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 property managers were the levers for change. As the people responsible for daily operations of their complex, they knew residents on a more intimate level than anyone else in the agency. They also typically had life experiences more similar to residents and could generate new ideas more authentically and accurately.
As I continued my career as a nonprofit housing developer and community builder, I sought to work closely with property managers of all types. I have encountered amazing people working hard to straddle all the tensions built into the role. I have met others who fell into the work with little intention, operating from a place of fear or inertia, and leaving behind unintended negative consequences.
Most agree that people like teachers, nurses, librarians, policemen, social workers, and small business owners are vital to a healthy community. However, residential property managers never make this list. These hardworking people are often underresourced, underpaid, underappreciated, over-stressed, and not supported or trained to perform 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 property managers, especially in affordable housing complexes.
This need not be costly, and could likely bring a bigger return than many elaborate, expensive social programs. However, it would require a shift in thinking by both leaders of affordable housing development and owners of property management companies. It would also require a different approach to recruiting, educating, and retaining people who can succeed in these crucial frontline roles.
There is often little careful and/or creative attention given to recruiting, hiring, training, supporting, and managing property managers, especially compared to other aspects of affordable housing development. Most innovation in our industry focuses on advocating for programs and funding or securing sites, design, public approval, permitting, and financing.
My business partner, Bill Traynor, and I have worked with three property management companies over the last year that are developing a new, more human-centered approach and set of practices. We are also partnering with the National Initiative on Mixed Income Communities to offer our shared philosophy and approach in settings where mixed-income housing will replace older public housing units.
We hypothesize that if the affordable housing industry repositions property management to be as important as property design and financing, we can shift the typical affordable housing operating culture of fear and division, where residents are afraid of losing benefits and staff struggle to be creative within a highly regulated framework.
These are our recommended steps:
Step One: Honest Acknowledgement of their Challenging Role
Affordable housing property managers are “on the job” 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Their residents are often constantly present. They must manage 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 those who live and work in these settings face social stigmas. Property managers should be reminded that we recognize these challenges.
Step Two: Honest Appreciation of their Important Role in the Quality of Community Life
The many thousands of property managers in low- and mixed-income communities across the country are intimately involved in the lives of millions of people and hundreds of communities. Institutional actors with the most personal connection to the lives of low-income families might be housing development maintenance staff. These hardworking people are not often asked to contribute their insight, even though their actions and day-to-day decisions help determine whether our communities work or fall apart. We must elevate this role and resource it as well as we resource affordable housing production.
Step Three: Use Participatory Research Methods to Reimagine and Redesign the Role
The industry must invest in redesigning this role and look broadly for opinions on new models. My top four characteristics of an excellent property manager are (1) deep experience 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 property management does not support the role envisioned above. The industry should experiment with (and fund research and development to support) a business model that can spark and sustain a new approach to staffing a site, beginning with the property manager, but including other positions like leasing agents, maintenance staff, and resident services coordinators. Two basic shifts are needed: a shift to shared versus separate goals and a shift to “co-investment practices” that produce shared aspiration, efficiency, and accountability among staff and residents.
Step Five: Rename the Position
The property manager role should be renamed to convey the position’s broad scope and an inspirational invitation for those who might feel called to take on the challenges. My vote is to get rid of the words “property” and “manager.”
Frankie Blackburn is co-founder of Trusted Space Partners and has been a partner there since 2011. Prior to this, she was the founder and executive director of Impact Silver Spring from 1999 to 2010, sparking a new network of over 1,000 people of all different racial, cultural and socio-economic backgrounds working for social change in Silver Spring, Maryland.
Frankie has over 30 years in public interest law, affordable housing, community development and public and nonprofit management. Previously, she helped found Silver Spring Community Vision, a comprehensive service center for the homeless, and served as Vice President for Montgomery Housing Partnerships, where she developed a new model for partnering with low- and moderate-income families living in MHP housing. While working for the Housing Opportunities Commission, she spearheaded a new county-wide approach to service-linked housing and the long-term needs of the growing homeless population. In the early years of her career, she served as a legal services attorney for the National Housing Law Project.
In 2010, Frankie was named the Outstanding Diversity Leader by the Washington, D.C. Chapter of Fundraising Professionals. In 2005, she was honored as one of Montgomery County’s 25 Outstanding Women in Business, and in 2000, she received the Linowes Leadership Award and the Comcast Cool Woman Award. Check out Frankie’s blog summarizing her work with Impact Silver Spring here.
Articles in “From the Field” represent the opinions of the author only and do not represent the views of the Community Builders Network of Metro St. Louis or the University of Missouri-St. Louis.