Building Community During a Loneliness Epidemic featuring Pete Kelly

Pete Kelly is the CEO of Apartment Life, a faith-based nonprofit serving the Multifamily industry for over two decades building community. That company helped with the Loneliness Epidemic.

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“About a year ago, the insurance company Cigna came out with a study that found that 60% of Americans would describe themselves as being lonely. If you’re an apartment owner or apartment operator, that’s a problem, because if your residents are lonely, that means they don’t have any roots in that community. And if they don’t have any roots in that community, they’re just as likely to move to the community down the street if they’re offering a good enough deal.”

Apartment Life has a program that helps with building community. Coordinators do wellness checks to see what residents need. In some cases, they might pick up groceries for those that can’t afford it, or pick up prescriptions for elderly people struggling.

“It’s not only the right thing – it’s good for people – it’s also good for the bottom line.”

Kelly says on average, you can save up to $188,000 a year in marketing and overhead costs if you have a program to help with loneliness.

“Obviously, we had to pivot a little bit. A lot of what we did pre-pandemic were faith- based events. The pivot was really caring for our neighbors.”

Apartment Life has a couple different models for its program.

The first uses two people who are living in the community as an ambassador for the manager. They’ll bring a proposal to property managers showing off potential event ideas and coordinating on marketing for that.

They act as a welcome wagon, throwing parties and events, greeting new residents as they move in, and keeping on the lookout for ways to help people. About 3 months before a resident is set to leave, that ambassador will go over and talk with the resident about staying. That gives people a neighborly experience that makes them want to stay. It also gives managers time to potentially change people’s minds, or find out what they did wrong that they should address.

“What’s different is, they’re not just setting up the event, they’re also playing host. And that’s a really key differentiator. If your goal is to put food on a table, you probably don’t need apartment life to do that. But if you want something to help your residents get to know each other, having somebody be really thoughtful about the event can help,” said Kelly.

There’s also an off-site model, where the ambassadors are not literal neighbors, but they check in with residents to create that same feel. One coordinator is paid an hourly wage, rather than living in the community. That person looks for ways to create a sense of connectedness in the community.

Kelly says he loves technology and social media, but that technology is not meeting the core need of connection. Social media has made the country more divided and lonelier than ever before, Kelly says.

“We help residents to make friends, we help them get to know their neighbors. There’s a personalness to it that a chat bot could never replace. Even if we had the most advanced artificial intelligence that could anticipate people’s needs, there’s something about knowing there’s an actual person on the other side of that communication that makes a big difference.”

Having those particular people fill that role is crucial. People simply can’t be friends with their apartment managers, because that relationship is transactional. And people don’t always extend friendship to their neighbors naturally. So those on-site neighborly ambassadors serve as the push people need to build community.

In some lower-income communities, those ambassadors can also help meet some of the social, physical, and economic needs, Kelly says. That might mean connecting people who lost their jobs with resources that can help them pay rent and get groceries.

The visit before people renew is a situation where properties can make a real impact.

Kelly tells a story of a single mother named Kathy in Houston. The coordinator for that community went by to do a renewal visit, and learned Kathy had recently put a deposit somewhere else. She explained, she had a spider infestation that the management team hadn’t been able to solve. The coordinators expressed how sad they were to see her go and how much they’d enjoyed getting to know her. That night, Kathy emailed the team, saying she realized that she wants to raise her daughter in a community like the one she’s in, with great personal relationships with the people on site. Kelly says Kathy let go of her deposit, losing the money, and decided to stay.

“That takes a human element. I don’t know that an AI chatbot would ever be able to accomplish the same thing as an interaction like that.”

Kelly says it’s hard to decide on a single event that’s been the most impactful. But he did bring up the example of Texas losing power.

“The problem with apartment owners in Texas right now is, a lot of those pipes have burst and it’s created chaos. There’s a lot of people having to move out of their apartments, or their furniture has been damaged, and it’s been a really stressful time. So one ‘event’ that comes to mind is we were able to partner with somebody and raise some money for some food trucks and just say ‘Hey, we know it’s been a hard week. We just want to treat y’all to a free meal.’”

Apartment Life is still working through its pivot to try to be there for people in the communities they serve. In some situations, that just meant doing wellness checks.

“But as we go into 2021 and the pandemic winds down, there’s been increasing demand from a couple different sectors. We’ve had owners of affordable communities that have reached out and said, ‘Hey, we need help with the wraparound services, and we need a solution.”

Kelly says that’s been a growing arm of the business, along with senior communities. Senior communities experience a lot of loneliness. Student communities are also an area of growth, Kelly adds.

“I haven’t met anyone that works in property management that doesn’t want to create a sticky community. I haven’t met anyone that’s like, ‘I don’t like my residents,’’ joked Kelly. “Generally, these are things they want to do but don’t have time to do, or don’t have time to do consistently. Or if you’re a leasing agent or a property manager, assistant property manager, and the event is scheduled for 8:00, you want to be home with your family! So it’s nice to know that the event is going to be taken care of, there’s somebody who actually lives there who cares about the atmosphere and the environment that’s working on your behalf to create that sticky community.”

The Apartment Life team is also helpful in transitions to new management, since they maintain a level of consistency.

Some of this takes a bit of trial and error, where you learn what individual communities or people would be interested in. Some of that you solve by having a variety of different creative events. People will always respond to food, but you have to tap into their personal relationships too to help build community.

Apartment Life does extensive training for its coordinators. They have to be okay with a flexible, part-time schedule; they have to have administrative experience; and they have to be social. They also have coordinators form a network of other teams from different communities and cities to discuss what worked for them and what didn’t.

“I see the direction the industry is going is increasing automation. I see the use of technology to run these communities as lean as possible, so that they’re as profitable as possible, using technology to replace the transactional relationships,” said Kelly. Still though, management companies are bringing up questions about how automation might affect the feel of a community.”

In newer markets, Apartment Life can establish a team within about three months; in markets where the company has already set up shop, it only takes about a month to begin building community.

Connect with Pete and Apartment Life:

Instagram: @aptlife

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