June 18, 2020

Steve PonTell: Strengthening Affordable Communities

From job losses to school closures, the pandemic's ripple effects have been especially damaging for many affordable housing communities. How can operators help meet their needs in trying times? Steve PonTell, National CORE CEO, advises on social programs through reopening strategies.

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Steve PonTell is the Chief Executive Officer and President of National CORE, one of the nation’s largest nonprofit developers of affordable and senior housing. National CORE owns, operates, and/or manages nearly 9,000 units serving more than 27,000 residents in California, Florida, and Texas. Under his leadership, CORE has earned wide acclaim for their proven and effective approach to building and preserving affordable housing that positively impacts communities. He has become a passionate advocate for the residents and communities we serve and today is one of the leading voices and public speakers on the topic of housing affordability and community transformation. He has led several regional and national symposiums on our nation’s housing crisis and he is a nationally recognized authority on community development and creating forward-thinking organizations to maximize evolving market environments. In addition, Steve has addressed the California Assembly on the challenges facing the affordable housing industry.

Audio Transcript

Glennis Markison 0:05
Hi, I'm Glennis Markison from HappyCo. Welcome to Voices, where we feature fresh perspectives in multifamily. Our guests share their voices on emerging trends, leadership strategies and much more.

Glennis Markison 0:23
Today, our guest is Steve PonTell, the CEO and President of National CORE, one of the nation's largest nonprofit developers of affordable and senior housing. National CORE owns, operates and or manages nearly 9,000 units serving more than 27,000 residents in California, Florida, and Texas. Over the years, Steve has become one of the leading voices and public speakers on the topic of affordable housing and community transformation. He has led several regional and national symposiums on America's housing crisis. Today on Voices, Steve joins us to discuss the particular challenges affordable and senior housing communities are facing during the COVID crisis, as well as best practices to adapt social services during the pandemic and beyond as states start to loosen policies. Hi Steve, thanks so much for being here.

Steve PonTell 1:16
Hi Glennis, thank you.

Glennis Markison 1:17
Yeah, thank you so much. Welcome to Voices, and I appreciate your being here. I think we'll just get started and really cover those biggest challenges that affordable housing communities are facing during the pandemic. If you don't mind giving an overview for listeners?

Steve PonTell 1:31
Sure, absolutely. Well, to begin with, we're facing the challenges that the entire multifamily housing industry is facing. So, you know, the issues are going to be in-common for the most part. And you can say that they fall into a couple of major categories. So, starting with our employees, you know, we're an essential business so we never stopped during the pandemic, especially with regard to the people working on our sites. We did have all of our office workers work from home. We kept the office open so people were coming and going, but every department within the organization was fully functional the entire time. As a matter of fact, since the start of the pandemic, we've hired over 30 new employees. And so we have been very aggressive about continuing to move forward as an organization. We have a number of specific departments, you know, we are developers, and so our development team is continuing to work on projects, fill out applications, participate in public meetings, deal with governmental agencies, in order to move our development pipeline forward. We're also general contractors. We have six active construction sites, and so those have had their own issues of dealing with the pandemic. With regard to the sub contractors and employees working on the sites, different jurisdictions have different rules and then property management, you know, we've changed our policies in order to minimize contact, maximize physical distancing. So, we're only dealing with emergency issues. In residential facilities, we've closed all the common areas, we've closed the offices for any kind of public coming or goings and had to change the nature of the communication with our residents. And so that was a fairly significant shift from an operational standpoint. And then Hope Through Housing is our services component, and normally we do services at three major categories. One is Building Bright Futures, which is our after school programs and the child oriented programs. The second one is our family oriented programs working towards economic self-sufficiency, and then the third is our senior wellness programs working with our seniors, but with all the community facilities shut down and all the group sessions shut down, our Hope Through Housing team made a major shift towards making sure we're meeting the needs of our residents directly. And I can talk more about that more later. And then with regard to the economics of the business, we, as everybody else, have been paying a lot of attention to, you know, who's paying rent and what are the issues, and have found so far, for us, are rent collection, people not paying has been under six percent. And so we've been holding very strong with people paying rent, and most of those who haven't have absolutely indicated a desire to get caught up as soon as either unemployment or other assistance kicks in. And so we are in constant communication with our residents and feel very confident about, you know, their ongoing desire to pay rent as we move forward.

And so, we have the employee operational side of the equation, which we've had major shifts, and manage communication with our residents and make sure that we're understanding what all the local jurisdictions, which as I said, many of them are different, are requiring, with regard to the nature of what resident, what choices people have, you know, for the payment of their rent and what the time frames are associated with that. So that feels like a little bit of a rambling opening answer. So I hope I answered your question.

Glennis Markison 5:08
No, you did wonderfully and I'm curious when an affordable housing organization has these different parts, development and also management of property and social services. Could you weigh in quickly on the communication best practices that you've found? Is it, I've heard that you're doing town hall meetings? Can you talk about how you're getting everybody in the loop on these very complex rules?

Steve PonTell 5:28
Sure. So the first week of the pandemic, we put together an emergency task force in order to look at all aspects of the business and how it's affected by the policies around the virus. And so that team from every department started meeting every morning at eight o'clock in order to sift through all the incoming information, they make sure that our responses are organized and that was very helpful in making sure that the departments were communicating with each other as well. And then we started sending out notifications from the team to the employees about the policy changes. And so, as we rolled out policy changes and as the government regulations change week to week, we were able to modify our policies as we go forward. We were pretty much ahead of the curve with regard to things we were implementing before it was a requirement in a government agency, such as people working from home, we were able to deploy technology and enable our employees, our corporate office employees, to work from home, pretty much the first week. And so that, you know, our flexibility and the resiliency of our team has made me incredibly proud. And the team, we also then started having an all employee town hall meeting, talking about the different issues that we're dealing with. And as we've had that every week going forward, we've actually been able to use it to talk about different aspects of the business that most of the rest of the employees may not be that aware of. And so we had a whole presentation about what's going on in Texas and Florida. We had our maintenance team give a presentation about what they're doing now, you know, with regard to the new issues associated with the virus. And so the employees as a whole, and we have about 350-360 employees, have very much appreciated actually learning more about the organization as a whole as a result of the communication. We've also cranked out probably three or four different infographics at each different stage, you know, about how to deal with how to sanitize office spaces and public space and how to, when, you know, as far as coming back to the office, what the policies are going to be in the office. And so those infographics, I think have been an important tool as well. So we focused a lot on communication and then similarly with our residents, for the most part, it's been flyers going out to our residents, but we are continuing to work on technology platforms. They would enable us to send out group texts to residents in different properties, and also making sure that we're updating all the people to notify in case of an emergency. And this has given us kind of a real wakeup call about making sure that all of those capabilities are in place for whatever may happen next.

Glennis Markison 8:24
Yeah. I think that's a wonderful way to connect people and all these different topics. And I'm wondering, speaking, you mentioned resilience, you must have a particular challenge as an affordable operator and a lot of people losing jobs. And so if you could kinda touch on the way that you're being sensitive to that and just the efforts to kind of address those mental health needs as well in your communications to be sensitive right now, I think is so important. So how are you, how are you handling that kind of very delicate dance of understanding the economic consequences in your particular sector of housing?

Steve PonTell 8:55
Right. So what we found is those families and 60 percent of median income and below are actually doing okay if they're able to get the government support that has been issued. And so we've spent a lot of time working with our residents to make sure they know how to apply and what information to provide, and so that has been very helpful. Families above 80 percent of median income are the families that are more economically affected by the loss of a job, and you're right. A lot of our residents are people in the service sector. Obviously, the service sector, for a large, has been shut down. And so those are about 80 percent. You know, what we're doing is having one-on-one conversations with every single family about, you know, what do they need? What are the challenges? And how can we help them get access to resources as necessary? And we pay special attention to our seniors and communicating with our seniors every week. So our seniors have a tendency to isolate anyway, and so now they're hyper isolating, so we’re very concerned about that. And one of the things I think helps for us is, you know, I just got the numbers this morning since the beginning of the pandemic, we have distributed 17,000 meals and food baskets to our seniors and over 20,000 meals and food baskets to our families. And that constant contact with our residents and providing them with things that they really need today has really strengthened the relationship with our residents. And so that's something where I think we may have a little bit of an advantage over the market rate sector, is because of the help through housing and the services we provide. We do have very close relationships with our residents and we're asking what do they need? And doing what we can do to help meet their needs.

Glennis Markison 10:56
Yeah. I really wanna dive into this because the senior thing is something I think about often. I mean, being labeled high risk in and of itself is such a kind of mental health game of waking up every day and feeling there's that vulnerability. So, could you go into the services you normally offered seniors before any of this happened? And really specifically, how those have changed and how you imagine that as you partially reopen, they may change again.

Steve PonTell 11:19
Sure. So, one of our primary focuses prior to the pandemic with our seniors was making sure that they had social interaction, so getting them out of their apartments into gatherings and, you know, playing games, taking walks, having educational experiences, and so that was a huge part of it. You know, we survey our residents periodically and two surveys ago, 50 percent of our surveyed seniors were suffering from depression, and a lot of the depression came from a lack of socialization. So that's a huge part of it. In addition, we work with a variety of programs, various nursing schools and various other health providers, making sure that, you know, our seniors have access to information that they need. And so we'll work with a nursing school where the nursing students will come in and help the seniors understand them as, you know, the medicine they're taking and just make sure that they're understanding what they're supposed to be doing and the frequency et cetera. And they also used the nursing students to get the seniors to exercise, and to pay attention to their diet. On a number of our properties, prior to the pandemic, we already had food pantries going, making sure that our seniors had access to food. Some of our properties, our seniors’ income is barely more than their rent. And so if we're not providing food for them, then they're not going to eat. We've also historically paid a lot of attention to dental care because that is a significant contributor to health and to appropriated diet. When the pandemic hit, all the socialization activities came to an end. And so, one of the first things we did was we really shifted to focus on food and began to reach out and build relationships with various food pantries and other nonprofits to provide food and put together a distribution system between help through housing and property management. That has really delivered week in and week out, thousands and thousands of meals and food baskets going to residents. As we've continued to reach out, we've been getting more donations. As a matter of fact, we got 43 pallets of miscellaneous goods from Amazon that range from household items like paper plates and candles, and batteries to personal items. You know, whether it's laundry detergent, deodorant, I mean, it was just, and then food items which were a whole array of, you know, very strange stuff to normal stuff, then school supplies, toys. And so we had, you know, a huge quantity of goods delivered that we were able to mobilize the distribution of that onto our properties, and I think we sent you the link to a video that one of the properties did.

Glennis Markison 14:17
You did! It was one of the most heart warming things. Can you just paint that picture? How you had people dress up as superheroes to deliver that stuff? I hate to spoil the punch line, but it was so endearing.

Steve PonTell 14:28
So what I was concerned about was the properties we're going to get these, you know, hodgepodge of miscellaneous goods and they’re gonna think, what the heck are we supposed to do with this? And so, what we did was create a competition among the properties, who could have the most fun, and who can be the most creative in distributing the goods. And so, some properties set up stores that residents could come through and pick what they want. But one particular property created a robot out of cardboard and employees dressed up as superheroes, where they actually went door-to-door delivering goods and getting the residents to dance with them, sing with them, and share kind of what's going on with them. And, you know, for me seeing the residents and, you know, when you deliver food to a resident and they show you that the only thing that they have in their refrigerator is, you know, a bottle of water, and now they have groceries for a week, makes this all worthwhile. And so the employees very much enjoy engaging with the residents and get a ton of satisfaction and meeting those needs, and to do it and have fun while they're doing it, is something that the team has really stepped up and has helped keep the moral of our organization high. Because then we're able to share those with other departments that aren't necessarily out with the residents, although many departments will volunteer, and we make that opportunity available to our employees that they want to go volunteer, you know, at any of those opportunities, they have that flexibility as well.

Glennis Markison 16:07
Yeah. I think that's such a lovely, lovely effort. I mean, the connectedness right now is the real problem, you know, the real fear among seniors already perhaps prone to loneliness. And I think I'm interested now to turn to children. I mean, to turn to the kids who are not in school and were used to athletic sports together. They were used to some structure and you provided a lot of that with these after school programs you run. So, I'd love to hear a little bit more about how you're engaging kids with the same sort of forward-looking, hopeful feeling especially as they just lost a lot of what their day to day looked like.

Steve PonTell 16:38
Right. So, one of the things we did early on was we had distributed, depending on the age category, and we can show you a copy of what we distributed, a game booklet that had a whole variety of different games that kids could play. And once again having the Hope through Housing team reach out and have conversations with the families about what do they need? What do the kids need? And be able to help facilitate. If there are, you know, we have kept our computer labs open and it gives them access to computers and the internet where they’re able to do their homework or school work or participate. We're continuing to try and make those opportunities as available. But it has been difficult and so we are now reopening our pools and we're pushing hard to be able to reopen additional facilities to give kids the opportunity to come out of the units. One of the things that happens on our properties is the families all know each other very well, and the families help each other, watch each other's kids and interact with each other. And so within the community, that network of kids is very strong, and that gives them an opportunity, with some limitations, to maintain some level of activity and interaction. And so, it's something that we're paying attention to and wanting to make sure that their educational access doesn't slip. And making sure that, you know, especially with parents working, how is it that the families can kind of help each other and when do we need to step in and help provide access to additional services as well. And so once again, knowing the residents and being in communication with them is probably the most important thing that we do.

Glennis Markison 18:25
Yeah. And I think that’s a great segway into that partial reopening phase. I mean, it's such a pressing question right now. How do you half open a gym, half open a pool and really have to get these state and local rules, right? So can you tell me about some of the logistics and the communications around how you're starting to reopen, like what that's looking like as far as an email to a resident and how that looks on the ground? Like what you're deciding maybe with a certain public space?

Steve PonTell 18:52
Yeah. And you know, as I said, we're following the state guidelines, whether it's California or Texas and really trying to pay attention to making sure that we're within the state parameters. And yet at the same time try and have facilities open. And like I said, with the computer labs, doing it based on having a reservation, having a schedule so we can really monitor the amount of use and try and limit the amount of interaction. As we go to open the pools, we are going to be relying a lot on self policing and people just taking their own social distancing, there's not a lot we can do to manage that. You know, our hope is within the next week or two to open the additional playground equipment and some of the additional common area facilities, but it's going to be the same thing. You know, we don't wanna get ahead of the curve and then be caught with any kind of a second wave, and so it's a little bit of stepping forward continuously but carefully with an eye towards both the residents and our employees. So not putting our employees and circumstances where they're going to have the potential of additional exposure. So far we've had two two employees that have been tested and diagnosed with the virus, one has spent a number of nights in the hospital, one is in recovery right now at home. And so we monitor that very carefully. And, you know, we're trying to be very, very sensitive and maintain all the best practices, both on the properties and in our corporate office, and on our construction site. We've had two sub contractors that have had their employees have the virus that have caused us to either shut down the construction site for a day while we make sure everything is decontaminated and make sure we know who came in contact with the person. And in one instance, sending our site supervisor home who had come in contact with the sub contractor’s employee who had been diagnosed with the virus. And so it's just a continuous monitoring management. You know, we have, once again, developed kind of the checklist guidelines and making sure that we have people that have been at least briefed on what to do, I like to pay attention to. And then other than that, it's be as responsive as we can as issues rise up.

Glennis Markison 21:17
Yeah. And I wonder, how are you using this crisis for all of the kinds of problems and the pain that it's caused? How are you thinking about it as far as disaster preparation and kind of community resilience going forward? I mean, you have had so much to juggle between the development side and the management side and the social services side. So, has this experience given you ideas about how in the future, whatever the crisis may be, whether related et cetera, you will really be able to similarly rally people together?

Steve PonTell 21:45
Yeah. I was harassing our senior VP of HR and operations about not having a chapter in our disaster preparedness manual. They talked about how to deal with social unrest during a pandemic. So it’s a kind of interesting dynamic. So, number one, we are doing constant lessons learned about, hey, you know, this is how we responded, this worked, this didn't work, such as sending everybody to work from home, you know, giving significant flexibility gives people peace of mind. But how then do we communicate with people, how does information flow, how do managers manage their people. And so paying attention to all of those things. You know, as I said, we issued a number of infographics about what it's like to work from home. You know, what some of the pitfalls are; get up in the morning, get dressed and go to work as if you're going to work and have a balance, you know, now that your kids are at home as well because there's no school and your spouse ss home as well. You know, how do you manage space and some of our people didn't have the space for everybody to be able to be highly functional. So, how do we help accommodate that? And so all of those lessons are being wrapped into, you know, not only for the next disaster but what do we wanna change as normal procedures to give people more flexibility? And, you know, how can we encourage people to work where they can be most productive? Whether that's at home or here at the office or in some other way? And so we are, you know, continuing to look at, you know, what do we have to do to make sure we're building resiliency in the organization? Obviously, this is a California headquartered company, earthquakes are always the thing that we spend most of our time preparing for. And a lot of that preparation was beneficial for this circumstance. But now I think it's giving us an opportunity to take a step back and look at, okay, what are other things that could happen that we need to be equally prepared before. As a matter of fact, coincidentally, we have our senior leadership team, as a gift for Christmas this last Christmas, we gave every one of them an emergency preparedness survival kit, which was a backpack filled with water and food, and band-aids and bunsen burners and blankets, and whatever else you would need if you were caught in a natural disaster. And so it's something that within our culture as an organization, we're constantly talking about how to make sure we're prepared, you know, what does that look like? And even when you have that as a goal, after a year, or two years, 10 years without having to use those policies, they can get pretty rusty. And so we now at least have a seasonal refreshing, you know, our preparedness and making sure we're resilient whatever might happen next.

Glennis Markison 24:52
Yeah, I think that's so fantastic to take what was an external force you could not have predicted and ask and answer all these internal dynamic questions. I think it’s a wonderful thing to do. And so in my second to last question in these last couple of minutes, just looking ahead, I mean, this crisis has put home in the spotlight in so many ways. And so when it comes to affordable housing, are you seeing that there may be ways this issue is getting more attention? And there could be, I think greater hopefulness as far as development opportunities or at least the need for this kind of housing going forward? I'm curious what you think about the times ahead?

Steve PonTell 25:25
Yeah. And that falls into a number of categories. So obviously the tip of the iceberg is the homeless, pretty dramatic moves to try and get the homeless off the streets and get them separated in order to slow the spread of the virus. There have been studies that have shown that overcrowding, they didn't say not by design in housing units, multiple families living together in an apartment or, you know, illegal garage conversions, whatever had a significantly greater impact of the virus than people that had appropriate density. And so I think that's going to be a trigger for, you know, at least an increased understanding of the danger of an inadequate supply in housing. The affordability of housing as a whole, you know, is pretty well-known, the challenge is how to break the current system and policies that keep the production of housing unaffordable, and not just subsidized housing, but all housing. And so, you know, hopefully there can be conversations that because of the impact and the increased awareness of the need for housing, we might be able to shift and see, okay, we've gotta come up with a way to produce shelter that people can afford. And for those people that have higher needs, subsidize shelter for people as well. You know, unfortunately local government’s melting down fiscally, the state government has a huge hole in its budget. And so, you know, resources are going to become increasingly constrained and so that is going to be a challenge for even if there's a desire for additional funding or subsidized housing, there's just not going to be the dollars and so a lot of our energy is okay, how can we use market rate investment to produce housing that people can afford, also what's known as NOAH, Naturally Occurring Affordable Housing. And so that's something that I think is going to get a lot more attention. And for organizations like ours to see, you know, how can we both preserve housing and neighborhoods that’s affordable, so gentrification doesn't make it more difficult and how can we produce new housing? You know, with as little government subsidies as possible and working with cities and other local government agencies to reduce the costs of mitigation. That, I think is going to be a big part of the opportunity we have going forward as well. So, our goal is to keep our pipeline as full as possible with shovel-ready projects within assumption that we will then find a way to build them, one way or another. And yeah, I think the industry as a whole is working very hard to get as many projects in the pipeline as possible. So I think it's gonna be harder, but what we do is already hard. But I'm, in general, optimistic that because of the need, that a lot of the resistance is going to be less and because they'll have lost some credibility and people are just gonna tell them that, hey, we understand you don't want this in your backyard, but at the end of the day, people need to be adequately housed and it is in all of our best interest to have people adequately housed because if not, the next public health crisis is right around the corner. And so I think that's you know, engaging public health in this conversation is the real ally that all of us I think we'll be doing.

Glennis Markison 29:09
Yeah. I really, really appreciate that forward look on this because I think people want, more than anything, that kind of sense of agency and how they can help, not just in the housing crisis but in the economic pieces of this. So I appreciate that positive look. Just in our last little 30 seconds together, I'm curious, is there one moment that really stands out, whether it was the Amazon, the superhero delivery type thing, but one moment where you could really say that a staff or a resident kinda made you feel that we are in this together. It was a positive exchange where you were very hopeful about what's still possible with what the housing community is, despite the pain that this crisis has brought on.

Steve PonTell 29:45
Yeah. I would have to go to the food. So when we get the food delivered, the logistics of getting it distributed and having the Hope for Housing team, the property management team, and corporate team members come together and participate in that distribution of the food. And then the expression on the faces of the seniors when they come to the door and just the fear that they had had about not being able to meet their own needs and having that fear alleviated, that's priceless. And so, it's a true honor to be able to help people who meet those needs. And, you know, happy to share with you some of those pictures and some of those specific encounters. But that really gives my team a boost and, you know, is the purpose that we do what we do.

Glennis Markison 30:38
Yeah, that's so wonderful to hear. And I appreciate your sharing it. And most of all, I appreciate your being here and kind of giving listeners so, so many insights to work from at their own community. So, thanks again for joining us and voices, Steve.

Steve PonTell 30:51
You bet. And thanks for doing this, keep it up!

Glennis Markison 30:52
If you'd like to hear from other voices in multifamily, or learn how to share your voice, head to voices.happy.co. You can find Voices on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, or your favorite podcast player. Voices is produced by HappyCo, the leading real-time property operations platform for multifamily and student housing. We're on a mission to elevate property management to community management, prioritizing staff and resident wellbeing. That starts by listening to you, the voices of multifamily. I'm Glennis Markison, thanks for listening. Also, feel free to take a minute and rate or review this podcast. That will help us share the voices in multifamily.

Our Host

Glennis Markison

Glennis is a writer and producer from San Francisco. Taking the city’s trains and buses with riders of all ages and backgrounds inspired Glennis to go into journalism and share people’s stories for a living. As HappyCo's Senior Content Producer, she’s excited to highlight diverse voices and share stories from within the Multifamily industry.