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Who Stole My "Community?"; The Apartment Developer's Dilemma

No matter what our role is within the multi-family industry, there is always one word which is used more than any other; “community.” Some of us own communities, some of us develop communities, some of us design communities and others of us lease or operate them. And chances are that many of us live in an apartment, condominium or townhome community as well. So then why is it that there is so little ‘community’ in our communities?

When it comes down to this failure’s root cause, it can really only be one of two choices;

a.       Either the management team does not expend their energies in a manner that creates a welcoming and vibrant atmosphere that encourages interaction, or

b.      The developer did not guide the design in a manner that supports congregation.

Now because I am an owner and developer by trade and not a manager, my expertise is limited when it comes to the nuance of property management. I am positive that I undervalue the challenges of those on the front lines. But where I do have some insights is on the development side of the industry.

I have mentioned in multiple other essays that the developer has become effectively a highly functioning project manager. We have lost our intellectual curiosity about how folks ‘actually’ live. We have lessened our study of the ways that neighborhoods, communities and cities are formed, only to concentrate on sharpening our excel acumen and expand our address book of consultants. Instead, we generally hire a series of experts (who really aren’t that expert at all) to tell us the things that we should already understand intimately ourselves.

The problem begins with site selection. If we continue to choose assemblages because a broker was able to get a listing, then we will continue to fail. I argue for the Story Approach which basically states that if a specific property has an easy and obviously compelling story, then you are half-way there. If you have to work to weave your tale about why this should be built and what it should be- then move on. There’s too much good dirt out there, and just because something if buildable or financeable does not mean that you should undertake the project.

The second thing to do is to throw out that canned program and start from scratch. We all have our checklist of boxes that we think we need to locate somewhere in the project in order to be successful…they’re mostly crap. The business center with its printer and free computers is a dinosaur. That is going to be a great and revolutionary amenity 20 years ago. If you can, find a reason to dump the community gym…we all already belong to one anyway. If we do find that they make sense in our community, integrate them together in a way that will encourage people to congregate. And don’t get me started on the theatre room… With just those three as our primary amenities, we have simply created a series of unrelated boxes, each of which is too small to ever facilitate any form of community. Community only occurs at the confluence of space and purpose. Our task is to create the space and management’s job is to facilitate the purpose.

The amenities that we build will only ever have any value to the resident if it actually helps them achieve their goals. If we want our communities to be more than one in name only, we must understand how our residents actually want to live and then facilitate their goals. The other option is to throw in the towel and quit calling them communities. What do you think?

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  • I like what you have said. The only real "amenity" that Residents share is the pool. I refer to our properties as "apartment communities" because that is what they are. I refer to where someone's house is as a "neighborhood" because that is what the tax assessor and real estate agents call it.

    Apartment communities should encourage Residents to engage with one another through activities - like walking "clubs" and cycling "clubs" - people share a passion and bond together while engaging in the activity. I like progressive dinner parties where you and your neighbors bond over good food and drink in each others' homes. To me, the most cohesive living occurs where people share their interests in a relaxed area. That is why I love seeing apartment communities install beautiful outdoor kitchens surrounded with intimate seating areas.

    I personally discourage the "on site fitness facility" because too many times the eqipment is non-functioning (and no one knows how to maintain them) or they are dirty. And you are absolutely correct - people already have gym memberships. Why waste the money?

    I also love promoting pet ownership in our communities and feel the "bark parks" are fun places. I always joke that if you come here without a dog or cat, you most likely will leave us owning one. Watching people who own dogs out strolling is somehow inspirational.

    Maybe we should still call apartment communities "communities" but develop a better understood espirit de corps.

  • I think there is a huge potential for DATA in this situation! There are many communities that have card access doors, yet I have never seen that data shared on the usability for different rooms/areas within the community. (If this exists, please someone pass it along!)

    As for design leading to function, the clubhouse absolutely floors me. We build this beautiful meeting point, but then close it up during the times people are actually home to use it? In my opinion, they absolutely have to be designed in a way that is USABLE!

  • JJ Henry

    What a great blog for apartment managers!

  • Susan C

    I have 168 unit Community with a gorgeous Clubhouse with a large kitchen and a nice living room area with a beautiful brick fireplace. We also offer a nice basic fitness room that we strive hard to keep the equipment properly functional and clean and many tenants use this. Not to mention the pool, jacuzzi or sauna and tennis courts.

    Our Clubhouse isn't one that is usable to tenants to use during off hours due to the way it is set up and it's direct connection to the offices that hold all the important files and keys, the risks are too high to let people use it unsupervised. However, I love to entertain. And I strive very hard over the last decade here to foster a sense of community. I have enjoyed using this blog to gather ideas to implement at my community. I host Resident Potlucks on one Sunday a month where the guys watch sports on the TV, the women chat and the kids play games on the Wii with the large projector (parents play, too!). I host classes for Zumba and for dance lessons throughout the year. I connect my Residents with affordable instructors who can come to the property and teach lessons using our facilities, especially Tennis and Swimming lessons. We coordinate Cooking Classes, Bingo, Bunco, Pizza Night, Family Movie Night and Family Game Night with different themes to target different age groups. I took a survey of my Residents and asked what they wanted to have here, and I got busy to work bringing these things into existence. And I love Mindy's idea to create Clubs like the Walking Club and the Cycling Club, I'm going to start those this Spring!
    I love seeing my Residents mingle and get to know each other and for some, this is their only social outlet and they really appreciate it.
    But the main thing that makes ALL of this possible is that the builders had the foresight to build such an awesome facility that gives us the space to congregate and foster a sense of Community, which helps people feel even more happy to call this place "home".

  • Lynne L.

    Applause, applause! You get it!! The way to get a real "community" is to encourage residents to interact. I manage an older 180 unit community in a low to mid-income area and have found that holding bi-annual Community Yard Sales has become a very popular event. We take care of the advertising and rent tables for the participants and our residents get to clean out their closets, make a little extra money and visit with their neighbors. It's a great time for all!

    Our Annual Pool Party/BBQ is another low-cost event that's popular, and last year we had residents donating homemade food, with several taking turns at the grill.

    These events don't need to be expensive, they simply need to be fun and interactive.

  • Lynne! I have some questions about your yard sale! Would you mind [url=http://www.multifamilyinsiders.com/contact-us/12-contacts/1-insider-brent-williams]contacting me[/url]?

  • Lisa Kassoff

    A community by definition is a group of like minded individuals. I feel that leasing managers who qualify their residents should ask more about their life styles and what is important to them.Getting to know them on a personal but professional level is a long tight rope but can be achieved with a good deal of interaction.Activities that promote interaction are mentioned in this blog. A traveling gourmet dinner is something I have tried when managing communities and it works very well.If any reader would like to know more contact me.

  • I can offer some insight from a contractors point of view and what we see being initiated on properties we have worked on to develop community involvement. We have and do work for several larger property owners and several smaller ones as well. Our projects have been located all over the continental US, so we see a lot of the different styles and thought processes from a diverse pool of regions. When people are looking for an apartment community weather it's student housing to senior housing, the first thing they look at online or in a brochure is price, second is amenities and third is security (at least on the properties and areas we have worked in and on). We are quite different from 99% of the other contractors out there, we ACTUALLY care about our clients projects and their usable outcomes. When we engage a new client or property we spend the time to talk to the leasing staff and managers to find out what the occupancy rates are, what their turn over rates are, what their tenants are asking for and more importantly, what their competition is doing differently at properties that are outperforming them as far as amenities and social events go. All these things is what we use to assist the ownership/management in selecting the right project scope and materials for their project to make it a successful (usable) project. We have done everything from basic face lifts to the clubhouse to full scale property wide makeover with extensive clubhouse redesign.

    I truly believe you are all correct in your thoughts. The person/people who stole your community, are non existent!! The truth is society and new generations are in fact who/what stole your community. This is why it's so important to do the research and investigation on what's working in your region and local social network's before remodeling or building your community and potentially having a significant investment not benefit your goals of community involvement and generating revenues. I am in NO WAY an expert in market analysis, development research or anything along those lines, I am simply a contractor that puts a basic perspective on things and invests time in my clients and cares enough to do some checking so our clients can succeed in their projects. It's easy to just take the money and complete the projects and not really care if the client is happy and if the residents will actually use the new amenities or not, but we choose to care and be very honest and up front with our clients to enable them to see clearly what affects their project will have. I would love feed back on this and to see if my way of thinking is out in left field or not. We truly care about our clients and make the efforts to learn their side of the industry. So please, let me know your thoughts!

    In closing on my point of view and what we see happening, I will eave you with this.

    If you don't care enough to get to know your residents (or potential residents), then they won't care enough to pay their rent or move into your community! Take the time to research and care.

  • Judson-

    Hijacking a thoughtful conversation to try to sell a product is extremely bad form. It only turns off your audience and makes it less likely that they would consider you or your product. If you must continue with this strategy, please don't do it on my blog. RRB

  • Ross,

    I do apologize if that is the way my post came off, as this was not my intention at all. I was simply trying to give an opinion and outlook from an individual who see's many different tactics and ideas to promote community development and resident interaction. I was in no way trying to solicit work, just trying to be helpful. My only goal was to give insight on the financial cost standpoint of cost vs. reward for those properties that may be looking to have work done on a project to help them with the resident interaction. I was hoping to help someone avoid spending money that ultimately end up not helping them. Again, I do apologize for the way my post came off to you and others, I do not want to have anyone thinking that I am "trolling" for work, that is not our style nor does it fit our model. If it serves best please remove the post or I can modify it if possible to convey my thoughts more clearly. Please let me know what you would like me to do.

  • Gosh Judson,

    If I misunderstood your post, I do apologize. The subject of that blog and discussion is the choices that developers make when they design the amenities of a new property not facilitating the property managers efforts to create 'community.' And also, what property managers can to bring residents together (i.e. events, parties, clubs, etc.).

    Once again, if I mistook your intention, I am sorry.

  • Ross,

    I have no hard feelings at all, in fact I find it very refreshing that some people still have the gumption to call someone out on something as that seems to be in shortage these days.

    I am, as you can tell, not as up on the bloging industry as I should be. I still say even if your building new, the amount of research it takes for a developer in choosing the amenities has to massive. This is why I was trying to show a point of view that most people don't get actual and honest input from and that's the contractors on what we see and do that works and what doesn't. In our sector we see a lot of wasted money on amenities that don't get used much if any at all. I was hoping to show that a developer can get some insight from the remodeling industry to help guide their choices on new facilities and amenities that work. In short, just keeping up with the trends is still behind, but being in the lead in trends would be best, at least I would think so. Again, I do apologize for coming off like a poorly educated salesman on here. I'm just trying to help provide input from a "secret" sector in hopes of developers being able to use the information to better their properties. If there is any specific information anyone would like please feel free to ask, as I love this industry and enjoy being a part of it. Thanks again for being straight enough with me to call something as you seen it!!

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