Residents at Hooper Springs in Baton Rouge, LA., can access educational videos though their property’s Web site. Community Development, Inc., opened the affordable housing community in March.
Residents at Hooper Springs in Baton Rouge, LA., can access educational videos though their property’s Web site. Community Development, Inc., opened the affordable housing community in March.

Sabrina's husband suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after serving in Iraq from 2003 to 2004 with the Army National Guard.

One night Sabrina, who chose not to reveal her full name, noticed an educational video on PTSD on the Web site for her affordable housing community, managed by Community Development, Inc. (CDI), based in Caldwell, Idaho. She encouraged her husband to try the relaxation technique in the Internet video.

“He instantly felt relief,” Sabrina says.

Sabrina's husband is one of the hundreds of thousands of affordable housing residents who access education and self-help products over the Internet. A new crop of technology companies provides these educational videos, in addition to other online services from community calendars and newsletters to advertising and maintenance orders that can be filed and tracked online.

Ascendant Education, based in Siloam Springs, Ark., creates educational videos ranging from self-help to financial literacy, including the video seen by Sabrina and her husband.

Offered for free on the Web sites of affordable housing communities, the videos reach residents who may be too busy to attend live educational workshops. Other residents may hesitate to attend a public workshop on issues they feel insecure about, like post-traumatic stress.

A typical live presentation in a development's community room has less than a dozen people in the audience, says C. Fred Cornforth, who helped to launch Ascendant and is CEO of CDI, which manages more than 5,000 affordable apartments in 20 states, including Sabrina's community in Utah.

“The videos can afford to use the best presenters,” says Cornforth, who estimates three to four times as many people view educational videos as attend live workshops at his communities.

At seven large affordable housing communities in Texas, residents watched educational videos on property Web sites nearly a quarter of a million times over two years, according to a new study by New Orleans-based 365 Connect, another creator of educational video content for affordable housing communities. That's more than 100 educational videos per apartment over the two years of the study.

365 Connect also provides online calendars and interactive maps filled with local information tailored to the affordable housing properties.

Most state housing finance agencies (HFAs) also offer points to applicants for low-income housing tax credits that offer social services for the residents, including educational sessions.

CDI is negotiating with some success with state HFAs, like the Nebraska Investment Finance Authority, to include the cost of its online videos in the budget mandated for social services at its properties.

“Every state we have shown it to, they were ecstatic about the quality,” says Cornforth.

We're more connected

When Cleveland, Ohio-based The NRP Group surveyed low-income residents in the 10,000 affordable apartments it manages, it found that more than half had a laptop or desktop computer to connect to the Internet. Even more residents were connected to the Web through smart phones or other mobile devices.

For those residents without computers of their own, The NRP Group, like many affordable housing owners and managers, provides residents with computer rooms with free access to the Internet.

Even seniors 55 and older are using basic cell phones, according to The NRP Group's survey. National statistics indicate seniors are the fastest growing demographic using online social networking sites.

To serve these residents, many affordable housing owners and property managers are adding a resident portal to their suite of property management software.

For Houston-based Orion Real Estate Services, which manages more than 17,000 affordable apartments in seven states, the first test of its online services, provided through 365 Connect, was when it created the option for residents to file work orders online at six properties. The company thought a narrow segment of residents would use the service—maybe 1 out of every 16.

“A quarter initially jumped on,” says Pam McGlashen, Orion's vice president of property management.

With a resident portal, maintenance requests can be handled online any time, day or night. The residents can track the status of their requests and be notified by e-mail or text message when the work is completed. That makes for happier residents.

“Maintenance is the leading area of importance to renters,” says Diane Christy, spokeswoman for The NRP Group.

Orion had a similar experience in summer 2011 when the company offered residents the ability to pay their rents online. It started the service at six affordable housing communities in and around Houston, assuming only a few residents would use the service since nearly half of the low-income residents at these communities don't have bank accounts and pay their rents with cashier's checks, says McGlashen.

About a quarter of residents signed up. Many of these residents still don't have banks accounts, says McGlashen, but their employers now issue them debit cards with their pay instead of paper checks. The residents are using these cards to pay their rents online and avoiding the fees of creating cashier's checks.

Marketing opportunities

Owners and property managers are also advertising over the Internet—even for residents who might seem the least likely to be surfing online for a place to live.

For example, Volunteers of America has a portfolio of 17,000 apartments, largely made up of housing reserved for very low-income seniors. However, VOA still advertises its low-income apartments online, and, on at least one occasion, online ads made the difference in filling up the community. “Craigslist has saved us,” says Marcus Vivona, asset manager for VOA.

Even if seniors aren't tech savvy themselves, they often have younger relatives who search the Internet on their behalf, according to Vivona. VOA uses a module to advertise on craigslist. The software integrates smoothly with its resident portal and its core property management software system by RealPage, based in Carrollton, Texas.

The NRP Group has even been testing a new iPad app for affordable properties. Leasing agents use the app when they do community outreach or give tours of the property. The app includes floor plans, photos, and mapping for area amenities.