Leading with Excellence
man holding a visa gift card

By Ellen Ryan |

7 minute read

Staffing has been an ongoing challenge for many rental housing companies. These tips can help retain employees while keeping residents happy.

Customer-facing service work can be demanding, stressful and often thankless. No wonder rental housing industry turnover rates have risen slowly but steadily during the past decade, according to CEL & Associates, Inc.—lowest among executive positions, highest for onsite leasing and maintenance. The Great Resignation only made things worse. 

But not all companies are feeling the pain. Strong staff retention, satisfaction and job referral rates signal multifamily management firms with inspired employees and energized teams. When staff live out the mission and vision statements, everyone from residents to investors to media can see a difference.

MZ Capital Partners and Veritas Equity Management have been overall winners of NAA’s Top Employers Award, and Centerspace was named NAA’s Leading Organization in Diversity, Equity and Inclusion for its 2022 Excellence Awards. All have won a slew of other workplace awards from various organizations, including for women in leadership (Centerspace), good-neighbor properties (MZ Capital Partners) and properties of the year (Veritas).

Here’s some of what they’ve learned.

Hiring and onboarding well

Turnover doesn’t just damage institutional memory and customer service and retention; it drags productivity and increases the time and expense needed for staff replacement and training. In a recent RETS Associates survey (cited in the June 2022 issue of units Magazine) of more than 200 respondents from across the U.S., more than 75% of respondents said they intended to or would consider searching for a new job outside of their current company this year. 

To avoid that, winning companies make themselves visible to desirable job seekers. All three companies rely on referral programs: “Your management team and employees are your best salespeople,” says Michael Zaransky, Managing Principal of MZ. Centerspace sees its 32 hours a year in community volunteer time per employee as another way to get its name out; MZ says the same of its annual shadowing week for business/real estate students at a university near headquarters. 

“It’s important to understand what’s important to new employees,” says Julie Letner, Centerspace Senior Vice President, Talent and Culture. Flexibility and growth opportunities are big these days, as is knowing that a company is doing well on environmental, social and governance matters.

Evaluating talent

Clear expectations lead to dependable results, executives say. 

Staff must objectively know whether they’re doing a good job, so the Veritas scorecard includes figures for every position, from property manager (e.g., net income, occupancy) to housekeeper (how many units cleaned and how quickly).

At Centerspace and MZ, employees undergo an annual performance review that includes a look at both their own performance and the company’s. Supporting company goals—including at the property and the regional level—could mean teaming up with a colleague this week or flying 1,000 miles to help out a property that’s struggling. Centerspace staff can set dates for certain goals to be achieved, then pull up their goals online anytime. 

The MZ evaluation matrix includes factors both objective and subjective (such as attitude). It’s not sprung on people annually, though. It’s more the culmination of a year of constructive feedback, “so people know where they stand and have the opportunity to improve,” says Zaransky. 

It’s a communication tool, a relationship, an open line. You can see who your best performers are based on their willingness to listen and make changes. If there’s significant improvement, that makes it into the year-end evaluation, and it trumps everything else.” 

Veritas has a different way of conducting evaluations: Every three to four months, executives go through the entire company roster and ask, “Has the person grown? Have their responsibilities changed? Have they earned extra credentials or the like?” 

Approaches to pay

Zaransky is blunt: “We compensate higher than most. There’s not much labor shortage when you pay by value.” Centerspace and Veritas say they review pay practices vis-à-vis the market to be at least competitive and leverage transferable skills where some talents are in short supply. 

Increases at Veritas are based on merit, not on cost of living. “People should be recognized and compensated based on the value they bring to the company,” says President John Boriak. The twist is that raises and bonuses are proactively given, tied to those evaluations.

Those rewarded by surprise “know someone’s watching and are appreciative,” says Boriak. Roughly 25% to 45% of the workforce receives some sort of raise at each review point.

At Veritas, almost every employee has a shot at earning a bonus; at Centerspace, every employee does. At MZ, Zaransky mentions “frequent bonuses and bonus opportunities,” including when high-performing properties are sold or refinanced with excess cash proceeds. Employees are kept apprised of progress: Loyalty is engendered “when people feel they have more of a stake in results,” he says. 

Benefits for staff

Benefits have broadened over the past few years at Centerspace to include all team members. Now everyone is eligible for a 20% discount on onsite rent, buying into the company stock program and tuition reimbursement at an accredited school (up to $2,500 a year). The company contributes 100% to health savings accounts up to annual salaries of $45,000, and the retirement match is up to 5%, dollar for dollar.

MZ covers 100% of employees’ comprehensive health insurance policy, which internal surveys have shown to be their most appreciated benefit. The company matches 50% of employees’ contributions to the 401(k) retirement plan up to $15,000 a year. 

Veritas offers a suite of benefits, including life and disability insurance, training reimbursement, paid time off, 401(k), parental leave and paid time to volunteer for nonprofits. Employees can choose a 20% discount for onsite rent, and the company covers up to about 65% of employee health insurance.

Retaining the best

Besides pay and benefits, a large part of keeping talent is communication. Continual feedback tamps rumors, engages staff personally and professionally and lets people know where they stand. 

Centerspace holds quarterly all-hands meetings where officials recognize new hires, award outstanding service, make business updates, answer questions and offer tutorials on topics from diversity to the company mission and vision. Top executives make frequent visits to properties, “getting to know everyone well down to the groundspeople,” says Regional Director Camron Shelton. “As a leader, that fires 
me up.”

At both Veritas and Centerspace, new hires are assigned a buddy or mentor for orientation and guidance. Shelton and Boriak mention “shout-out” cards to staff caught doing exceptional work. At Centerspace, the role of two support offices is “to serve team members so they can do a good job serving our residents,” says Letner. 

Work purpose and values rate a special mention here. A company mission doesn’t work as words in a document or on a plaque—only when understood and believed from boardroom to back room. 

Maybe that’s why the missions of all three companies sound surprisingly simple—and similar. Providing safe, clean and functional housing in a vibrant community, along with Centerspace “keys” such as integrity, respect and accountability, is about as clear and basic as it gets.

All three companies make sure the message that “you have a positive effect by going to work every day” is reinforced enthusiastically and regularly to all staff levels. Boriak likes to emphasize often that “a safe, functional, enjoyable home has a huge impact on a child’s well-being, the success of a marriage, a person’s career and mental health.”

More than that, these companies cultivate their reputations as positive places to work. If executives pick up chairs after meetings and chat regularly with staffers at all levels, that value system tickles down through the ranks, Boriak says. Employees respect leaders who genuinely care about them, and staff are always aware of the values and reputations of the top tier. 

MZ’s emphasis on transparency (such as about upcoming refinances) and Centerspace leaders’ open mics and extended site visits are examples of the same communication of values.

Two ways all this pays off are those active referral programs and diversity. In the Midwest, Centerspace has nearly doubled its minority representation to 24% just since January 2021 partially through employee referrals, partly through the efforts of a talent and culture team and a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Steering Committee. Veritas’ entire corporate leadership team—aside from Boriak—is female, and 93% of employees belong to racial minority groups.

Another payoff is in long-term retention. Only 20% of the MZ workforce has ever left the company, says Zaransky; in the past calendar year, only 5% left. At Veritas, voluntary turnover ranges from 4% to 9%, low by industry standards, Boriak says. “I routinely hear that our team members feel genuinely cared for and empowered at Veritas.” 

Adds Shelton at Centerspace, “If we have happy employees, we have happy residents, which leads to happy investors.”


Ellen Ryan is a freelance writer for units magazine.