Building Community Among Mixed-Income Residents

Forging bonds among residents from diverse economic backgrounds demands creativity, patience and financial investment. It can also pay off in unexpected ways.
Residents of Jonathan Rose Cos.' Tapestry mixed-income rental in Harlem tend to a community garden as part of an program promoting a healthy lifestyle and a sense of community.
Residents of Jonathan Rose Cos.’ Tapestry mixed-income rental in Harlem tend to a community garden as part of an program promoting a healthy lifestyle and a sense of community.

Although planned mixed-income housing is a relatively new concept in the multifamily sector, the potential benefits are widely recognized. They can range from improved academic performance for low-income students to social stability and increased property values, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Communities that welcome residents from wide-ranging income backgrounds themselves vary considerably, from communities that combine market-rate and affordable units to those solely comprising affordable units for a spectrum of income levels.

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But one essential quality for the success of a mixed-income rental project is an environment where residents interact with their neighbors in a variety of activities, forge bonds with one another and truly think of their units as home. To a landlord, that is a highly valued outcome (or is the ultimate goal) because a happy resident is more likely to stay put.

“Retention is one goal, and the other goal is that they pay their rent on time,” said Frankie Blackburn, co-founder and partner of Trusted Space Partners, a Graham, N.C.-based consulting firm that works with owners, managers and residents of mixed-income developments. “When people have a sense of ownership, they’re going to report a leak quicker, they’re going to be better at keeping the property up, and they’ll be better agents on behalf of the landlord.”

Defining “Community” 

A sense of community doesn’t come naturally. Residents of mixed-income housing may well come from completely different walks of life or identify with varying ethnic groups. If they also gravitate toward neighbors with similar backgrounds, fostering social interaction may be challenging. “Because we see someone dressed a different way or with a different skin color, we make assumptions about who they are and what their story is,” Blackburn said. “That creates a barrier.” For the owner or manager, the challenge is to break down the barrier by making it easier for residents to discover common ground. That is easy task, even for a relatively socially homogenous community.

The path to that goal may be challenging, but the rewards are unmistakable. When a problem arises, Residents don’t automatically run to the manager to resolve every issue; instead, they work together and try to find a solution. Residents also join forces in group activities, forming clubs or organizing projects. They watch out for one another exchange small favors, like picking up groceries for one another. In short, they truly function as neighbors, creating an atmosphere that improves the quality of life in the community.

Tapestry is a 185-unit, mixed-income community completed in 2010 by Jonathan Rose Cos.
Tapestry is a 185-unit, mixed-income community completed in 2010 by Jonathan Rose Cos.

To achieve this desirable atmosphere and maintain it, an owner or manager must treat everyone equally in the face of considerable income disparities. New York City took a step to promote equitable treatment in 2015 by enacting an ordinance that bans the so-called “poor door,” a separate entrance for residents living in the affordable apartments of mixed-income buildings. Nevertheless, some mixed-income housing communities have separate buildings for market-rate and affordable units, Blackburn said. That makes it difficult to create community among tenants.

“To truly make a community work, there has to be some uniformity as to how the community operates and how people see themselves within the community,” said Charlton Hamer, senior vice president of a division of Habitat Affordable Group, a division of The Habitat Co. “When people feel segregated from a social standpoint, they don’t feel comfortable, the building will have a stigma and it will be challenging to have a high occupancy rate.”

Forging Connections

So how can owners and managers create and foster a sense of community in their mixed-income apartments? Though the challenge can seem daunting at times, a variety of approaches contribute to success.

  • Consider self-management, rather than third-party management. Your own employees know the company and its priorities better than a third-party manager would. Blackburn suggests changing the title of property manager to “community manager” and hiring people who have good people skills, such as cruise directors or teachers.
  • Understand your residents. You can’t achieve community without getting to know the interests, wants and needs of those who live at your properties. Jonathan Rose Cos. assesses the needs of its residents through surveys and community meetings, then develops programming and events to match, said Caroline Vary, managing director of asset management.
  • Start slowly—and be patient. Don’t expect to engage every resident right away. “It’s all about quality versus quantity when you’re trying to build connections,” Blackburn said. The goal is to find three or four residents who want to work with you to either host events or get involved in other ways. These leaders will serve as your ambassadors, and over time, their enthusiasm will encourage others to get involved.
  • Avoid holding resident meetings. Though such gatherings may be necessary at times, they may also be counterproductive when it comes to building community spirit. Residents tend to associate meetings with hearing from the owner about problems. Instead, organize events that generate good will in a broad cross section of residents: holiday parties, paint-and-sip nights or barbecues, to name a few. Start each event with an icebreaker to encourage interaction, and offer refreshments. Green practices are a signature feature of Jonathan Rose Cos.’ portfolio, and the developer-operator fittingly likes to sponsor events that bring out green thumbs. At Tapestry, a property in Manhattan’s Harlem neighborhood, residents volunteer as a group in a local community garden. “It’s a great way to bring out young and old and have them not just for one day but through the entire planting season,” Vary said. “It’s also a great way to create pride in one’s property.”
  • Be creative. Habitat Affordable Group offers a variety of programs intended to appeal to a broad cross-section of residents at its mixed-income properties. At Park Boulevard IIB in Chicago, the firm hosts an annual summer barbecue, Christmas party, senior fundraiser, bingo, movie nights and more. “The events are a great opportunity for residents to mingle with neighbors, local authorities and the management team in a relaxed environment,” said Hamer.
  • Stay confident about the ROI. Providing the initiatives that create a sense of community comes with a price, but the experience of operators that successfully implement these measures suggests that the benefits outweigh the cost. Jonathan Rose spends about $1,500 per property annually on tenant activities, an outlay that the company deems to be well worth it. “We try to direct our expenditures on those events that really take into consideration the residents’ interests and are focused on engaging people,” Vary noted. “And we see a return on our investment.”

Read the May 2019 issue of MHN.