The Michaels Organization Eyes a Bright Future

Senior Vice President of Operations Roger Williams on the company’s plans and the strategies that proved successful during the health crisis.
Zoey. Image courtesy of The Michaels Organization

Founded nearly half a century ago, The Michaels Organization has piled up extensive experience in multifamily development, management, construction and financing. The company is active in 35 states and has developed more than 55,000 units.

Last year, right before the outbreak of the health crisis, the company entered the Austin, Texas, market—one of the fastest-growing metros in the country—with Zoey, a 307-unit riverfront development that is just about to start lease-up.

To find out more about the firm’s plans and its strategy during the pandemic, we reached out to Roger Williams, senior vice president of operations, who oversees five property managers responsible for more than 7,000 units in 65 properties across 10 states.

How is work life at The Michaels Organization since the onset of the pandemic? 

Williams: Our Michaels corporate office employees worked remotely from March 2020 to June 2021, but our on-site property management teams were on-site as essential employees every day. To ensure that our staff members as well as our residents remained safe, we implemented many safety protocols at our sites, including office hours by appointment only, emergency maintenance requests only and maintained strict social distancing and masking. We enhanced cleaning and disinfecting of common areas.

We also closed community rooms and amenity areas and organized virtual social events and activities for children and supported food deliveries.

Roger Williams, Senior Vice President of Operations, The Michaels Organization. Image courtesy of The Michaels Organization

Our staff worked on flexible, rotating schedules and we accommodated requests for those with high risk. Furthermore, we enhanced sick leave benefits to accommodate quarantines and, to show our appreciation, we shared gifts.

We took our communication to a higher level with video conferences held on a daily, weekly and monthly basis to ensure our communities were operating within the ever-changing CDC guidelines. Every state and many cities within the state were issuing protocols and restriction changes almost daily. Our administrative teammates did an amazing job at producing notices and ensuring our teammates in the field had the most recent information.

Many of our traditional site visits were replaced with video communication, including inspections. Our corporate support staff was given the tools to continue to operate in the same manner as they would have if they had been physically present in the corporate office.

We faced some challenges and delays from many of the government agencies and businesses who were working remotely as we attempted to receive verifications and confirm income information. 

Zoey. Image courtesy of The Michaels Organization

What has the pandemic’s impact been on leasing and retention? 

Williams: For our affordable portfolio, there was an eviction moratorium in effect, so our occupancy rate was not impacted. Yet, many residents faced challenges in paying their rent as their incomes had suffered reductions. Our staff, along with our social service provider, Better Tomorrows, worked diligently to help the residents connect with the resources available to assist them to pay their rent.

There was some lag in leasing at our student housing communities, as universities and colleges had turned to remote learning. There was also an initial decline in the renewal rate, but it has since come back strong, and we expect to see occupancy at the pre-pandemic levels in the coming school year. 

READ ALSO: CDC Issues New Eviction Moratorium

The Michaels Organization manages more than 60,000 units. How did you tackle the challenges brought on by such high numbers of residents staying indoors at the height of the pandemic?

Williams: As many residents worked from home and students learned from home, we’ve seen an increase in utility consumption during the pandemic. In addition, at the height of the pandemic, we only performed emergency work orders and resident requests. We have since required our teammates to perform unit inspections in all apartments and continue our preventive maintenance and safety inspections.

On our senior properties, we instituted wellness checks by telephone and made sure our residents had essential food and supplies. It was a true team effort.

Mission Trail at El Camino. Image courtesy of The Michaels Organization

How does the development pipeline look? 

Williams: Our pipeline is strong: We closed six development deals in 2021 so far—two market-rate and four affordable projects—and by the end of the year, we anticipate closing on 12 more. Our development team never lost a step and we are looking forward to an even stronger 2022.

On July 20, we celebrated the grand opening of Mission Trail at El Camino, a luxury workforce housing development serving almost 1,000 residents, about 15 minutes from Austin. Most recently, we closed on a new construction affordable housing community that will be developed in Ennis, Texas. More new developments, as well as acquisitions—land and existing properties and portfolios—are planned for Texas in the future.

We are also seeing development opportunities in California and the Northeast, where we have a concentration of existing resources. We recently expanded our acquisitions team to concentrate on potential opportunities in these as well as other markets. The future is bright!

What role does sustainability play in new developments and redevelopments at Michaels? 

Williams: Michaels is committed to sustainable/green building practices. We have Michaels Design & Construction Guidelines which empathize sustainability, long-term energy savings and cost-savings. We follow these best practices guidelines for all new developments. We also follow Enterprise Green Communities guidelines for affordable properties.

READ ALSO: When Residents Are the Real Asset

How does the rest of the year look like at The Michaels Organization?

Williams: We believe the pandemic has taught us how to be more flexible and how to work collaboratively even when not together. We enhanced our technological prowess and worked hard to maintain our culture and our commitment to “Lifting Lives,” during the most difficult and unimaginable times.

We are very, very grateful and proud of our team, especially our site staff who were housing heroes during the pandemic. We see our future as being very bright, with new opportunities in front of us, especially in the area of acquisitions given the changes to the real estate market during the pandemic and the continuing need for affordable housing all across this country.