NMHC Conference Addresses Challenges of Change

Indra Nooyi and multifamily executives share insights into new directions advancing the industry.

Though the first day of the National Multifamily Housing Council’s annual meeting addressed widely divergent topics, the challenges—and rewards—of adapting to change emerged as a persistent theme.

Laura Craft, Heitman; Janice Barnes, Climate Adaptation Partners; and James Murley, Miami-Dade County

A private investor, a consultant and a public official kicked off the day by suggesting ways to think differently in the midst of climate change. During a session on building resilience, they urged developers and investors to take a fresh look at the criteria for development and investment. Laura Craft, Heitman’s senior vice president for global strategy and investment ESG and the panel’s moderator, noted that the firm now screens investments on six different dimensions of climate risk. 

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Climate change demands a new paradigm when investors and developers assess a location, experts stated. “Stop thinking in plan and start thinking in sections,” advised Janice Barnes, managing director at Climate Adaption Partners, a consulting firm. By that she meant looking below the surface for the topographical makeup of a site. Whether a location is on high or low ground, and the composition of the soil, can determine how much damage it will sustain in a flood or other natural disaster. Manhattan’s Upper East Side is aptly named, Barnes noted, because it sits on higher ground than its flood-prone counterpart in Lower Manhattan. 

Miami-Dade County’s chief resilience officer detailed the region’s innovations in adapting the climate change. In a collaboration with Related Urban, Miami is upgrading some 8,000 public housing units participating in a federal Rental Assistance Demonstration program. “You should be looking to multi-jurisdictional solutions,” he said. Among other initiatives, Miami has raised some of its roads as much as three feet to mitigate the impact of expected storms.

One-On-One with PepsiCo’s Trailblazer

The day’s keynote session featured a CEO closely identified with innovation. Indra Nooyi, who retired in 2018 after 12 years as PepsiCo’s CEO, made the case for change in conversation David Schwartz, NMHC’s new chair & CEO of Waterton Associates.

David Schwartz, NMHC Chair; Indra Nooyi, former CEO of PepsiCo

Asked by Schwartz to discuss strategies for addressing the challenge of unconscious bias in the workplace, “it starts with the realization that you need people of all different kinds to to have a highly productive workplace,” Nooyi said. “When you have bias in an organization, it strips confidence, and when it strips confidence, it strips confidence.”

The former PepsiCo CEO also urged the audience to not remain silent but to call out colleagues for bias in the moment. Too often, she argued, women are judged more harshly than men, to devastating results. Long after she advanced to executive positions, Nooyi recalled, she faced disrespect in group settings. “If we don’t talk about conscious and unconscious bias, everything else in the workforce will be for naught.”

The multifamily sector can contribute to the solution to a serious long-term issue that will hamper economic growth, Nooyi contends. When she and her husband were raising children, caregiving help from family members was the key to allowing them to pursue demanding careers, she recalled. A similar communal effort is essential to enabling women to stay in the workforce and reach their professional potential.

The nation’s long-term economic health will benefit greatly from an adoption of this model and may eventually lead to a transformation of what defines family, Nooyi argued. The multifamily sector can play a crucial role by bringing multiple generations together and promoting a communal approach to raising children that will enable women to stay in the workforce. Toward that end, she envisions a new approach to multifamily housing “to accommodate the next generation if we want young people to have kids and take care of elders.”

Scott Wesson, UDR; Shawn Mahoney, GID; Karen Hollinger, AvalonBay Communities.

The brave new world of technology figured into a rotating conversation that featured no fewer than 11 panelists and a trio of co-moderators. Speakers painted a picture of an industry where multifamily operators are steadily catching up in adopting technology after years of lagging. Communicating with residents and prospects on their own terms requires adapting to changing needs but offers the potential of competitive advantage. “A lot of the work we’re doing is to meet someone where they are,” explained Caren Maio, CEO of Nestio. “I’m excited to pull best practices from insurance and hospitality and apply them to multifamily.”

Automation offers opportunity to promote efficiency, improve residents and eliminate drudgery for the property management team. “I like to ask people, ‘What’s the least sexy aspect of your job—what do you like least?’”, said Minna Song, CEO of MeetElise. “That’s an opportunity for innovation.”

Smart technology packages can yield a monthly rent premium of $35 to $50 per unit, asserted Lucas Haldeman, CEO of SmartRent. When residents are encouraged to customize their units, premiums can rise to $100 per unit. Even in workforce housing, smart packages can generate premiums in the $20 to $25 range, he said. Labor savings are another potential benefit. Replacing conventional locks with smart locks can save maintenance team four to six hours each week and offer the additional benefit of tracking which employees have been in which units.

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