May is “Mental Health Awareness Month,” and the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) is urging that we all come “Together for Mental Health”—NAMI’s theme this year—to fight stigma, raise awareness and advocate for a better mental health care system.
According to NAMI, nearly two in five adults struggled with mental health issues in 2020, compared to about one in five before the pandemic. Between 2020 and 2021, calls to the NAMI help line about depression and anxiety increased by 80 percent, calls about suicide increased by 185 percent and calls about mental health crises increased by 251 percent.
“The pandemic has created a mental health crisis, and the need is greater than ever before,” said Jessica Edwards, NAMI’s chief development officer. “It’s an issue that affects all of us, but, unfortunately, there are gaps and barriers that prevent too many people from getting the help they need, when and where they need it. Peer and family support, as well as early intervention in the places we live, can help fill some of those gaps, which helps not only individuals, but also public health over the long run.”
More and more multifamily owners and operators are stepping up, to keep residents not only physically healthy, but emotionally and mentally healthy as well. Creating safe communities in which residents can thrive starts with the development of a multifamily community and continues all the way through occupancy. And these efforts, whether through design, programming, services or amenities, are good not only for residents, but for staff and the business as a whole—and may be critical to the very success of a community.
“We’re building places for people to live, and we want our customers to thrive in the environment where they live,” said Greg West, CEO of ZOM Living. “When that happens, people enjoy the building more, stay longer and pay more rent, so there’s a lot of synergies in having that as a priority.”
Designing for Holistic Health
Multifamily developers often design communities with amenities that meet the physical health needs of future residents, but experts say that physical health and mental health are intertwined.
“Where people live has a direct impact on their well-being,” said Rachel MacCleery, senior vice president at the Urban Land Institute, where she leads the organization’s Building Healthy Places initiative. “We know that a lot of people living in the United States feel isolated or lonely, many have chronic health conditions or want to age in place. People who have lots of ways to be physically active in their day-to-day lives will also likely have improved mental health outcomes.”
MacCleery said that multifamily developers should incorporate features that keep residents physically, mentally and socially healthy. Buildings should include noise mitigation, for example, and common areas to hold events and gatherings. Developers should invest in the outside environment by including parks and plazas, community gardens or programming that brings people together.
Sustainability matters as well. “Energy-efficient buildings that lead to lower energy bills can reduce financial strain, and we know that financial worries are a major source of stress,” she said. “Resilient buildings that reduce the risk of displacement due to major weather events—also a major source of mental distress—are a health strategy as well.”
Bristol Development Group designs its multifamily communities with wellness in mind. “We provide spaces for our residents that offer opportunities for relaxation, contemplation and overall mind/body connectivity,” said Lisa Gunderson, vice president of asset management.
The company includes meditation spaces with pillows, calming décor, relaxing scents and a Somadome, a technology-enabled meditation pod. Bristol also incorporates Technogym equipment in its fitness centers, which Gunderson said offers customized workouts and dietary tracking through an app, as well as yoga studios with on-demand classes.
“We believe we are creating spaces for residents to thrive, not just providing shelter,” she said.
Programming is More than an Amenity—For Many, It’s a Lifeline
Due to the pandemic, many renters were forced to stay home, making them hungry for social interaction. So, many owners and managers created programming to engage them, make them feel less isolated and foster a sense of community.
“We realized that people were going crazy in their apartments, so we engaged different companies to come to the property to do outdoor events that would give residents an outlet,” said Adanise Cross, a regional vice president at The Bozzuto Group. The events included a flamenco dancer performing on a pool deck, as well as musicians and comedians residents could watch from their balconies. The company also sent residents coloring books and crayons to entertain them.
“The residents felt energized,” Cross said. “They were engaged. We had a lot of single people living there, so it was extremely important to them.”
The company still hosts events about two or three times a month at its various properties to foster community spirit, whether it’s a yoga class or a talk by a horticulturist about caring for indoor plants.
ZOM Living used a different approach to engage residents during the pandemic, something it started when the company owned Kinstead Apartments outside Dallas. “We connected people through our resident portal and had everyone submit their favorite recipes, and then we assembled them into a cookbook that we shared across the community,” said West. “It was a huge success.”
Extending a Helping Hand
Venterra Realty, which manages about 70 communities comprising more than 20,000 apartments, created a program called “WOW Matters” in 2008 as an initiative to inspire employees to make a difference in the lives of their residents.
“The program was implemented to empower our employees to find opportunities to go above and beyond to make experiences truly exceptional for our residents and show them we really do care,” said Johnna Bacak, a customer experience specialist at Venterra.
At the height of the pandemic, when apartment residents were forced to stay home, a resident of the company’s Silverbrooke Apartments in Stafford, Texas, put in a work order. “She said she was going stir crazy,” Bacak said. “She liked to sit on her patio and was wondering if we could repaint the railing because it was chipping.”
When the maintenance person went to the apartment to complete the work order, he noticed the resident only had one plastic chair on the patio. So, after completing the task, he returned to the office, went online, ordered a full patio set for the resident and surprised her with it, making the resident happy and helping her cope with the isolation she felt due to COVID.
“The program is designed to make people feel happy, to feel cared for and part of a family,” Bacak said. “It makes that person feel that they’re not just a (resident).”
Venterra has a $500,000 annual budget company-wide for employees to create surprise moments of “WOW,” Bacak said. But the money is well spent.
“Someone who is happy will translate into positive reviews online, renewals and referrals,” she said.