Alamo Area Mutual Housing Association: Cross-Selling Community Participation
|Keywords: ||Leadership Development, Resident Leadership
|Information About Organization:|
|Name: ||Alamo Area Mutual Housing Association
|Address: ||4502 Centerview, Suite 233
| ||San Antonio, Texas 78228
|Contact: ||Sandra Williams, Executive Director
|Phone: ||(210) 731-8030
|Fax: ||(210) 731-8025
Jennifer Gonzalez, deputy director of Alamo Area Mutual Housing Association (AAMHA), is pulling a classic “bait-and-switch” operation throughout San Antonio, but so far nobody’s complaining. AAMHA has used activities at its eight rental properties such as Bingo, Pot-Luck Night, and Arts and Crafts to develop leadership, recruit and train board members, and help residents along the path to financial fitness and homeownership. The activities are aimed at people across the age spectrum, with a special focus on youth and leadership.
The Alamo Area Mutual Housing Association (AAMHA) was established in 1990 as a private, nonprofit, 501(c)(3) organization that develops, owns and manages new and existing affordable housing in San Antonio area communities. AAMHA provides an affordable alternative to homeownership.
Mutual housing offers residents long-term affordability, a stable community, voice in the operation of their housing, and an environment that supports them and their children in achieving their goals. AAMHA sponsors programs and activities that emphasize education, self-sufficiency, leadership and volunteerism.
A Ford Foundation study that prominently featured AAMHA said, “Children, if encouraged and involved early, are more likely to continue volunteering later in life.” The study said 68.7 percent of youth who had belonged to a youth group, performed some volunteer work, raised money, or were active in student government, currently serve as volunteers. Only 20.4 percent of those who didn’t have those early life experiences currently volunteer. According to the Ford study, “Half of the young people who held a leadership position during their high school years volunteered their time to a community-based organization in the past year. Only one-third of those who did not have a leadership position when they were in high school volunteered in the past year. Only one-fifth of young people who avoided extracurricular activities during high school have volunteered in the past year.”
The lesson: Get them involved young or lose them to apathy, or worse.
An Inviting Environment. AAMHA tries to create a “kitchen table” environment in its classrooms. “We’ve created comfortable spaces, small enough for people to sit in groups of five,” said Gonzalez. The goal is to break away from a classroom environment, where people don’t talk to each other and have to raise their hands to go to the bathroom.
For many adult learners, the school environment wasn’t a pleasant one. Old tapes start to run in their minds that say, “I’m not smart,” or “This didn’t work before,” or “I don’t enjoy this.” Gonzalez feels that having people work in an intimate setting allows them to build exactly the kind of interpersonal relationships that are the building blocks of a successful community. “In small groups,” she said, “conversation erupts, and good things grow from those conversations. We view them as ‘Public Space’ in the truest sense of the word. We pay attention to curb appeal, parking, signage, etc. Our residents treat the community spaces as if they were really special, and, in fact, they are.”
A Focus on Developing Leaders. The most striking difference between AAMHA and the traditional model is the lack of resident councils. “In the old days, the president of each resident council was automatically appointed to the AAMHA board,” Gonzalez explained. “We changed the bylaws and eliminated that.” The result of the old policy was that each project president acted like a politician, always trying to get the most for their property, instead of acting like a statesman, looking out for the greater good of the whole association. “We also found,” Gonzalez said, “that without adequate leadership training, the residents weren’t really understanding what was going on in the board meetings. They were intimidated by the bankers and real estate experts on the board. It just wasn’t working.”
In a typical mutual housing association, all residents are required to attend resident council meetings, serve on tenant-selection committees, and/or put in a certain number of hours on maintenance or repairs. But AAMHA is anything but a typical mutual housing association. It broke from tradition and decided to focus on developing leaders, while letting the professionals run the day-to-day operations.
“No one is required to come to any meetings, and we lease traditionally,” Gonzalez explained. “There’s no resident committee to select tenants. That’s done by staff. Staff does credit checks, criminal background checks – all the things a typical landlord or property management firm does, but things the residents were reticent to do. Our residents also aren’t required to do maintenance or lawn care. We found that the residents couldn’t get past the minutia of arguing over who did or didn’t mow their assigned patch of grass.” AAMHA residents, instead, can concentrate on building their own internal and family assets, and in helping the broader community.
Activities for One and All. “Our activities are designed so that something will appeal to just about everyone who lives there,” said Gonzalez. “Once they have a chance to interact with our staff, they begin to feel comfortable. Nobody ever walks in and just tells you what’s going on in their lives. But in the course of some of the more fun activities, we get into conversation. Our resident coordinators are trained to pay attention, and follow up. If someone has lost their job, we might encourage them to come to our class in resume` writing. If someone is complaining about the job they have, we might ask if they’ve ever gotten comfortable working with a computer, and mention that we have computer classes, or our G.E.D. classes. Lots of people complain about money. We steer them to a financial literacy class; perhaps put them on the path to homeownership. In a year’s time, you have a different resident – someone who’s willing to take more responsibility for themselves, and eventually become a community leader.”
“Our goal is to create a community of choice,” said Gonzalez. “The graduates of our homeownership programs don’t pack up and leave town. They’ve developed roots here. They buy a house close to our developments and remain active in the community we’ve created here. It’s extremely satisfying.”
AAMHA residents are more likely to feel they have a voice, more likely to vote, and less likely to leave than residents of other apartment complexes in the area.
At Western Hills, 88 percent of children five to 12 who are enrolled in the learning center attend an extracurricular, after-school program, as do 95 percent of children 13 to 18. At Babcock North, the extracurricular participation rate for the two age groups is 100 percent.
Freshly developed resident leaders include Monica Diaz and Petra Perez:
Monica Diaz was a single mom who became involved because her seven-year-old son was involved in the learning center. She was coaxed to serve on a playground planning committee and other property-based committees over the years. AAMHA staff nominated her to participate in AAMHA’s leadership training program, and she’s now serving her second year on the AAMHA board of directors. “At first, she didn’t think she had anything to offer,” said Gonzalez. Now she’s one of our most dynamic board members. And her son, (now 13) is involved in the Blue Santa Program, helping police collect and distribute toys to needy kids.”
Petra Perez lived in a house in another part of the city, but circumstances changed for her. She moved into an AAMHA apartment. Her kids had to move, change schools, and adapt to apartment living. Petra had formerly been active in the neighborhood association, and grabbed onto the wheel when her kids became involved in the AAMHA learning center. AAMHA staff, attracted to the different perspective she brought, having been a homeowner, fostered her involvement and invited her to participate in project committees. Then they talked her into taking the intensive (four Saturdays over six months) leadership class. She spearheaded a program through the Property and Resident Issues Advisory Committee to give a new Dell computer with software and printer to one kid from each community who wrote the best essay on the topic of “What Does Community Mean to Me?” She now is in her second year on the AAMHA board of directors. “When we first approached her,” Gonzalez said, “she wasn’t sure if this was something she could do. Her presence and perspective have really changed the focus of the Property and Resident Issues Advisory Committee. She’s one of the strongest advocates for residents we have on the board.”
Well-designed and thought out community space makes a big difference. “The community space at AAMHA's properties is well-designed and well-thought out,” said Judi Patrick, AAMHA’s management consultant with NeighborWorks America. “So, not only do they have resident programs, but also the space for resident meetings, training, and interaction is something to take pride in. The space itself is attractive to youth and adults. I’ve seen ‘resident community space’ that is very uninviting. When the space is uninviting, it devalues the experience of being there. AAMHA shows how very much it values its residents by providing the best quality in facilities, design and staff. It’s planned into the construction or rehab, and it isn't sacrificed as a ‘luxury item’ in designing the pro-forma.”
“You have to listen to the residents to tailor programs that will interest them,” said Gonzalez, “or you quickly have an empty community center. You’ve got to be flexible.” For example, AAMHA set up a program that allows each resident to apply for up to a $250 interest-free loan that is repaid at terms set by the borrower. (The fund was set up with a contribution of a dollar per unit per month from cash flow.) “We quickly discovered that the fund was getting too big,” Gonzalez said. “Not only were the loans being repaid, but also there wasn’t as much borrowing as we anticipated.” AAMHA staff listened to the residents, and used the money, instead, to fund the Dell computer contest, educational grants, school supplies, Thanksgiving and Christmas food baskets.
Agency interview with: Jennifer Gonzalez