are an asset management tool,” says Steven Chopek, Manager of Housing Services at the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency (PHFA).          At senior properties, managers can reduce move-outs for reasons of declining physical health by providing or arranging services that assist residents with the activities of daily living.

Services can have a measurable effect on the bottom line. A study by the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency of 937 LIHTC properties throughout the state found that on-site services generated property management cost savings.

An owner or manager can often provide or procure services for their property at little or no cost simply by partnering with a service provider in the community, such as a nonprofit organization or public agency. These services may be provided either on- or off-site.

But services paid for by the owner or manager can also have a positive budget impact. For example, the Redevelopment Authority of the County of Washington pays about $6,000 per year to provide health services at the 42 independent living apartments at Crest Avenue Apartments – an expense more than repaid by improved occupancies.

Sizing Up Your Services

To be sure they are on the right track, providers should check on whether they are meeting the goals for each of the resident services they furnish on an ongoing basis. This starts with counting the number of residents who use the service.

“Evaluating ‘good enough’ begins by simply capturing basic data such as how many people attend, who attends, and why they attend,” says Neufeld.

On-site property managers help service providers choose a time when the residents are best able to participate. “Working with families is much harder than you would think,” says Executive Director Adrienne Markworth of Leah’s Pantry, a service provider in San Francisco. “Many low-income families work around the clock.”

Service providers aim for strong participation by building relationships with the residents. For instance, an event like a yogurt parfait social can create a good experience that encourages residents to commit more time for a second event.

Subjective observations also help. “Do participants look happy, alert, and involved? Are teachers responsive and encouraging of participation?” asks Neufeld.                              Providers can also survey residents who don’t use offered services to find out why.Each service or program should have defined goals or measurements for success, such as proficiency for a reading program or positive eating habits for families in a nutrition program.

Housing Officials Ask for More

State housing agency officials attest to the benefits of resident services and frequently ask developers of proposed new housing projects to commit to providing more services in exchange for a leg up in the competition for funding.

In Pennsylvania, for example, applications for 9% federal housing tax credits receive an extra 10 points if they propose to offer supportive services to residents and link them with service providers. All 31 winning LIHTC applications in 2013 offered such services.

A growing number of states ask affordable housing properties to set aside a share of their units for supportive housing. For example, Alaska, Indiana, North Carolina, and the District of Columbia request all LIHTC applicants to designate 5% to 10% of their project’s units for supportive housing. The federal government is pressuring states, in order to satisfy the Fair Housing Act, to provide services to persons with special needs in the least restrictive settings possible. This means fewer nursing homes and halfway houses and more properties that mix special needs residents with residents needing fewer services. For example, PHFA reserves LIHTC awards in each annual cycle for two seniors projects and two family projects providing intensive services in up to a quarter of the units.

The mix can benefit the whole community.

“Managers may find they have some tenants with these issues already in place,” says Brigitt Jandreau-Smith, Chief Lending Officer at CSH, a New York-based supportive services consultant and advocacy group.

Some state and local governments and public agencies use their own funds to help developers pay for services. “We have self-funded a couple of programs,” says Carol Ventura, Director of Development at Rhode Island Housing. Communities that provide health services for elderly residents or services for young people (e.g., mentoring or art programs) can receive matching grants of up to $50,000 a year. Officials say these programs may save the state money in the long run.

At Crest Avenue Apartments, health services are helping the elderly residents stay put as they get older and “age in place” – a benefit for both them and the redevelopment agency that owns the property. “It’s a lot cheaper to bring services to the residents than to put them in a nursing home,” says the agency’s Jim Hott.

– Bendix Anderson