As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to prevent most large gatherings from taking place, affordable housing developers have turned to hosting virtual grand openings and groundbreakings.
BRIDGE Housing, Cohen-Esrey Development Group, Community Housing Development Corp. (CHDC), Eden Housing, and HDC MidAtlantic have been some of the organizations to host virtual events through prerecorded videos, live Zoom meetings, and other technology in recent weeks.
“There’s no question that we would all desire to be together in person for this momentous occasion, and we celebrate nonetheless through this virtual celebration giving us a digital memory that will live on for years to come,” said Dan Collison, lead pastor at First Covenant Church Minneapolis, in a video as his organization and CHDC commemorated the opening of their 169-unit East Town Apartments in downtown Minneapolis.
In Pennsylvania, HDC MidAtlantic recently turned to Zoom to hold a groundbreaking for its $14.5 million Beach Run Apartments in Fredericksburg, which will feature 51 affordable homes, including six for residents with disabilities.
“I think it’s great to have this groundbreaking virtually because it’s the way we stay connected throughout this, and it is about recognition of the commitment to forging ahead despite the circumstances as we find them,” said Robin Wiessmann, executive director and CEO of the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency, during the event.
Cohen-Esrey recently held its second virtual event to celebrate the opening of Waverly Historic Lofts, a 34-unit affordable housing development in Waverly, Iowa. The firm brought together project partners and government officials in a live Zoom meeting.
Although a virtual event can’t replicate the experience of an in-person visit to a development, it’s still a good way to interact with colleagues during these challenging times. One advantage is that it easily allows project partners from around the country to take part, said Tom Anderson, managing director.
It has also allowed his Kansas-based firm to stick to its general schedule of hosting grand openings during the lease-up stage of a property.
BRIDGE Housing, a large nonprofit on the West Coast, has also held two virtual ribbon-cutting events for The Vera in Portland, Ore., and Cedar Grove at Jordan Downs in Los Angeles, with other events in the works. It was able to capture the significance of the new projects with recorded interviews with key participants and photos that capture the different features of the properties.
“These milestones are important, and we were looking for a safe way to honor them and celebrate the efforts of everyone involved,” said Lyn Hikida, vice president of communications at BRIDGE Housing.
While there’s definitely a learning curve in creating something that most of us haven’t done before, there’s also some benefit in how all the partners are collaborating to think out of the box, she said.
The costs of a virtual grand opening can vary greatly from hardly anything for a web conference gathering to a few thousand dollars for a recorded video that may involve sound, video, and lighting technicians as well as editing time.
In most cases, they are less expensive than traditional live celebrations, which often involve renting different equipment, bringing in refreshments, and hiring a photographer, according to the firms.
Anderson and Hikida both recommend early and comprehensive preparation for a virtual event.
“Test the technology thoroughly and build in rehearsal time so you can address any wrinkles in advance,” Hikida said.
For the Zoom call to celebrate the Waverly Historic Lofts opening, Anderson and his team did a trial run with a few of the speakers a few days in advance. “Don’t assume that everybody on the call knows how to use the technology. Make sure you explain to the folks what pieces of it they may need to have access to during the course of the event,” he said.
Also, think about ways to make the event engaging because you’re losing the personal connection you would normally have with a live event, said Anderson, who led participants in a virtual group hug during the recent Waverly Historic Lofts celebration.
Here are links to a few recent virtual events: