Reconsidering the vocabulary of apartment living

After 15 years in the apartment business, I admit to always having been uncomfortable with the words "tenant," "complex," "project" and "unit" as they have been applied to the important business of housing almost 20% of the U.S. population. These words project an image of apartment living as second-class to home ownership and of apartment dwellers as less fortunate than "residents" of "homes" who live in "communities" -- an image that is not accurate today.

Three years ago I requested that everyone in Avalon Properties reconsider the vocabulary of apartment living to reflect the new reality we are creating for our customers. We substituted words as follows: "residents" vs. "tenants," "community" vs. "complex" or "project," and "apartment home" vs. "unit."

Who is a "tenant" anyway? Going back a couple of centuries, the lord (landlord) suffered, at his pleasure, the squatting on his land of a sharecropper or tenant farmer. The landlord offered no amenities, no shelter and virtually no services. Later, tenants became occupants of tenements as a renter or roomer. Perhaps scenes from Charles Dickens or Sinclair Lewis come to mind. Today, the office, retail and industrial sectors of the real estate industry consistently refer to their corporate customers as tenants. None of these images is appropriate for our customer today.

What is a "complex" or "project"? A complex is either (i) a complicated labyrinth or (ii) a mental state characterized by a morbid sense of one's own inferiority or an exaggerated conviction of one's own superiority (no wonder some developers like die term). A project is a design, a scheme or perhaps an undertaking by a student. When applied to housing, the "project" or "complex" is inevitably located on the wrong side of the tracks. Neither term relates to the apartments we are creating today.

And, what about a "unit"? A unit can be either a quantity chosen as a standard measurement or a single person or thing. Again, the word doesn't relate to housing at all.

Yet each of these terms has been part of the historical vocabulary of the apartment business and is predominantly used today in conversation and articles. I'd like you to reconsider this vocabulary as we endeavor to enhance both the reality and image of apartment living.

One conclusion of the National Multi Housing Council and the National Apartment Association research report on The Future of the Apartment Industry was that "apartment living needs a new image." Why? In order to make a profit, most new construction and major rehab apartments are targeted toward the lifestyle resident who chooses to rent even though he or she can afford to own. Therefore, developers are competing with home ownership, which is promoted by no less than federal and state governments. The biases toward home ownership present challenges for the apartment industry to show that we are providing first-class housing for first-class citizens.

Accepting the challenge, apartment developers and marketers are creating rental communities targeted at the lifestyle resident, consisting of more affluent families, professionals and empty-nesters. To attract these target markets, developers are building apartment homes with features normally associated with ownership housing such as nine-foot and cathedral ceilings, lofts, washers and dryers, walk-in closets, home work areas, fire, places, ceiling fans, microwave ovens and direct-access garages. These apartment homes fulfill most of the home-like amenities the lifestyle resident desires and, therefore, can hardly be characterized as "units" from the historical vocabulary.

Not only is the battle for the loyalty of affluent families, professionals and empty-nesters being waged within the "apartment home," but also through the provision of "community" facilities and services. The concept of "community" connotes identifying, bonding and belonging with others to enhance security for all. Some developers are accomplishing this by branding their communities with a common name, which signifies to their residents that by carrying their name this community stands for consistently providing first-class facilities and services. The facilities may include a gated and fenced community; fitness center; business center with computers; fax machines; copiers; conference facilities; media center; indoor basketball; racquetball; pool; library; tennis courts; barbecue grills; and retail space for a dry cleaner, flower shop or convenience store. Some of the services provided include concierge or activities director; personal trainers; free continental breakfast; bike rental; video rental; after-school latch-key care; classes in cooking, investment and travel; plant and pet care when the resident is traveling; and FedEx, UPS and package acceptance.

Apartment communities designed for the way residents will live in the next 10 years are increasingly providing the high technology and communication links demanded by leading-edge professionals and education-minded families. Apartment communities offer the critical mass necessary to attract alliances with the pioneers of technology and communication services and, as a result, are positioned to be in the forefront of this revolution -- even ahead of single-family communities. Clearly, these facilities and services are characteristic of a true "community" setting and are a far cry from the historical image of a "complex" or "project."

In order to compete today, on-site management teams are providing our customers with their most valued service of all: a caring, professional approach to managing the community. As we continue to upgrade apartment homes and apartment community facilities and provide an increasing number of convenient and high-quality services, we will dispel the image of landlords suffering tenants on our land and in our buildings. And, our customers will truly feel what they are: valued "residents" living in "apartment homes" and part of a "community."

During the recent annual meeting of the National Multi Housing Council, the leaders of the apartment industry alternated between the historical vocabulary and these new, more apt words. Many in attendance may not have noticed as their peers described new, amenity-laden communities as "complexes for an affluent tenant." Over that weekend, the local paper carried a front page story about the proposed renovation of "... an affordable apartment complex of 104 units, where tenants pay ..." The article went on to note that "... residents of nearby homes would very much like to see these units improved."

After three years, we get the vocabulary right most of the time at Avalon Properties. If someone slips, he or she is gently reminded. Everyone agrees that the new vocabulary captures the thrust of our efforts to perform the important job of providing a modem home in a community setting. For if we are successful in these business practices, we may be rewarded with a more dedicated apartment resident. Give it a try in your company. As usual, it will take a consistent commitment from the top and plenty of gentle reminders to reconsider the vocabulary of apartment living.

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