MHN Executive Council: How Multifamily Can Give Back

Many in the multifamily industry want to work for the greater good. Here are some suggestions on how to champion social issues within your company.

Sure, it’s important to serve the residents and attract new renters. But many in the multifamily industry also want to work for the greater good, whether that be improving sustainability, alleviating the affordable housing crisis, or improving DEI within a company. Want some suggestions on how to incorporate these into your own company? The MHN Executive Council describes the important social issues they are championing in 2023 and how they’re implementing them.

Lili Dunn, president & CEO of Bell Partners

Lili Dunn, president & CEO of Bell Partners. Image courtesy of Bell Partners

Promoting ESG

Integrating ESG practices centered on integrity, transparency and performance has long been an important focus for Bell Partners. It’s not enough to generate great results—we need to generate them in the right way. We have a responsibility to the environment, our team, residents and community and need to ensure that there is accountability. The tone starts at the top—everyone must understand how important this is and live it.

  • Environmental: We have a whole group that focuses on nothing but Energy Management and Purchasing to ensure we are adopting sustainable practices when investing in and operating assets.
  • Social: We strongly believe that by having diverse teams, we can make better decisions by drawing from a wider variety of perspectives. We strive to foster a work environment that allows everyone to feel like they belong and contribute to their fullest potential. We develop and reward the skills and behaviors that reflect understanding and respect for our similarities and differences. Although we have more work to do, we are proud of our results. About 50 percent of VPs and above identify as women and more than half of almost 2,000 associates are people of color.

Lastly, we need to hold ourselves accountable. We document our policies related to ESG and create objective goals to make sure they are measurable and rewarded appropriately. This is part of our core values, corporate initiatives and bonus plans as well as criteria used for hiring and promotion decisions. —Lili Dunn, CEO & President, Bell Partners

Mary Cook, president and founder, Mary Cook Associates

Mary Cook, president and founder, Mary Cook Associates. Image courtesy of Mary Cook Associates

Affordable Design

This year we anticipate amping up our activity in affordable housing. The need for affordable housing is rampant in just about every market. Many designers focused on high-end design for a luxury-minded demographic shy away from anything that doesn’t attract this type of buyer or renter. Why? Popular belief holds that great design is expensive design. But we’ve found this just isn’t true.

The principles of good design—what we call the 7 fundamentals—have the power to create the same kind of impactful living space regardless of the price tag. In close collaboration with a builder or developer who trusts this process to work, and who provides budget guidelines for things like finishes and details, we plan to broaden our reach by designing for this high-need market. —Mary Cook, President, Mary Cook Associates

Stephanie Anderson, Senior Director of Communication & Social Media, Grace Hill.

Stephanie Anderson, Senior Director of Communication & Social Media, Grace Hill. Image courtesy of Grace Hill

Raising Awareness

Grace Hill is committed to giving back to our industry. In the past, we have partnered with many organizations to encourage leadership growth, educational opportunities and career advancements. Top of mind for us this year is a continued focus on human trafficking, women in leadership and promoting the impact our clients are making in their own communities.

Our partnership with iEmpathize, a non-profit organization committed to preventing and identifying exploitation is raising awareness in the rental housing industry to help combat this growing issue. We created a custom course online (offered in partnership with NAA) in October 2020 that has an amazing 92,894 completions from industry professionals across the country. We added the topic of labor trafficking during the second half of 2022 and will roll out new content on this topic and more surrounding human trafficking in 2023 to include webinars, online courses and other educational opportunities. Our goal will be to continue providing online training to equip employees with recognizing and responding to trafficking.

Our company is predominantly designed with female leaders across all departments. This is not exclusive to only our c-suite, but also our senior leadership team. A great example of this commitment is our recent acquisition of Edge2Learn and Ellis; both are owned and operated by a female entrepreneur, along with a majority of female employees. The partnership of two powerhouse CEO’s coming together to help move our industry forward speaks volumes to our culture.

In 2022, we rolled out our inaugural impact hero awards where clients from across the country nominated team members excelling in their community while making a grand impact in their surrounding neighborhoods. We shared their stories while also awarding each winner monetary donations to the non-profit organizations of their choice. Based on its great success, we expect our awards in 2023 to showcase more philanthropists in multifamily.

As many know, our CEO was diagnosed with breast cancer. And while she is in remission, she has made it her purpose to educate everyone on the importance of early detection. Her annual campaign each October showcases her vulnerability through her personal story of awareness and triumph. We ran a social media campaign that generated donations to, participated in breast cancer walks in three cities and was featured through NAAGives for our commitment. —Stephanie Anderson, Senior Director, Grace Hill

Yolanda Cole, Co-Senior Principal, Hickok Cole.

Yolanda Cole, Co-Senior Principal, Hickok Cole. Image courtesy of Hickok Cole

Importance of DEI

In January of 2020, our firm elected to apply for a JUST Label 2.0, the International Living Future Institute’s social justice rating program. JUST is a “nutrition label” that helps companies quantify performance in areas such as diversity and inclusion, equity, employee health and benefits, stewardship, and supply chain on a scale of 1 to 4. Once you earn your first label, you re-apply every two years with the goal of improving your scores. The application process helped us identify which practices worked well and which we could improve upon.

Subsequently, and further motivated by the COVID-19 pandemic and momentum of the Black Lives Matter movement, we hired a DEI consultant to educate ourselves on these issues and founded a staff-led DEI Council to develop a strategic plan for continuous development. Most recently, the Council spearheaded the launch of our first annual Rise Internship and Stipend, a program dedicated to elevating and supporting Black architecture and interior design students.

These actions are a starting point, designed to grow and evolve alongside the firm’s needs and the diverse needs of our employees. We believe investing in initiatives that promote inclusivity will strengthen our company culture and better position us to do work that matters. —Yolanda Cole, Co-Senior Principal, Hickok Cole

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