The manufactured housing industry has been coping with the effects of the pandemic better than most sectors have due to a combination between the ever-growing need for affordable housing and the limited new supply, most experts agree.
Although fundamentals remained strong, those managing and marketing manufactured housing properties had to tailor their strategies to keep both tenants and employees safe, while also maintaining operations at a normal level. Ascentia Real Estate Holding Co. Marketing Director Valerie Lombardi told Multi-Housing News that the company quickly adjusted to working in an unknown environment. In the interview below, Lombardi expands on the unique issues the manufactured housing industry is facing, and discusses what owners and managers can do to break the stigma.
Ascentia’s portfolio includes manufactured housing communities in seven states. Does your marketing strategy differ from state to state?
Lombardi: Our marketing strategy does not differ from state to state. The goal is to provide affordable, modern manufactured homes to working families no matter which state they live in. We utilize on-property advertising to capture the drive-by and walk-in traffic, partner with various internet listing services, direct all traffic to our property websites and continually enhance our social media presence.
While demand for manufactured housing is on the rise, the sector still has a reputation issue, with the development of new communities being hindered by the not-in-my-backyard mentality. What can be done do to overcome this hurdle?
Lombardi: Manufactured housing communities have proven to be one of the strongest solutions to help our country meet its affordable housing needs. I would encourage municipalities to work with developers on creating planned communities that they are excited about, instead of missing out on a valuable affordable housing component for their community.
I think it’s important for developers to present plans for development that include quality amenities, plenty of open space, landscape plans, barriers to provide privacy and sound control—perimeter walls, fencing—set standards around the age and quality of home inventory, and a management plan that assures quality control into the future.
Generally speaking, what are the main reasons why manufactured homes get poor reviews and complaints from homeowners?
Lombardi: If a community is getting poor reviews from its homeowners, it is likely for the same reasons any business or property gets poor reviews—location, cleanliness, frustration with neighbors or lack of customer service. Our goal is to listen to our residents, both homeowners and renters, and operate a community everyone would be proud to call home.
How can manufactured home owners and managers break the stigma and better position their product as a good quality, lower-cost housing option?
Lombardi: It all starts with creating a community where people want to live. Ascentia prides itself on providing autonomy within a safe, thoughtful and supportive community of homes, with individual yards just a wave away from wonderful neighbors. The onsite management, leasing and maintenance teams are the face of our organization. It’s important that they uphold our brand and values. We offer amenities for all ages ranging from pools, clubhouses, open space, playgrounds and basketball courts.
Create a sense of community by holding events, both in-person and online, award residents for having a yard of the month or holiday decorating, partner with local churches or schools. The residents in manufactured housing communities are the same as anyone else. Inclusivity and belonging are key factors to breaking the stigma of MHCs.
To what extent has the pandemic affected your marketing strategy?
Lombardi: We have had to communicate, manage and market our properties and relationships in an unknown environment. Open houses changed to virtual showings, resident events became virtual or held within local social distancing requirements. Demand for larger units with extra bedrooms to accommodate work and learn from home became our most wanted units. Our marketing strategy and target audience have not changed, we simply changed our call-to-action to what our prospects were needing when looking for a new place to live.
With many MHCs residents being employed in sectors that were hit hard by the unemployment wave, how did your company work with renters faced with job losses?
Lombardi: We have offered deferral payment plans, waived late fees and partnered with the local school districts to bring meals to our residents while school was not in session. Knowing that many residents could not afford internet service, we set up Wi-Fi hotspots so their children could attend school via Zoom.
Working with United Way, the Salvation Army and various local resources we were able to secure rent and utility assistance. During the third quarter of 2020 and into this year we have encouraged our tenants to apply for emergency rental assistance in all seven states. Our residents have received more than $430,000 in rental assistance and that number is growing.
What advice do you have for manufactured housing operators dealing with residents that are struggling due to high income instability?
Lombardi: The best advice can be boiled down to communicate, research and partner. I would encourage operators to maintain constant communication between the onsite management team and residents, to research city, county and state programs that could assist with rent and utility payments and to partner with residents and the local organizations for assistance.
How has the Ascentia Mercy Fund helped residents in the past year? Has the foundation seen an increase in requests from residents?
Lombardi: The Ascentia Mercy Fund is predominantly utilized around the holidays as a financial gift for our residents in need. We gifted almost $40,000 in December in $200 increments—200 gifts. During the pandemic, we also hosted a High School Senior Program for our residents who missed graduation, parties and the excitement with completing high school. We gifted laptops to all of our graduating seniors in the spring and we coordinated a back-to-school drive in the fall.
Are there any new technologies that you implemented throughout your properties to ensure social distancing rules were maintained?
Lombardi: Similar to many of our competitors, we offered virtual tours and open-house events using FaceTime, Zoom and Google Meets. We use Yardi as our property management software and we were able to enhance our online resident portal for resident communications, rent payments and maintenance requests, and utilized email and SMS to communicate with our residents. This past year we have embraced self-service. I don’t see that going away.
What are your expectations for the manufactured housing sector for the mid and long term?
Lombardi: I think that the outlook for owner and operators who provide high quality manufactured homes in a clean and safe environment will be excellent.