Last week, I had an opportunity to chat with Trevor Samios, VP of Connected Communities at WinnCompanies. To kick off Fair Housing Month, we reflected on how to create communities fostering belonging and better outcomes for residents.
Here’s what we talked about; responses have been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.
– Courtney Porcella, VP of Marketing & Ops at coUrbanize
Q: How did you get started in the housing / real estate industry?
Trevor: I went to graduate school because I wanted to become a writing teacher, working with young adults to break down complex ideas and make sense of the world. After grad school, I found an opportunity to teach at a public housing community in Pittsburgh, PA for a summer fellowship. I lived onsite in this community, working with young people during the day and hearing about their lived experience and how it shaped their education.
It was a different experience than anything I had been exposed to before, and I became fascinated with all of the social and political dynamics that encircled this community and housing throughout the city. It was one of the first mixed income communities in the city, transitioning from public housing into a public-private partnership. It was a beautiful place with bold, modern housing was visioned to knit the neighborhood together, but it was rife with challenges. For context, the property had a massive fence encircling it, literally cutting it off from the surrounding neighborhood to “keep the animals inside” as the then local police chief told me. Generally, folks were really cut off from the opportunities enjoyed by many others in the city… equity… access. Because of this and because I was new to this world, I had a lot of questions and heard a lot of answers from developers, property managers, politicians, city officials and local service providers.
I became involved in organizing in the city and exploring more about this new world of housing. Soon after, I was offered a job by the Community Builders (TCB) as a property manager for a large HOPE VI community in Pittsburgh. I knew nothing about affordable housing compliance, but believed deeply in mixed-income housing and I jumped into the challenges around education for kids there, the inequities of access for jobs, and all the things that perpetuate cyclical poverty in these neighborhoods. In short, I was a terrible property manager who had an opportunity to learn the ropes thanks to an amazing staff, while also honing organizing skills.
Q: What piqued your interest in the community aspect of this work?
While I was at TCB, I had an opportunity to be a quality assurance analyst, traveling the county to different developments to support property management and compliance efforts. This was a tremendous learning opportunity and it gave me a front row seat to the complex world of affordable and mixed-income housing, from development to disposition. Still, though, I found myself gravitating toward the community services and advocacy that helped housing become a catalyst for people, so always found a way to be involved TCB’s projects across the portfolio while doing my day job. I saw clearly that the actual bricks and sticks of stable, affordable housing can be a key part of changing the trajectory of a city. But it’s not enough. From there, I had an opportunity to work with the Ways & Means team at TCB, a MacArthur Foundation-funded pilot that would set the stage for massive investments in early education and workforce development, amongst other programs, across the portfolio, charting the impact of these housing-based programs over time in changing the landscape of affordable and mixed income housing outcomes.
From there, I went to POAH to start the Community Impact department. We essentially corralled what traditionally was on-site resident services and centered them around measurable income impact in very focused areas, developing programs and partnerships that aligned with that focus. We started to see real outcomes, and a changing approach to traditional property management.
In 2017, I had an opportunity to join WinnCompanies as they were exploring how to develop a similar approach. I saw an opportunity to do this work on a massive, national scale, leveraging the programs and organizations I knew to be impactful as housing partners. It was an opportunity to test everything that we had built before, and to do it in a way could impact both public policy, as well as housing operations.
Q: Your team at Winn is called Connected Communities. Is there an internal definition, or mission for what that encompasses and what it means to you all?
Trevor: It was really striking to me, especially working in housing, to see this intersectionality with school systems and education, a city’s economic development planning, with voter registration, civic voice, healthcare access…
For me, Connected Communities is this concept of housing-based collective impact. It’s a belief that these systems are interconnected and all part of a puzzle. Our team works to identify partners in specific outcome areas for each property. We focus on Housing Stability, Education, Employment, Community Engagement, Health and Economic Mobility- all areas we believe we can impact with the organizations we work with across the county. Those partners then work with resident leadership, on-site staff and other community stakeholders to develop collaborative strategies that can move the needle on what is important to community members, while also measuring the outcomes of that work.
Q: What does this work look like on the ground in the community?
This can take the form of programs around credit building or early education enrollment, for example. Overall, it centers around closed-loop referrals, helping people get connected to resources that they need or want when they need or want them. We meet with each resident every year to understand how we’re doing, what they need, what they’re interested in and what they feel is important. These help us to create and shape strategies, programs, events, and the way we deliver these services over time.
For example, what do we really want to do with voter registration in this community? What would we like to see in one year, in five years? What would we like to see with our relationship with this local school system, and the educational outcomes for children who are living in this community?
We really see ourselves as a convener, a measurer, a connector. This process guides our staff and gives community organizations a clearer and deeper understanding of who they’re working with, and the value of partnering with housing organizations. And for the folks that live in our communities, we’re seeing better outcomes over time, in all of those areas that we’ve defined.
Q: Did you have to redefine any of those outcome areas because of COVID?
Trevor: At first, it was just chaos, but we were focused on helping people get what they needed to be okay. For example last spring, there was a big push for food access, and it hasn’t gone away. It was and is a need that was only highlighted by the pandemic. To this day, we’re still packaging and serving thousands of meals in cities and towns across the country each week.
The silver lining is that we did see innovation come out of this. We also saw collaboration like I’ve never experienced before. In Boston. you had organizations like the United Way, Boston After Schools and Beyond and the YMCA of Greater Boston, each standing up community learning centers across the city. These programs helped families continue to work, children eat, and most importantly, filled a void of education, mental health, and support desperately needed by youth in this city and every city.
On the housing front for our team, the pandemic transitioned us from doing just a handful of emergency rental assistance applications a month to processing thousands a week across the country, helping people recoup rent and utility monies. Every sector working in communities were forced to pivot- healthcare, transportation and technology needs were amplified, but through it all, people were figuring out how to navigate a new and constantly changing “new normal.”
These issues of access that existed certainly before COVID suddenly had a spotlight shone on them, and that’s still shining today.
Q: How do you approach housing as it intersects with all of these critical needs like education, food access, healthcare, etc.?
Trevor: I advocate for the housing first model. Once folks find high-quality stable, affordable housing, their ability to think more broadly about other parts of their life gets easier, from their personal civic engagement to the careers they want, to what they hope for their children. It opens so many doors.
We know a lot about people who live in our communities by nature of being a property management company. Coupling that with asking them what they want, need and believe in and not assuming what their wants might be, we can direct people towards opportunities versus blanketing communities with assumption-based programs. We can match make… tailor our support.
This was certainly strained by COVID-19. Our communities are vibrant. People know their neighbors and all of a sudden people were cut off from one another, our team, and our partners.
Our staff had to create these opportunities for connections in new virtual ways. The combination of the pandemic and the fierce, necessary rise for attention on social justice in this country created an atmosphere where our staff, community partners and resident leadership really found ways to reach people and our communities are more organized because of it, I think.
Q: How does all of this intersects with the work that you personally, and perhaps the larger team are doing around anti-racist work and equality?
Trevor: I think it galvanized people… brought them together to learn more about what happened in this country, what’s continuing to happen, and started conversations about what real things can be put in place to correct for both the past and present. Our focus is on the implications of inequities in our communities, and what role we can play in changing that landscape. We are constantly asking ourselves how are we treating people? What is our customer service? How are we reinforcing that with staff in our interactions.
In our communities, we saw it play out in a lot of different ways. Many of our properties in Boston were central organizing locations for the marches in the city. That’s where people were coming together, where marches were beginning, where conversations were being had – where hundreds of people were coming to convene to engage with one another and make decisions.
Many of our staff were and are a part of those protests and conversations. Because of this, voting was one of the areas where we knew we could have an impact. It was important to ensure that people could raise their voices, be engaged and be informed. Last year, we helped more than 17,000 people register to vote for the first time.
We live and breathe this work because we see issues of access in everything we do. Our job is connecting people to resources, to programs, to services that can change the opportunities before them.