One of my first jobs as a young housing professional in the 1980s at a local public housing authority was to support site staff, both property managers and social workers, in improving their performance and increasing positive outcomes for residents. I quickly learned that the property managers were the levers for change. As the people who were responsible for daily operations of their complex, they knew the residents on a more intimate level than anyone else in the agency. They also tended to have life experiences more similar to the residents and were able to generate new ideas from a place of greater authenticity and accuracy.
As I continued on with my career as a nonprofit housing developer and a community builder, I actively sought to work closely with property managers of all types. I have encountered really amazing people working hard to straddle all the inherent tensions built into the role of property managers. I have also met some folks who fell into the work with little intention, operating from a place of fear or inertia, and leaving a trail of unintended negative consequences.
Most would agree that people like teachers, nurses, librarians, policemen, social workers, and small business owners are vital to a healthy, functioning community. However, residential property managers never make this list. By and large, these hardworking people are underresourced, underpaid, underappreciated, over stressed, and not supported or trained to perform this vital role well in our diverse and culturally isolated society. We could be more connected, mutually supportive, and successful if we invested greater resources into the role of residential property managers, especially for the multitude of affordable housing complexes across the United States.
This investment need not be costly, and it could likely bring a much bigger return than many elaborate and expensive social programs. However, it would require a significant shift in thinking by both those who lead the development of affordable housing and those who own the property management companies. It would also require a different approach to recruiting, educating, and retaining the kind of people who can succeed in these crucial frontline roles.
The one universal ingredient that I repeatedly encounter in each new housing context is the lack of careful and/or creative attention to how to recruit, hire, train, support, and manage the property manager, especially in relation to other aspects of the affordable housing development process. The vast majority of the innovation in our affordable housing industry is devoted to either advocating for programs and funding or securing sites, design, public approval, permitting, and financing.
My business partner, Bill Traynor, and I have been privileged to work with three property management companies over the last year, all of which are developing elements of a new, more human-centered approach and set of practices, which is encouraging. We are also partnering with the National Initiative on Mixed Income Communities to offer our shared philosophy and approach in a number of settings where mixed-income housing will replace older public housing units.
Our hypothesis is that if we (the affordable housing industry) reposition the role of property management to be as important as the property’s design and financing, we can make significant progress in shifting the typical operating culture of fear and division in affordable housing, where residents are afraid of losing their benefits and staff struggle to be creative within a highly regulated framework.
Some of our recommended steps to do this are as follows:
Step One: Honest Acknowledgement of their Challenging Role
Property managers in affordable housing complexes–unlike a teacher or a nurse or even a policeman–are essentially “on the job” 24 hours a day, seven hours a week, in a setting where the residents are often physically present 24/7. They are charged with managing both complex structural (physical and regulatory) and social systems. The social system is extra complex because so much is a stake, the positional power differential is so extreme, and there are social stigmas associated with both those who live and work in these settings. They should be reminded that we are aware of these challenges.
Step Two: Honest Appreciation of the Importance of their Role in the Quality of Community Life
The many thousands of property managers in low-income and mixed-income communities all over the country are deeply and intimately involved in the lives of millions of people and hundreds of communities. It could be argued that the institutional actors that have the most personal connection to the lives of low-income families are the maintenance staff who work in these housing developments. We’ve been stunned that there are few, if any, moments in many management companies when these hardworking people are asked to contribute their insight. What property managers and their staff do, and the day-to-day decisions they make matter in terms of whether our communities work, or fall apart. We need to raise up this role to the level of importance it deserves and resource it as well as we have resourced the building of affordable housing.
Step Three: Use Participatory Research Methods to Reimagine and Redesign the Role
The industry needs to invest time and resources in the redesign of this role, and should look far and wide for perceptions and opinions on new models. If I were asked, my top four characteristics of an excellent property manager would be (1) deep experience either living in or holding other positions within similar housing contexts; (2) excellent communication and relationship building skills across lines of difference; (3) maturity to hold two competing paradigms (one human-centered and the other, highly rigid and regulatory) in a healthy, honest tension; and (4) love of hosting and connecting others in shared physical space.
Step Four: Invest in New Property Management Company Prototypes
The traditional philosophy, form, and practice of the property management business does not support the creation and nurturing of the kind of “property management role” envisioned above. The industry needs to experiment with (and provide funds to support the research and development phase of) a business model that can spark and sustain a new approach to staffing a site, beginning with the property manager role, but including other traditional positions such as the leasing agents, the maintenance staff, and resident services coordinators. And two basic shifts are needed: a shift to shared versus separate goals and a shift to using “co-investment practices” which produce shared aspiration, efficiency, and accountability among staff and residents.
Step Five: Rename the Position
For the reasons noted above, the role needs to be renamed to convey the broad scope of the position and to convey an inspirational invitation for those who might feel called to take on the challenges. I won’t attempt to offer a new name here, but my vote is to get rid of both the words “property” and “manager.”