I was privileged to interview Chairman of the Apartment Association of Kansas City (AAKC) Dennis Watts about his experience of meeting with U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Dr. Ben Carson recently at the St. Michael’s Veteran’s Center apartment community. The value that having direct contact with policymakers cannot be overstated, and Dennis’s experience provides us with a really telling example of how easy it can be to connect with such individuals and the dividends that come with it.
St. Michael’s Veteran’s Center is located on a 24-acre campus and provides sustained, permanent housing for U.S. military veterans. It operates 117 affordable apartments, a services center and recreational areas that meet the needs of its at-risk residents. These services are supported through a 501(c)(3) non-profit entity.
By focusing on the procurement of sustained permanent housing for veterans, St. Michael’s operations model is couched within a campus community that encourages mutual support.
How were you able to set up this meeting?
HUD was conducting a leadership conference in Kansas City this year, which was a fortunate happenstance for us and our City. Bruce Ladd, The Deputy Director of the local HUD office was kind enough to invite us to speak at the conference, and tell the story of our St. Michael’s development. As the conference was being organized, Sec. Carson’s office was also planning for the Secretary to visit Kansas City and speak at the conference. They reached out to us and asked if he could tour St Michael’s. This property was built and designed to reduce veteran homelessness in the Kansas City area. It is producing great results for residents -- and he was excited to see it.
What were the most important things that you were able to discuss with the Secretary?
First, we discussed the needs of our residents and how Yarco and our service team supports them. We shared how critical this campus has been for the veterans who reside there, and how the development and our team have been instrumental in transforming peoples’ lives for the better. We were excited to talk about the success our residents have had once we were able to get them back on their feet, how their lifestyles have changed and their powerful willingness to give back. Second, we discussed the 90+ homeless veterans on our waiting list, and how urgent the need is to develop the third and final phase of housing on the St. Michael’s campus. These efforts are now extraordinarily challenging, because Missouri lost a major funding source for affordable housing in 2017 – the LIHTC offered through the state. That loss has delayed the construction or rehabilitation of additional affordable properties in Missouri, including construction of Phase III of this campus.
What was the highlight of the day?
Secretary Carson was personally engaged with the veteran residents. It was clear that he really appreciated the campus and the housing we provided to the veterans, as well as the quality construction of the project. He shook the hands of many veterans, thanked them for their service and signed books. Those small gestures mean a lot to people, and it was really humbling to see his commitment to our servicemen and women.
Will there be any follow-up discussion with the Secretary about these items?
We will be continuing our work in this space, so we discussed how best to foster future opportunities for new veteran facilities and how best to provide for the upkeep and improvement of existing ones.
Are there things you would do differently given the chance to do over?
The event went well. We would have gratefully welcomed broader media coverage to better show a wider audience the wonderful things that are happening on our campus. In the future, we will be working more closely with local media to make sure that they’re able to attend an important event like this. The great things that we are working on together in the industry and with government to help people re-build their lives is a great story worth telling.
What advice would you give to other affiliates trying to set up a comparable visit?
Secretary Carson’s team was very helpful with facilitating the visit. I would say that close contact is your friend when it comes to Congressional inquiries, and is a habit that shouldn’t be shied away from.