It's often the small details that matter most to renters. Dave Woodward of Laramar Communities discovered just that when one of his San Francisco properties started to see leases drop. The reason: The multicultural resident base was dissatisfied with the property's cable television offering due to its lack of access to international stations. Fortunately, the complaint was an easy fix for Laramar, which promptly upgraded to a digital system.

To add more cultural appeal, BRE Properties spiced up the exterior color of Villa Santana in Santa Ana, Calif.
Bill Porter To add more cultural appeal, BRE Properties spiced up the exterior color of Villa Santana in Santa Ana, Calif.

"The demand for having different language programming was pretty strong," says Woodward, managing partner and CEO of Greenwood Village, Colo.-based Laramar Communities. "The upgrade to digital turned into a leasing tool and a closing tool."

Similar resident requests are slowly attracting the attention of more multifamily firms as they realize they can't afford to overlook the needs of an increasingly diverse resident base–Hispanics in particular. In fact, Hispanics are the fastest-growing segment of the U.S. population, with 45 million projected by 2010 and 103 million by 2050, according to 2000 Census data. And the Hispanic population has a higher propensity to rent than Caucasians; 53 percent of Hispanics are renters as opposed to 28 percent of Caucasians, according to Census data and Hispanic Monitor publication.

Courtesy BRE Properties

While these numbers speak volumes, apartment firms have been slow to address the needs of this demographic, says Moe Vela, president and CEO of Comunidades, an Idaho Springs, Colo.-based consulting firm that helps multifamily firms tailor their projects to meet the needs of Hispanic renters. "This industry is a dinosaur; they don't like change," says Vela. "For a lot of folks, their philosophy is, 'Let them learn English. Why should I change what I do? I am going to go with the status quo, one-size-fits-all mentality.' Then they wonder why on a heavily Hispanic-populated property, they have maybe 82 percent occupancy."

And just because you own or manage a property in a market that is not historically Hispanic–say, Raleigh, N.C.–doesn't mean you can ignore this demographic, adds Vela. While Hispanics are largely represented in states like California, Florida, New York, and Texas, nearly all states are experiencing an influx of Hispanic renters.

Diverse Marketing

About a year ago, Berkshire Property Advisors took a hard look at its apartment portfolio. Company leaders asked each other an essential question: Do we really understand our renters? And the Boston-based apartment owner wasn't afraid to admit the answer was no. "We did a study on a number of our properties, which happened to be substantially Hispanic," says Tom Shuler, the company's COO. "We asked: Are we adequately and truly serving our resident base? And we said no, we are not."

So the company set out to change its business strategy. Step one: Establish a strong marketing campaign targeted to the Hispanic population. In select markets, the company now offers dual language property signage (both in Spanish and English) and advertises at local Hispanic businesses as well as in Spanish-language magazines and Web sites.

The model unit at BRE's Trails of Redmond offers a bright, inviting atmosphere for Hispanic prospects.
Melissa Gerard The model unit at BRE's Trails of Redmond offers a bright, inviting atmosphere for Hispanic prospects.

Other companies are following suit, and Spanish marketing and advertising sources, while fairly limited in the past, are expanding due to this market demand. Pez Grande, a national online Spanish apartment directory and language interpretation service, is set to launch in October. And Apartamentos Para Rentar, the Spanish version of the popular For Rent Magazine, is ramping up its Web site. The company expects the site to be a success, based on the popularity of its Spanish print apartment guide.

While the majority of South Florida's Latino population is bilingual, this group appreciates Spanish advertisements, says Griselle Garcia, product manager for the publication, available in 13 markets. "They are more loyal when they see Spanish marketing tools, whether it's print or TV," she says. "They feel more comfortable."

And to attract the Hispanic audience, Garcia strongly suggests a flashier ad campaign for ads that run in the Spanish version–a recommendation that JMG Realty takes to heart. "The Latin population likes a lot of color," agrees Donna Kuhlmeier, an area property manager for the Atlanta-based real estate firm, which advertises most of its South Florida properties in Para Rentar. "Our ads use brighter colors and more adjectives."

Spanish Lessons

So you've set up a targeted marketing campaign. Think your job is done? Not quite. The property itself needs to appeal to Hispanic renters, starting with a bilingual staff, advises Comunidades' Vela. "We can show that you will have a better-performing property if you have a staff that looks like and speaks like the people you are trying to sign up," he says. "There are cultural traditions, values, and idiosyncrasies that must be addressed in the leasing process, and they are best addressed through a bilingual, bicultural staff."

BRE Properties, a San Francisco-based REIT, not only has bilingual staff but also tailors the physical layout of the leasing center. "We have expanded the seating in our rental office," says Deirdre Kuring, BRE's executive vice president, asset management. "Family is very important to Hispanics. Typically, the entire family visits the leasing office and makes rental decisions together."

BRE hired a consultant to learn how to appeal to Hispanic customers, from the sales process to the actual property design. The company has implemented numerous strategies. To name just a few: Leasing agents show prospects that dishwashers can be used as extra cabinet space, since Hispanics are likely to be big cookers and prefer to wash dishes by hand. And model units feature name-brand products like Tide detergent, since brands tend to be important to this demographic, according to third-party research. BRE also uses a brighter color palette in its clubhouses and is exploring the possibility of replacing tennis courts with multifunctional playing fields.

Companies also are offering a broad range of services geared primarily toward Hispanic renters. At two of its North Carolina properties, Berkshire Realty Advisors is offering everything from ESL classes to financial advice. "If you offer these life-empowerment services, at the end of the week residents are going to say, 'I love living here, and therefore I am going to go tell everybody I work with this is the place to live because they speak my language, they understand my culture, and they respect me for who I am,'" says Vela.

Back to School

Bridge the communication gap.

Communicating with residents who speak your language can be challenging enough. Imagine trying to explain community pool rules to someone who only understands Spanish. While properties with a high proportion of Hispanic residents tend to have at least one bilingual staffer, companies are making a push to teach non-Spanish-speaking employees some language basics to help them connect with both Hispanic residents and fellow employees.

Leasing agents, managers, and the maintenance staff at BH Management learn at least five Spanish phrases. One such phrase: This make-ready looks great. "I said, 'Let's just start with baby steps,'" says Laurie Lyons, CEO of the Dallas-based property management firm. "To me that was very important."

At BRE Properties, management associates take cultural training classes to help them better understand the needs of multicultural residents and employees. One of the biggest eye-openers for BRE was learning that Hispanics traditionally think of time as a moving target rather than a fixed deadline, says Deirdre Kuring, BRE's executive vice president, asset management. "Understanding that, managers can then say to their employees, 'Come to work no later than 8 o'clock.'"

BRE also discovered that Hispanics tend to prefer oral communication rather than written notices, so the staff is trained to call residents about an issue or concern instead of sliding that hot pink notice under their door.