In my several years working in affordable housing, I visited maintenance teams all around the USA and Europe. Sometimes I met with monstrous teams of maintenance staff and other times a small group led by a manager. The one common theme is that morale and training make or break the ability of a maintenance team to deliver the performance and service levels needed to keep up with demands. The truth is that any maintenance manager at a public housing authority will be under-staffed and under-funded. Don’t like that? Probably not the job for you. It’s the organizations and managers that get that and still find a path forward that help find success in a challenging environment.
The Seattle Housing Authority has close to 10,000 units of hard housing in the portfolio. They are made up of a mish-mash of public housing, tax credit, private market, project-based voucher units and straight affordable housing units. This is the new face of a modern public housing authority. To strive and succeed, blended subsidies is where it is at. Regardless of the subsidy type, the housing authority’s maintenance staff still has the important job of keeping up on maintenance requests, unit turns, preventative maintenance and special projects.
Embracing a Challenge
The Seattle Housing Authority recognized a growing challenge in attracting and retaining a highly skilled maintenance workforce with multifaceted expertise. To address this need, SHA developed a Specialized Maintenance and Repair Training program with curricula developed and taught by SHA journeyman craftsman. The program helps staff develop new skills and ensures they can perform competently and safely in a variety of disciplines. The training lab was built to mimic a typical residential environment and is used to conduct hands-on training and testing of applicants. Implementation of SMART has increased efficiency, provided career growth opportunities and increased employee morale and retention.
The introduction and success of SMART has helped promote a culture of continuous learning and improvement, fostering enthusiasm; created some “buzz” in the work group and the agency at large; positively boosted morale and camaraderie; created efficiencies in maintenance operations; expanded maintenance capacity; and improved service. This has allowed the maintenance department to better serve tenants while meeting the agency’s growing demand (there were 34,859 work orders completed in 2017, an 12% year-over-year increase).
The SMART program includes classroom style instruction and a hands-on training lab that mimics a typical residential environment. The training lab was set up by staff using existing resources and includes everything from windows with blinds, working sinks, toilets and bathtubs to highly technical fire alarm testing systems. SMART courses include Basic Electrical, Basic Carpentry, Basic Plumbing, Sheetrock Repair/Texturing, and Range & Refrigerator Repair which are taught in the training lab. Painting and Cleaning classes are held in actual vacant units. In-house journeyman trade employees developed the courses and training materials (which include pictures and diagrams pertaining to each task) and are the instructors.
The training lab is also used to assess the skills of maintenance department job applicants and has proven to be very effective in identifying and quantifying the applicant’s skills. On-site testing also identifies people with the aptitude to do well with training.
The maintenance team also worked with property management staff to create a custom-tailored course for Property Assistants. Other classes being developed include a customer service course with a focus on field maintenance staff. These courses have increased efficiency, provided career advancement opportunities and increased employee morale and retention. There are future plans to develop a library of quick reference video tutorials and to make the SMART program available to staff agency-wide.
The Administrator of the Maintenance Staff Pat Arnardi believes that these types of programs are the key to building up team-work within the maintenance division and across other areas of the PHA. The team at SHA have been willing to assist and share best practices with PHAs from across the region and country. Contact Pat Arnadi at Pat.Anardi@seattlehousing.org for questions or comments.