Hold Orientation Meetings to Help New Households Start Out Right
When new tax credit households move into your site, you can help them to start out on the right foot by ensuring that they have a clear understanding of their obligations for adhering to lease provisions and the house rules for your site. The orientation meeting sets the tone for the relationship that you will have with your residents.
Taking the time to communicate clearly what is expected of residents and what they can expect from you will make your staff's job much easier when it comes to day-to-day site management tasks, such as performing unit inspections, complying with tax credit and other program requirements, and maintaining the unit. If, at some point, households violate lease provisions or house rules that put the unit out of compliance, orientation also provides management with documented proof that the residents were informed of their responsibilities.
“Orientation is the most important process that residents go through—for them and for us,” says Candace Eagle, job placement director and housing manager for Sitting Bull College (SBC). Eagle oversees SBC's 18 tax credit units, designed for students who meet LIHTC exceptions. “If there comes a time when a household has to be evicted, the orientation is going to be critical to your case.”
Although the IRS and HUD do not require sites to hold resident orientation meetings, HUD recommends pre-occupancy briefings as a good management practice, stating that: “Holding a meeting prior to occupancy helps an owner ensure that new tenants understand the terms of the lease. It also gives the owner an opportunity to relay important information about resident rights, lead-based paint disclosure, house rules, and conditions for the termination of assistance and tenancy. At the same time, information provided during tenant briefing topics gives tenants a clear understanding of the owner's responsibilities and better enables tenants to fulfill their own responsibilities. The briefing gives the tenant an opportunity to ask questions and discuss the information being presented.”
Lay the Foundation Before Orientation
Because many new residents are not familiar with the tax credit program and its requirements, it's important to start the education process early—from the moment that a prospect picks up an application, says Eagle. Many times, because SBC housing works in collaboration with the local housing authority, applicants think that they can get a unit for zero rent, or they may be homeless and looking for temporary housing, she says.
Eagle advises site staff to clearly spell out the basic requirements and policies of the tax credit program to prospects early on. “It's important to educate people from the moment that they pick up an application. Take a few minutes to explain to them what the program is, how a person qualifies, how much the rent is, what the lease terms are, what the waiting list policy is, and when they might hear back from you,” she says. “Let each applicant know what to expect right when he walks in the door.”
Create an Orientation Form
An orientation checklist can help you to ensure that you hit all of the critical topics during your pre-occupancy briefing. Eagle uses a one-page form that includes contact information for the residents, as well as a list of topics, including lease violations, collection and eviction policy, monthly unit inspections, etc. As each topic is covered, residents are asked to initial or sign the form.
“I explain to them that the signed form is my evidence that we have gone through the orientation, and that they understand the rules, lease violations, and house policies,” she says. (For an example of an orientation checklist, see our Model Form: Use Checklist to Cover All Bases During Resident Orientation.)
Review Key Policies, Lease Provisions
If you want households to meet your site's expectations, then you need to educate them about their responsibilities. Keep in mind that leases are complicated legal documents, and residents often may need a more detailed explanation to ensure that they clearly understand the key provisions.
SBC's tax credit lease is a nine-page document, which Eagle reviews with each new household from beginning to end. She carefully explains each policy's requirements, as well as steps that are taken if those requirements are not met.
For instance, when describing the collection and eviction policy, she makes sure that residents understand that rent is due on the first of the month, and if it is not received by the 10th of the month, it is considered delinquent. At that point, a notice of termination is sent out. “And then I proceed on to the next steps from there and tell them exactly what to expect,” she says.
It's a good practice to require all adult household members to initial or sign each lease provision, as well.
Give Useful Information on Being a Good Tenant
In addition to reviewing policies and lease provisions, managers can help to ensure a successful tenancy by providing useful information to new households for dealing with their day-to-day responsibilities, such as housekeeping, maintaining the unit, and financial responsibilities.
SBC's orientation process includes a brief instructional video that offers helpful living advice on how to follow the lease, basic housecleaning tips, how to make inexpensive cleaning solutions, budgeting, and the importance of paying your rent on time. “It's only a 15-minute video, but it gives them a lot of important information,” Eagle says.
Educate Residents About Tax Credit Program
The tax credit program is complex; it can be confusing to those who administer the program, let alone the residents. But the more information you can provide households about the program's requirements and your site staff's responsibilities to keep units in compliance, the more support you'll receive from your residents, says Eagle.
“The more we tell them about what we're doing and what our duties and our reporting requirements are, the more they respect our policies. They know why we have to inspect the units on the 30th of every month, and why we have annual inspections,” she says. “Education is very important.”
Provide New Households with Forms, Checklists
HUD recommends that sites present new households with information packets that contain handouts summarizing important topics covered during the orientation meeting. Forms and checklists are effective reinforcement tools that residents can review at their leisure.
Eagle supports this practice. She has put together several useful forms for new tax credit households at her site, including a form with definitions of the different types of inspections (such as move-in, move-out, monthly, state, and investor inspections). In addition, residents are given a form that outlines what the inspection covers and a mold information brochure.
How to Ensure an Effective Orientation
The orientation meeting should be a mandatory event for all adult household members, says Eagle. The meeting will establish your future relationship with the household, so be sure to set aside enough time to cover the information thoroughly and allow for questions. Orientation sessions at SBC typically last from an hour to an hour and a half, she says.
Remember that this will be a hectic time for the household. Moving is a highly stressful event. To ensure that residents don't feel rushed, try to be as accommodating as possible when scheduling the meeting, she says, adding that: “Households must attend orientation before they receive the key, so we give them the option to schedule it at their convenience.”
Eagle recommends holding individual orientation meetings for each new household, rather than group sessions that include several households. She has found the group orientation to be much less successful than having individual meetings. “It's much more personal,” she says. “You have the opportunity to explain policies more thoroughly, and the residents are much more likely to ask questions up front.” People often feel more inhibited in a group setting and are less likely to speak up.
Keep Checklist in Household's File
Always be sure to keep the signed orientation form in the household's file in the event that you end up in court over lease violations or an eviction.
The orientation checklist is your proof that residents have attended a one-to-one briefing, and that site policies, lease provisions, and tax credit requirements have been explained to them. “That's why orientation is so important,” Eagle says. “It is the most important part of leasing a unit.”
Candace Eagle: Job Placement Director/Housing Manager, Sitting Bull College; (701) 854-8012; firstname.lastname@example.org.
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