The Mack family has been living at The Reserve at Dexter Lake in suburban Memphis, Tenn., rent free for more than 12 months.

The family, which is from the Bahamas, is calling the two-room apartment home while 7-year-old Caleb receives cancer treatment from St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital nearby.

The Mack family is one of the 1,500 families that have benefited from the Open Arms program operated by the Open Arms Foundation, a nonprofit organization primarily funded by Mid-America Apartment Communities, Inc.

Launched in 1994, the Open Arms program provides a home away from home for families in medical crisis. The program isn’t just for people struggling to make ends meet, although many families who participate in it find themselves in a difficult financial position. Just a few nights in a hotel or corporate apartment can add up to thousands of dollars, and that doesn’t even include the cost of treatment.

Mid-America’s Open Arms program is the first recipient of the National Multi Housing Council’s (NMHC) Good Neighbor Award for Outstanding Community Service. The new award honors apartment firms that have excelled in community service and philanthropic activities and includes a $10,000 donation to the winner’s charity of choice.

“Mid-America’s Open Arms program stood out,” said NMHC President Doug Bibby, adding that one of the most impressive things about the program was its overall impact. Since the Open Arms program started 12 years ago, Mid-America has offered more than 70,000 free nights of housing to sick people of all ages and their families. The program fills a critical gap left by other housing programs such as the Ronald McDonald House, which only assists the families of sick children.

Today, there are 36 Open Arms homes in Mid-America’s apartment communities across the Sunbelt, including properties in Austin, Houston, Memphis, and Jacksonville, Fla. “This apartment industry has one huge asset—housing—and that’s why this program is a natural fit,” said Frank McRae, community outreach director for Mid-America and a former Methodist minister, who manages the Open Arms program. “Every apartment company has the assets to do this program.”

Each Open Arms location is associated with a local hospital, clinic, or medical center. For example, Open Arms homes recently debuted in Durham, N.C., near Duke University School of Medicine, and in Nashville near Vanderbilt University Medical Center.

Local apartment communities work with the medical facilities, which refer needy families. After a brief interview, the family signs a lease and a lease addendum that provides them with a two-bedroom apartment fully furnished with furniture, linens, soft goods, and free long-distance telephone service. Families can live there rent free until their loved one’s treatment ends, at which time they have seven days to move out, McRae explained. The average stay is about six months, although some families have stayed for just a few nights while others—like the Mack family—have stayed for more than year.

“[Open Arms] has given us a home away from home and even more, and for this we are so greatly thankful and appreciative,” the Mack family wrote in a letter. And that’s not the only thank you letter the program has received, McRae said.

“We hear from people all the time who’ve been helped by us,” McRae noted. For example, he received a letter from Robert and Judy Grant of Palm Coast, Fla., a retired couple that stayed at the Calais Forest Apartments in Little Rock, Ark., for one month while Judy received treatment for her multiple myeloma, a deadly form of bone cancer. “What a wonderful gift your corporation makes when you make such opportunities available in times of crisis,” Robert Grant wrote. “We want to thank you … and tell you just how very much it means to [people] such as us who suddenly find their world crashing around them.”

Each apartment costs about $10,000 annually and is paid for by the Open Arms Foundation, according to McRae. The foundation has an annual budget of roughly $500,000, which is primarily funded by 4 percent of Mid-America’s funds from operations (between $300,000 and $400,000 annually).

The foundation is supplemented by private gifts. About 40 percent of Mid-America’s employees donate money to the Open Arms program though a payroll deduction plan, not to mention the hours of volunteer time they invest to host fundraising events such as charity golf tournaments, plant sales, and a March Madness basketball pool.

McRae noted that Open Arms regularly receives donations from families that have participated in the program and from people who know about the program because their friends and families once lived in an Open Arms home.

Additionally, residents who live in communities with Open Arms units hold bake sales, car washes, and walk-a-thons to contribute to the program. At the Terraces at Towne Lake in Woodstock, Ga., for example, the residents host weekly pizza parties that have raised more than $678. “Residents get involved in raising money for Open Arms,” McRae pointed out. “It really brings people together.”

In 2006, five new Open Arms homes opened. McRae hopes to expand the program to Phoenix, where Mid-America recently purchased two properties, and to Fort Lauderdale, in 2007.

Giving back

The Good Neighbor Award is the first award bestowed by the NMHC, which has a 27-year history representing the multifamily industry.

“People are unaware of how much the apartment industry gives back to the community,” said Mary Ann King, NMHC chairman and president of Moran & Co., a brokerage firm specializing in apartment properties. “We wanted to showcase and celebrate the contributions apartment companies are making to their communities and inspire others to contribute.”

NMHC received about 60 entries for the Good Neighbor Award, which were evaluated by five judges who are active in the housing and nonprofit sectors, including representatives from the Urban Land Institute, the Mortgage Bankers Association, and the National Housing Conference. The judges looked at: the overall impact of the program, the level of involvement of the firm’s employees, the duration of involvement, the degree of innovation, and the program’s ability to be replicated by other companies.