For Polly Kuehl, property management in the affordable housing sector is about the people and property as a whole. And then paperwork, lots of paperwork.
Kuehl has developed or managed affordable housing for 40 years and joined Evergreen Real Estate Services in 2004 where she is the senior vice president of property management. She previously worked at Lutheran Social Services of Illinois for about 13 years.
Kuehl’s background in the nonprofit sector is important, because as a property manager for affordable housing properties a lot of the work revolves around the well-being of the tenants in addition to typical asset management responsibilities, she said. It matters so much that about 50 percent of the team that Kuehl manages has previous nonprofit experience. Kuehl received a bachelor’s degree in social work and then a master’s degree in public administration with a concentration in aging services.
“It’s always amazed me how many of the things I learned in my social work classes actually translate into business. Most property management companies don’t get into the depth of services out there,” Kuehl said.
Many residents in affordable housing have low-paying jobs or are unemployed and have health problems or family issues, Kuehl said. Understanding where this tenant base comes from is important because they clearly have different needs than someone in market rate housing. The more services you bring in for this vulnerable population, the better tenants they’ll be.
Some traditional for-profit property management companies that go into affordable housing often come in with a straight property management perspective, Kuehl said. So they run into issues with residents not paying rent, damaging the property and not being good neighbors. Kuehl’s approach is much more “whole people” focused and she finds that helps solve some of these issues.
“If you start to look at residents and realize where they’re coming from and provide services they need, you can easily reduce problems,” Kuehl said.
When tenants get a sense of ownership and control over their living environment, they take better care of the building and will make sure their neighbors follow the rules, Kuehl said. When you include the community in the decision making process, they feel involved and want to participate in creating a better living space.
One of the biggest challenges in family affordable housing is finding enough funding to provide these community services.
In senior affordable housing, programs that provide residents with food if they are unable to cook or services like bus trips to the local shopping center are standard. Family affordable housing should be given similar funding opportunities so programs like this can be established, Kuehl said.
Many times Kuehl reaches out to the community leaders, churches and local police so that programs and services can be set up. Some properties that Evergreen manages has programs like kid’s clubs, vegetable gardens, monthly tenant breakfasts and mentoring groups set up. At Evergreen’s Buena Vista apartments in Elgin there were a few residents who volunteered to run an after school program where kids could get a snack and help with homework. However, when those residents left the building, the program stopped.
That’s why it’s important to get funding or grants for services and programs in family affordable housing. Evergreen recently applied for and was granted status as a nonprofit corporation so that they could go after grants or fundraise to do more programs in the multifamily buildings, Kuehl said.
But with every new funding source you find, “the regulation and paperwork just triples,” Kuehl said. “So much of our time is spent doing regulatory compliance that it leaves less time for the property management stuff,” she added.
Although that is a challenge, it’s one that Kuehl welcomes. One of the most enjoyable parts about her job is “maneuvering through the paperwork and figuring out how to make it all work,” Kuehl said.