As managing principal for Fairfax, Va.-based Middleburg Management, Chris Finlay has spent the better part of the past decade building and growing his business into the company it is today. The company manages approximately 17 apartment communities in four states (North Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Utah), according to its website. While service has always been a value embraced by the former Marine-his company allows all team members to take 40 hours of paid time to volunteer-he saw an opportunity to do more.
After reading an article in Blue Ridge Outdoors magazine about an editor’s experience going homeless for a few days, a few things came together for Finlay.
First, it was the idea that homelessness was a real, yet often times fixable problem in the U.S. While a small percentage of homeless people have mental illness and/or dependency issues, the vast majority are victims of circumstance-veterans, domestic abuse survivors or people forced into homeless due to a serious family illness. And once homeless, it is exceedingly difficult to climb out.
And second, there were a number of ways companies like his could be part of a solution without having to make radical changes to the way they conduct business. The apartment industry has a notoriously high turnover rate at the entry level, so firms are always looking to fill vacant onsite positions (leasing agents, groundskeepers, porters, etc.). Moreover, it’s a common industry practice to offer free or reduced rent to employees as a perk.
So, with job opportunities and housing resources matched to a growing need in precisely those areas, in early 2014, Finlay launched Shelters to Shutters. The not-for-profit organization serves as a liaison between partner firms and local homeless communities, helping match qualified but currently homeless people to jobs in the industry.
Partner firms notify Shelters to Shutters of new openings at their communities. In turn, Shelters to Shutters reaches out to its network of carefully vetted, local homeless organizations to identify potential candidates for the positions. All candidates are screened and undergo a background check. Approved candidates are then put in the applicant pool and go through the traditional interview and review process with the companies.
To date, the program has helped find 30 homeless people jobs in the industry and homes to call their own.
Given the success of the 2014 pilot program, Finlay says the goal for 2015 is to expand the program to more partners and geographic markets. Finlay says he hopes to add 20 real estate partners to the roster in 2015. CompassRock Real Estate recently agreed to participate in the program, and Finlay says he thinks the organization will add another handful of large management companies to the fold in the first quarter of the year. “We’re building this for scalability,” Finlay says.
Finlay says the program generates positive returns with little risk. “As an apartment guy, it costs me nothing. I’m not doing anything I wouldn’t be doing anyway,” he says.
Not only does the program offer companies a way to act altruistically, giving people in need what he calls a “hand up not a handout,” but the program offers legitimate business benefits. Finlay says the industry is “just a revolving door” with turnover rates as high as 50 percent per annum for entry-level positions. “If these employees last a year or longer, they are beating our average,” he explains.
Moreover, these candidates can enrich companies’ teams by adding diversity-a diversity of backgrounds, experiences and more-while performing well and becoming very loyal employees. “I’m amazed at the quality of candidates,” Finlay says. “It’s not at all what you’d expect.”
While the program is off to a strong start, Finlay says funding is the next big challenge. The organization has been self-funded thus far, but given the expansion plans, Finlay says he expects the organization will do some new fundraising and seek out some corporate sponsors.
Interested firms are invited to check out the organization’s website at www.shelterstoshutters.org, which offers some examples of success stories and information on how to get involved with the program.