Last modified on November 18th, 2020
By Megan Eales Monroe
Housing is key to our lives and communities, granting each of us access to new opportunities and experiences. In that way, property managers broker our connection to a better future. On this episode of The Top Floor, we explore how real estate management companies are primed to have an extraordinary impact on their residents, teams, and communities at large.
Join us as we trace the lifecycle of these community stories. You’ll hear from exceptional property managers who have made giving back a part of their business culture, as they share how they took action on their ideas and transformed people’s lives. Listen until the end of the podcast to get insights and actionable steps on how you can embark on our own giving back journey.
Narrator: Today, we’re discussing why real estate management companies are uniquely positioned to have an extraordinary, positive impact on the communities that they serve – and some of the ways that leaders in this industry are doing just that.
When we consider that housing is literally the foundation for so many other crucial life factors, a key unlocks more than a front door: it provides access to many more opportunities.
We’re going to trace the lifecycle of the community investments today’s guests have made, from a new idea to a meaningful impact on the neighborhoods where their residents live. We also want to offer you – our listeners – tips to make giving back part of your company’s culture.
Our first stop is Seattle, Washington, where we’re going to get acquainted with Preston Walls, who heads Walls Property Management. Preston’s father was a real estate developer who taught him the business, and about a decade ago, Preston took over the company. With a portfolio of roughly one-thousand units – most of which are multi-family – he’s got an insider’s perspective.
Preston Walls: Yeah. I’m invested in being a landlord. I’m invested in Seattle. I’m invested in the community and I care about the intersection of all those things. And want stability for all of them.
Narrator: On top of wanting to give back to his city, community and renters, Preston also wanted to combat some common misperceptions about housing providers.
Preston Walls: I mean, it’s an easy picture to paint us landlords as greedy and not investing in their buildings and just swimming in piles of cash. But especially now in these times of declining rent and increasing vacancy, at least in Seattle, where people are drawn towards areas with more space to have for their own.
Narrator: Aiming to make an impact, Preston created a contest. Unlike a raffle or bingo, luck wasn’t a factor. Applicants would write an essay, making a case for why they should win. And the prize? Winners got a rent-free year in one of the company’s units.
Preston Walls: In high school … I loved to write. And I remember writing competitions as a way of selecting passionate people that were interested in and capable and worthy of whatever the goal, the role, the prize was. And it is fun to read those and fast forwarding to the work environment.
Landlords are an easy target for vilification and there’s so much just that it’s an easy way to put landlords down or paint them with a certain style, certain brush. And this was a way of helping to change that narrative about who landlords are and what their motivations are. I like to see people achieve, I like to see human potential and this has been just a fantastic window into seeing what people can do with an opportunity.
Narrator: Alright, we want to hit pause for a second, because Preston’s point is so crucial to our story. Just think of the savings that come from a year without rent. What would you do with that? But as Preston notes, this prize isn’t just financial: it’s opportunity. At the end of the contest, winners are granted access to the opportunities attached to a safe, secure residence. What difference does an apartment make? Preston recalls a past winner, someone with a traumatic past.
Preston Walls: He had a lot of health problems from that. His credit was diminished. He was in a really bad living situation. He was living in a bad part of town in just an overloaded house. There were eight or ten people living in this house. And he got this apartment in a great part of town. And his first realization that his life was different was my insurance rate went down. I was like, “Why is your insurance rate going down?” Because of my zip code changed.
Preston Walls: And then they know that I’m not at risk of getting all my stuff robbed. And so from there, he and I worked on getting his credit repaired and back in shape. And he step-by-step systematically went about fixing his life. Because his goal at the end of this year was to have housing of his own. And he did that. He accomplished that. He bought a mobile tiny house. He bought a bus and he did all the work himself. He converted it into a house and he found a spot of land to park it and live and thought – he used that year to repair his credit, save some money and it gave him the time and flexibility to complete a project that he’d been dreaming about.
Narrator: And anyone who’s commuted to work can identify with the story of this next rent-free apartment winner.
Preston Walls: Yeah … she’s a oncology social worker … Her parents didn’t speak English … And just having difficulty navigating the system here. She was taking care of them. It was a big load for her. She had a long commute to school. And so having an apartment in Seattle reduced her commute, allowed her to focus on finishing school. That time allowed her to just be more attentive with her parents and focus there, having more money allowed her to get her health better under control. All of this calm stability got her through school, stabilized. And now she has a full-time job and aspirations of opening her own clinic for low-income social work patients. And it’s just like she has thrived and grown in what she wants to do.
Narrator: There are a variety of socially-conscious actions a company can take. And to get a sense of the depth and breadth of what a team can do, we spoke with Lisa Wise, who is – you know what, I’ll let her introduce herself.
Lisa Wise: I am the Chief Flockster for Flock, which is a family of real estate management companies in Washington, DC. We like to consider ourselves not only managers of people’s homes, but also kind of a lifestyle company.
Narrator: Yes, you heard right – Chief Flockster. How cool is that? And what does a Chief Flockster do, you might ask? She oversees a twelve-year-old management company with four different DC-based brands.
Nest, their first brand, is a boutique property management firm with just over one-thousand units in the city. Roost, their second brand, manages condo associations. Starling is a light-renovation and turnover company. And finally, BirdWatch offers owners a tenant-like experience. But we didn’t contact Lisa because we love her bird-themed company. We also love their work.
Lisa Wise: We believe that business can function as an agent of change. Today’s an interesting time to talk about being an agent of change. We are in an environment that is hyper-political deliberately so, and very invested in conversations about what our social environmental footprint is in the world. And as a business, we’ve decided that for us, we’re most interested in and only really interested in being a purpose-driven company that has a positive impact on our client base, our resident base, our community, our environment, and our team members. And we believe that doing good business leads to more business and we have to be tender and thoughtful about how we impact our planet, how we impact people, how we advance anti-racism and how we do what we can to support a community that supports us.
Narrator: Yeah, what she said. That’s why we reached out to the Chief Flockster. And that’s not even the half of it.
Lisa Wise: We have a philanthropic giving division called BirdSEED, because, of course, we can’t do anything unless it’s bird themed. BirdSEED supports three different things. First, we’ve anchored a lot of our giving in creating a micro-grant program where we help other entrepreneurs, doers and disruptors who are making change in the district proper with micro grants that help them achieve either a project or program in a three-month period of time with funding that is not tied to their tax status, but their drive.
We’ve funded murals in the city. We’ve bought tractors for veteran farmers. We funded an organization that hosts birthday parties for kids that are homeless. We funded a program for African-American girls who code, and we’re not only able to support the staff that put on those workshops, but also made our space available so that they were able to host those workshops pre-COVID.
Lisa Wise: We do a lot of community partnership work. A good example would be this time of year, we typically produce and host a casino night to benefit an organization called La Clinica Del Pueblo. They are a wrap-around federally qualified health center that provides essential healthcare services, mostly to the Latino/Latina community in Washington, DC. Last year, we were able to raise $80,000 for them. This year, we’re moving that program online.
Lisa Wise: And lastly, we have a housing justice program that we’re on the verge of unveiling in the coming months so stay tuned. There’s some really cool and exciting work around anti-racism, social justice and housing justice in particular that we believe will if not differentiate us, which we do a good job of regardless, but we believe that our housing industry has underserved most people of color and we’d like to help even the playing field there.
Narrator: As one might expect, Lisa and her team also channel their socially-conscious mission inward, much to the benefit of their staff. Community investments have a ripple effect, creating the potential to give employees a sense of purpose. On top of that, these efforts can foster a culture that boosts morale and retention. Earlier in our chat, Lisa mentioned that Roost, their brand for managing condo associations, is by design an employee-owned company, and was spun off from Nest to create ownership opportunities for staff. Here’s how else they give back to their workers.
Lisa Wise: We’re invested in creating pathways for outstanding professional opportunity and professional growth for all of our team members, regardless of age, status, race, backgrounds, education, class, and being an equalizer in that way. Caring meaningfully about people having a good pathway toward a career with us and also being heavily invested in and acting on our interest in being good stewards of the community does a nice job of really appealing to a millennial generation and then some.
Lisa Wise: I do believe that younger generations are a lot more interested in how their work impacts community and because we’ve leaned in so heavily to creating a company that honors community and serves the community that we’re part of, I believe that we’re able to marry a for-profit business model with sort of a nonprofit ideology and impact component that truly appeals to the staff that we’ve got.
Narrator: Back on the West Coast, Preston Walls also spoke about how the company’s rent-free apartment contest also had a positive effect on his team.
Preston Walls: We often have the finalists into the office for a fake or a mock interview that turns into an announcement. And there’s often tears there just like all this excitement and joy and energy of what’s to come.
Preston Walls: But ultimately it’s been a good way to see how different people in the company approach it, what they value, what they think is important and worthy. We have no rigid guideline criteria. It’s a vote of the committee for who are the most worthy applicants. And so just the democratization of the process within the company and having a discussion over who is worthy, who should get it, that’s been a good process for our company to go through.
Preston Walls: Giving away one unit is significant, but other property management companies that we’ve run across to give away one month of free rent to some resident, and there can be different selection criteria for doing that, but just doing something and making it a team building event, a community event. It has a lot of value for morale and coming together as an organization.
Lisa Wise: I’m just born to be a purpose-driven person …
Narrator: Again, this is Lisa Wise.
Lisa Wise: I can’t separate or divorce myself from a 15-year professional background in nonprofit management. And I’ve often said in bios and interviews and other things that you can take the girl out of the non-profit, but you can’t take the non-profit out of the girl. And for me, there’s no incentive for me to work this hard unless I’m making a difference period, and profit cash dollars is not is not an incentive for me. I believe we can be profitable and I want to be profitable because the dollars released into the economy, into the hands and pocket books of my team members and the organizations that we serve are valuable and life changing.
Narrator: As we said at the top of the show, property managers are uniquely positioned to be forces for good. That’s because housing is so central to their residents’ overall quality of life.
Lisa Wise: It’s truly a hugely impactful role that we play if we think about it at the macro level, and we should be a lot more thoughtful about how we’re approaching that work and that being intentional and purposeful and having a mission, again, it creates this engagement space for younger team members to feel like they are doing good work and that the transactional part of the work may not be that rewarding, but the big picture is. And if we’re divorcing ourselves from that reality, then we’re missing an opportunity to feel really good about what we’re doing every day.
Narrator: Alright, so if you’re wanting to steer your company towards a more socially-conscious mission, here’s a good place to start.
Lisa Wise: Yeah, ask your talent. Your number one asset is the staff that serves your community and your community should be inclusive of your residents and your ownership. Ask your team, where do you guys really hang your values hat at the end of the day? What do you want to support? What would make doing this work feel better and more meaningful for you? Would it be helping, do you have lower income portfolios where doing food delivery could make a huge difference, where doing a rent support program where you raised funds from other parts of the industry that are thriving right now to support those that are less fortunate?
There’s so many moments and windows of opportunity for us to give back. It doesn’t have to be a big financial lift, it doesn’t even have to be a big time lift, but it should inspire people to be engaged.
Narrator: There’s never been a better time to get involved. When you’re outside the office: look around. Ask what services are lacking in your own local community. And if a big mission just isn’t feasible for your company yet, start small. Be the kind of property management company that puts good out into the world. Your residents, and your staff, are sure to appreciate it.
Comments by Megan Eales Monroe