Who’s Paying it Forward?

Social responsibility is alive and well in the apartment sector.

Some of the most important developers today understand there’s more to good business than just creating the best development and moving on. Many have instilled a sense of corporate social responsibility, creating a positive impact on the local community.

In essence, social responsibility is simply the ethical framework that suggests that you have an obligation to act for the benefit of the people you work with, for and on behalf of…whether that be your country, your family, the consumer or your employees.

Laura Zaner, vice president, corporate marketing & communications for the Michaels Organization, which won an MHN Excellence award for Social Responsibility in 2013 for its Educational Foundation and Social Services programs, said company founder and CEO, Michael J. Levitt, has embedded in the corporate culture a deep commitment to “giving back.”

“Social responsibility is, and has always been, one of our core values as an organization. From our earliest days as affordable housing owners, developers, and managers, we have believed that our work is more than ‘sticks and bricks,’— it is about the people who live in our communities,” she said. “We believe that our work can make a real difference in people’s lives, and that our organization can do well by doing good. This is borne out in many ways.”

For the past 25 years, the Michaels Organization Educational Foundation has been offering post-secondary scholarships to residents of affordable and military housing communities.

“We were the first affordable housing developer to start such a program. We were also among the first affordable housing management companies to start offering supportive services, dedicated to the economic, social, and educational wellbeing of our residents,” Zaner said. “Mr. Levitt and his wife, Pat, match every private donation two-for-one. Over the past 25 years, 1,900 students have benefitted from scholarship awards totaling more than $4 million.”

The Levitts also help with scholarships for the children of Michaels Organization employees, animal welfare organizations across the country, ocean conservation, and summer camps for disadvantaged children.

Chris Finlay, managing principal of Middleburg Management, Fairfax, Va., said the company considers its social responsibility to be giving back to the community it operates in.

“In the apartment community, we are active in various communities in which apartments are located,” he said. “This past year, we started our own non-profit organization called ‘Shelters to Shutters,’ where we provide employment and housing to currently homeless individuals who are ready and want to work. That’s been a big part of our giving-back emphasis of late.”

The company also offers paid time-off for employees who want to volunteer, whether it’s someone working at a mission in Honduras or just the local soup kitchen; anything important to them.

“It’s always been important but I think there might be more media attention to it now, and it’s become more of a buzz word lately,” Finlay said. “As our world has grown, I think in some ways we’ve lost the concept of taking care of our own and community and family, and I feel we have a responsibility to take care of those who need a helping hand.”

Emily Logue, marketing specialist with Holland Partner Group (HPG), Vancouver, Wash., said the company takes great pride in its focus and commitment to the role they play in the lives of their employees, residents and investors.

“As an organization, we ask ourselves daily ‘what sets us apart?’ and there is much more to that story than our portfolio or our bottom line. We believe it is our people,” she said. “We take our role in these lives very seriously and have made it a core value of our organization to focus on the well-being of these individuals.”

Its efforts to embody, promote and pay tribute to these values are evident in efforts such as HopeLift, Helping Hands and Arizona’s bike building efforts. The company also created a special partnership program with Forterra, a leading Washington conservation organization, where for each home leased at a Holland property in South Lake Union, Forterra planted a tree to reforest and preserve Seattle parks. Nearly 300 were planted last fall alone.

“Through efforts like ‘Sign a Lease, Plant a Tree,’ we were able to provide our residents the opportunity to restore local parks through their commitment to living and participating in a Holland community,” Logue said. “This partnership supports a cause that is all about giving back to Mother Nature and the communities in which we choose to invest.”

Making a difference

In addition to its Educational Foundation, the Michaels Organization integrates social responsibility throughout its company, with everything from encouraging individual giving to holding an annual fundraiser to its annual Christmas gift drive when employees may “adopt” a resident family in need to provide extra help at the holidays.

“We support many social impact programs, from sponsoring a cycling team each year for the American Cancer Society’s bike-a-thon in honor of one of our (deceased) employees to encouraging employees to share and support their individual charitable activities. Through our Intranet and social media pages, we continuously emphasize that we are a family dedicated to helping one another and those in need,” Zaner said. “Some projects we do are smaller scale and targeted to the needs of specific communities.”

For example, in 2012, it joined forces with the NJ Tree Foundation to sponsor a tree planting event in Camden, N.J. A group of some 40 volunteers from the neighborhood and community groups helped staff from The Michaels Organization plant 15 new large shade trees and flowering plants, which The Michaels Organization pledged to “adopt” to ensure their care and well being over the next five years.

Samantha Kochanasz, HPG marketing associate, said the company has add sustainability as a core value and continues to improve its policies and procedures in different divisions.

“On the corporate and property level, we encourage employees to reduce paper use, recycle, compost, and be selective about which products they purchase,” she said. “For new developments, the goals and programs are much more complex. Several new projects are utilizing building certifications such as LEED or Green Globes to guide teams to make more environmentally responsible decisions. They also often select sites that are located next to major employers and/or mass transit. This reduces the dependency on cars and helps create a thriving and dense community.”

Pay it forward

Social responsibility has always been important, but perhaps it may be more important today, given the strain on city, state, and federal budgets. “As developers and owners of affordable housing, we have always believed that being good corporate citizens is essential to our success,” Zaner said. “Many developers have a reputation for coming into a neighborhood, building something, then moving on and never looking back. We have never been like that. We are long-term owners, which means that caring for the neighborhood, investing in the neighborhood, and impacting the neighborhood in socially responsible ways is as critical to our success as building quality housing. It is also an important way that negative myths about affordable housing get dispelled.”

Finlay said Middleburg Management likes to give its team members the ability to choose how they want to help and then it supports them with their efforts. In the past, they have sponsored an employee at Habitats for Humanity, helped others with food drives and consistently participated in programs throughout the community.

“What I find is that when people are spending time giving back, they tend to be happier and more efficient,” he said. “We’re not doing this for that reason, but I think people do gain a better appreciation of the blessings they have in their [own] lives. It creates people with more perspective and understanding and makes people happier to do this.”

Sustainability and social responsibility are on everyone’s radar these days. As corporations become more transparent it is important that a lot of thought and care go into their operations and activities.

“At HPG we’re building and managing communities. It’s our responsibility to be conscious of the needs of the environment and community, and the health of the residents,” Kochanasz said. “By being a more socially responsible organization we are adding value to our stakeholders and developing vibrant and healthy spaces for people to enjoy for generations to come. This creates a legacy that we can be proud of.”

Logue adds that the entire industry has made a huge shift in how they market to Gen Y, a generation that has been taught, encouraged and motivated to work towards and strive to make this world a more accepting, open and creative place to live.

“It is an honor to have the opportunity to contribute to the generational trend of making the world a better place to live, work and play,” she said. “Without social responsibility, walls would remain high…restricting innovation, creativity and the entrepreneurial spirit that drives job growth, technological advances and social advocacy.”