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Posted April 4, 2024

Innovation can Sustain Affordability Amid a National Housing Crisis  

There was a code to crack in VIDA’s business model, one so powerful it would revolutionize the workforce housing industry. As snow mounted across Canada in the winter of 2024, so too did the pressure around the Halifax-based company in a battle to sustain affordability for residents. Owning and operating over 2,700 units within apartment buildings across four provinces, VIDA needed to find a solution before things spiralled further out of control. 

When VIDA first appeared in 2018, the industry was stale and fraught with centralized corporate decision-making. The situation only accelerated over the years that followed, as affordability and sustainability pushed and pulled at each other. However, VIDA saw the battered housing landscape as a challenge for innovation. With a renegade spirit, the company began reimagining how people could interact within the rental communities they called home.   

At its core, VIDA’s objective was simple: shakeup workforce housing through a decentralized model and world class company culture. Better communication on the ground and at the corporate level was required to regenerate older buildings in overlooked communities. The company was veering away from a traditionally transactional approach, by creating something uniquely personalized. VIDA would provide a platform, with partnerships, skill-building and rent support options to help people step into their gifts and work together. 

The straw that stirred the drink to the entire approach was the role of the Building Ambassadors (BAs). BAs would be more than just a resource for corporate management, they’d participate in the regeneration of communities.  

Residents were historically used to superintendents or property managers watching over apartments for a large corporate entity. BAs were different; the role evolved to establish supplemental income for residents. Extra contributions around the buildings they lived in helped BAs support their own affordability through rent credits. They’d become the ones to manage respective communities, typically consisting of single 15–to-25-unit buildings, by cleaning, repairing, and even refilling vacant units. Most importantly, BAs would become the leaders who quickly turned customers' needs into positive results. To achieve this, VIDA selected a team captain, to provide guidance and support for the BAs in each respective community. 

The goal was to have the BAs closer to the customer, teaming up to solidify an ecosystem that combined community and business to help offset a housing crisis. The role was pulled from VIDA’s Founder and CEO Ron Lovett. It mirrored what became central to the entrepreneur’s previous business, Source Security. When Ron decided to go all in on decentralization with Source, he turned a struggling company into a success that would help produce two business books. He found a secret ingredient that empowered front line employees across Canada to make the best decisions for the company. 

With VIDA, decentralization would focus on better service for a better price and customer satisfaction. However, the company needed the right balance of decision-making autonomy, efficiency and accountability. Too much independence or corporate bureaucracy would leave the company paralyzed without the right blend. That’s what others in the industry grappled with, which VIDA was trying to avoid. But time was ticking. 

By winter of 2024, BA spending on repair and maintenance had gone through the roof. Proper guidelines or guidance from management weren’t established to stop buckets of bleeding within the budget. Daily expenditures caused VIDA’s finance department to sound the alarm bells. From there, operations would pull the lever to cause zero spending for 60 days. The company then tried its best to catch up, to the detriment of those on the front lines. Customers were displeased, with BAs left feeling like they did something wrong. VIDA’s business model quickly became unsustainable, until a suggestion during a human resources advisory board session changed everything. 

The board was designed to focus on culture, organizational design and human resources, which was unique in the industry. Among the worldly HR leaders on-hand that day were Vern Harnish (Owner and CEO of Scaling Up), John Ferguson (Chief Human Resources Officer for NASCAR), Shari Conaway (Managing Director at Southwest Airlines) and Carlos Adame (Sr. Global HR and Finance University Programs Leader at Amazon). The experts listened to the biggest challenges VIDA faced. And what emerged from the conversation was that the company needed people on the ground to find simple sources of information to build solutions. VIDA required a leading monthly indicator from the front lines, versus lagging data based on financial spending.  

Ron and the operations team quickly met with a group of select BAs to come up with a 60-day pilot project to crack the code. The strategy featured gamified incentives if the BAs hit a targeted financial goal. Suddenly, the leading indicator model and decentralized approach became game-changer for VIDA. The idea ignited people on the ground to start a weekly tracking of what was being spent. 

During the pilot, team captains were uniquely created to delegate tasks and support fellow BAs in determining priority repairs. The company’s Building Services Team became engaged in communicating with the captains, helping expedite repair and maintenance. Together, the whole group utilized a Microsoft Teams app to create an on-going discussion around repair and maintenance priorities that aligned with budgets. 

The BAs selected for the pilot – known as the Fairview OGs (a tribute to VIDA’s very first building locations in Halifax) – added a twist. Instead of tracking spending per BA and gamifying things through individual prizing, they opted to work the pilot as a common goal within a common budget, sharing the monetary prize between the group. The theory was that if an individual spending target (set at $30 per month / per unit) was to be achieved, they’d have a better shot at hitting it together. 

The monthly numbers before the pilot were coming in at a cost of $110 per unit. The result by the end of the pilot was $23, with customer satisfaction being maintained as VIDA’s key metric. Spending couldn’t stop at the detriment of the customers, so VIDA distributed a survey at the end of the pilot, ensuring satisfaction was upheld throughout the community.  

Momentum in maintenance and monitoring was organically generated, simply by pooling budget resources together as a team and identifying priorities in real time. This created a new safety net of cash the buildings could utilize for the following month. Simple communication and coordinated sharing of items like leftover paint began to positively impact the bottom line.  

If one building in Fairview developed a severe issue, like a broken security door, the two buildings would unite on the ground, identify the priority, and resolve the issue by drawing from the collective budget that accumulated through saved costs.  

Pooling human resources also saved on outsourcing costs. Together, Building Ambassadors and team captains could determine if an external contractor was needed on a case-by-case basis, or if the best solution could be found within the community network itself. 

Proving the 60-day pilot was successful, the Fairview OGs received $900 to split, while $100 was handed to the person with the best creative repair idea. The gamification around the 60 days helped drive collaboration to fix things at a lower, and more reasonable, overall cost.  While an application spray to fill minor cracks and chips in bathtubs emerged as the best idea. The small detail helped avoid replacing an entire tub surround, typically costing $1,500 a pop. The solution was immediately shared with all the other communities in the BA’s group-wide Teams chat.

Other solutions quickly followed suit, with similar repair options uncovered to lower costs, helping avoid refrigerator rust and fixing sink/toilet drainage. Recommending residents to simply leave kitchen or bathroom water faucets ajar during winter cold snaps also lightened expenses to fix frozen pipes. The improved messaging from the BAs across VIDA’s communities reduced outside service calls, and wait times for residents, in the process. 

Overall, VIDA uncovered a scalable solution, where a community of BAs united in support of each other. The priorities became apparent, with things like security taking immediate precedence over items deemed cosmetic. The collaboration brought clarity and better communication throughout the entire organization, ultimately benefitting customers. Costs suddenly began to plummet at the company level, developing a better handle on controlled spending. 

Along with maintaining lower rents due to less spending, VIDA can now reallocate budgeted money into CapEx for sustainable big-ticket items around the envelop of buildings.  

From the pilot’s framework, BAs are also making more money and generating a greater sense of support. They learn from and lean on each other through open lines of communication. The company finally cracked the code! All it took was a little innovation to revolutionize an entire industry.