As an industry, let’s face it, we have a hard time creating a sense of community. I’m not saying there are not some great success stories out there, because there definitely are, but when talking about the multifamily industry overall, we show many more failures than successes. Obviously having 60% of your community turn over every year makes it very challenging to establish any sort of consistency among residents, as people have no interest in connecting with those that will just end up leaving within a year. But even beyond that, I don’t think we fully understand the mechanics of how groups operate on a social basis, which makes it impossible to foster that concept at our communities.
In order to develop a strong social group, I think it is helpful to look at how established social groups already operate, and see what elements make them successful.
1) Familiar Faces – When walking into a completely new group, everybody is a stranger. But for an established group, you enter the room and see people you have already had conversations with or recognize in some way. That is a simple level of comfort by consistently attending events. So for us to reach this level, we must not just get attendance, but get consistent attendance at a frequency level that will help build familiarity. In other words, we can’t just have once a year events and hope that they recognize each other.
2) Shared History – This is the next level beyond familiarity – these are shared experiences between people in the group. Maybe there was a group vacation, or maybe they played on a community-sponsored intramural sports team. With turnover as high as it is, however, these shared experiences dissolve very quickly as people move out, so we must do more to memorialize these events. So pictures, videos, and story telling are all key to reinforcing this shared history. But it’s also important to note that these are shared experiences of doing things, not simply attending things.
3) Giving Something of Themselves and Participating – I have been to events where I was simply an attendee. I showed up, had a drink, mingled, and left, but I did nothing to become a part of the event. Even though I was there, it was really someone else’s event that I just happened to be attending. On the other hand, I’ve been to a food drive event where I helped pack canned goods and other items into boxes. At that event, I felt part of the event. I was part of the process, rather than simply an attendee. And because I participated, I felt more connected to the event and to the people who helped right along side me. We were in this together. So ironically, I got more out of the event that put me to work than I did the one where I was allowed to sit back and do nothing.
I think that this is actually one of the bigger problems with many apartment community parties. We give parties for our residents, but that means it is our party they are attending. We need to make it their party that they have a role of their own in. For example, a pot luck dinner requires them to give something of themselves to the process, and they will ultimately get more out of the event because of it. So in a strange way, we need to not just be giving our residents parties, but asking something from them in order for them to be a part of the process, rather than standing on the outskirts.
4) Leadership Roles – This goes along with participating, but it also acknowledges that there is an inner group that is the “bedrock” of the group. These are the people who are most passionate about the group, attend all the events, and are most likely to stay over time, which means a richer shared history. This group is the key to transitioning from a management-led sense of community to a resident-led sense of community. I think a resident committee is a brilliant way to cultivate leaders within your community.
What do you all think? What other attributes of established groups should we be analyzing to help us understand how to build our own passionate group within our apartment communities?
Brent Williams is Chief Insider of Multifamily Insiders. You can read more of his thoughts on building a sense of community on his Apartment Party Blog.