How to Involve Residents in Sustainable Efforts

Apartment residents are beginning to follow the sustainability lead of their communities, even if they don’t necessarily want to talk about it.

greenForget April 22—for Kelly Vickers, every day is Earth Day. As the national director of sustainability for Phoenix-based Alliance Residential, this year Vickers will incorporate sustainability metrics into the firm’s asset performance model, launch a corporate-wide hydration campaign, manage the company’s growing electric vehicle charging station platform, evaluate digital thermostats and environmental controls, release Alliance’s second annual comprehensive citizenship and sustainability report, and integrate Alliance communities and renters nationwide into a Nature Conservancy crowd-sourcing effort to help support the “Plant a Billion Trees” campaign.

If that weren’t enough, Vickers is also on-point to communicate the short- and long-term value of these initiatives to residents, and in many cases, also to get renters directly involved and engaged with Alliance sustainability programs. “We manage more than 300 properties across the country with diverse resident demographics in a variety of locations,” Vickers said. “Most of our communities hold resident engagement events that present opportunities to incorporate sustainability, and those with sustainability features built into the community discuss these aspects with residents and prospects. The most important thing is to make sure our sustainable events and features are relevant to the conversation, and to what is important to our residents.”

Indeed, multifamily owners and property managers have struggled for years to make “green” practices a meaningful part of resident dialogue and engagement, and have instead largely focused on energy efficiency within the built environment. “As owners, we spend a lot of time on the infrastructure and building efficiencies, making sure we have the best lighting systems and best heating systems, digital thermostats, humidity and occupancy sensors,” said Sarah Greenough, senior vice president & chief marketing officer for Princeton Properties, an owner and manager of more than 6,000 apartment units across Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Maine and Georgia. “Those technologies are incorporated into the building and the resident doesn’t have any active participating to do to take advantage of efficiencies and benefits.”

Joseph Batdorf, president of Houston-based J Turner Research, has surveyed hundreds of thousands of apartment prospects and residents on the services and amenities central to their renting decision and lifestyle. Statistically speaking, green has never been a high-ranking consideration of renters. “While community is always critically important, whether or not a property is green has never scored highly with renters,” he said. “Location, price and, increasingly, ratings and reviews have much more influence on their appreciation of a community and where they decide to sign a lease.”

Conversation starters
With price-conscious renters, multifamily operators are often successful engaging residents with sustainability when the program in question directly impacts the resident’s pocketbook, so much so that Alliance incorporates the strategy into its training. “If you are having a conversation about energy-saving features and water conservation features that will help them save money, I think that always is attractive to a prospect,” Vickers said. “So we include that in a handful of sustainability-related classes in our online education portal and it’s a requirement of our associates to go through that sales training.”

Online communication channels, including social media and email, have likewise emerged as effective forums for getting residents engaged with green, too. Princeton Properties has eight locations with solar panels on the roof, and residents can log into a solar website and see how much those panels are generating for power. “Those kinds of things are awesome,” Greenough said. “Even if they don’t involve the resident being any more or less green, it certainly involves them in the decision-making we do that is better for the environment.”

Joe Greenblat, CEO of Sunrise Management, which manages everything from affordable to class-A core luxury in a 13,600-unit portfolio spread across California, Nevada and Arizona, said that with several years of drought impacting a large portion of Sunrise communities, resident communication on sustainability—particularly water conservation—has become an operational necessity. “We’ve been aggressive about communicating to residents the importance not only of conservation, but in helping us with the big part we play in identifying and repairing leaks,” Greenblat says. “Communicating frequently creates a level of awareness, and when issues are front of mind for us and visible, it is easier for residents to find it in their heart to care. That’s a wonderful cue for them to invest in helping us.”

Passive partnerships
Technology might ultimately help bridge the divide between green buildings and sometimes green residents. Smart-phone enabled thermostats and environmental controls like Nest empower renters to engage directly with unit-level energy efficiency and provide a wow-factor that puts green features front and center on prospect tours. Princeton Properties piloted Nest at a community in Somerville, Mass., and is considering wider deployment of a similar product that also provides property-owner visibility into system loads and usage patterns. “Any digital environment controls, if you put the infrastructure in, residents will use them,” Greenough says. “People really like those products.”

Alliance Residential has seen resident interest in Nest in some of its California metros where electric vehicle (EV) charging stations have also been popular. In all, the company currently has 106 EV stations across 25 properties, and Vickers anticipates that platform to grow at a pace similar to consumer adoption of electric cars, which is to say, slowly. “I don’t think EV adoption has been as fast as some people hoped, and the current price of gas has not helped matters, but the improvements being made to battery technology and EV price point will change that,” Vickers says. “Usage doesn’t dilute the importance of the amenity and the importance of being EV-ready in those markets.”

In the meantime, Vickers has bottles on her brain. In 2014, Alliance spent close to $30,000 on bottles of water for leasing offices to share with prospects and residents. “It’s great customer service, but unfortunately statistics show 80 percent of those bottles are never recycled,” Vickers says. “We have a big opportunity here to change how we’re offering water to our guests. So we’re running a campaign to promote environmentally friendly ways to hydrate this June while raising awareness of the impact plastic bottles have on the environment.”

Time itself might also ultimately be a contributing factor to putting sustainability front and center with resident relations, particularly for Millennial and future generations that grow up in a more green-minded society. “We’re already incorporating green roofs into our properties, and I wouldn’t be surprised if one day we have to provide resident gardening plots and help our renters live off the land,” says Greenough. “Either way I expect the engagement process to be the same: to provide residents access to participate in green in a passive way so they don’t have to think about it or do heavy lifting. We simply have to continue to be evangelical for green initiatives and find a passion project—whatever that may be—and invite our resident base to participate with us.”

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