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Community within Buildings: An Inside Look at Advantage Services

CommonBond Communities focuses on housing stability, and we do so not only by building and preserving affordable homes within communities. An integral part of our work happens inside communities, inside apartment buildings, where our Advantage Services staff work with residents to connect them with resources and help them reach their goals. As part of our 50th anniversary, today we’re sharing an inside look at Advantage Services to show how this is critical to our mission to support our neighbors, and strengthen our communities. Read below to learn more about how Advantage Services can play out at our largest housing community, Skyline Tower in St. Paul, MN.

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Mangala Sharma is the Advantage Services Coordinator at Skyline Tower in St. Paul, MN—CommonBond’s largest housing community serving nearly 800 residents. Skyline is home to many families and individuals who have immigrated to the U.S., which is one of the many reasons Mangala loves working there.

“Being a refugee myself, I know how important it is to have a stable home,” she says. Originally from Bhutan, Mangala, along with her husband and two young children, sought refuge in Nepal when their home country became unsafe. They eventually were able to seek asylum in the US in 2001, and later moved to Minnesota—without knowing anyone in the region—for her husband to pursue a work opportunity. With her personal experience as an immigrant, Mangala is able to empathize with residents who share a similar life story. She understands the overlapping challenges and barriers to stability that many immigrants face when they arrive in the United States. “If I didn’t have education, if I didn’t have language skills, I wouldn’t have been able to get a job in America; because I got a job, I was able to rent a place.”

For those who don’t have the advantage of speaking English before immigrating to the U.S., the obstacles to maintaining stability become even more nuanced and difficult to overcome alone. It’s from this perspective that Mangala is motivated to share her story with residents—to empower and support them in not only finding stability, but also setting and reaching other goals.

"When you look at the building from the exterior, you can’t see the lively, flourishing community inside.”

Mangala wants to dispel the idea that Skyline Tower is just a building with affordable apartments. “When you look at the building from the exterior, you can’t see the lively, flourishing community inside,” she says. But Mangala shares that Skyline really is a vibrant community filled with residents who actively participate in the community and truly care for one another.

Skyline residents are known for banding together to help their neighbors if they fall short on rent. Mangala says the residents have a “good neighbor” sense, and it’s likely because most all of them have endured significant struggles in their lives. They’ve all experienced genuine hardships and empathize with one another, which has created a supportive community that looks out for everyone who calls Skyline home.

And the culture of care at Skyline extends beyond residents helping each other out. Advantage Services staff are always looking for ways to better serve residents—and this past year, they’ve had to be nimble and creative in making that happen while navigating the many challenges brought on by the pandemic. The relationships built between residents and Advantage Services Coordinators (ASC) have proved really important throughout the past year. ASCs navigated technology challenges and language barriers at the onset of the pandemic, and figured out how to best serve residents when they weren’t able to be on-site.

Advantage Services staff have also played a critical and very direct role in helping residents maintain housing stability: connecting families with rental assistance. They’ve been working with residents, Property Management staff, and county and state employees to coordinate logistics and gather all the necessary documents so residents can submit their applications. To date, Skyline ASCs have already helped 30 residents apply for federal rental assistance!

Recently, Mangala has been working closely with the Property Management team to make sure residents in subsidized units understand what they need to do to prepare for upcoming governmental inspections, which have restarted after a pause due to the pandemic. Working with Advantage Services staff to identify any cleaning or tidying to ensure compliance prior to the inspection gives residents reassurance going into the inspection, and more confidence that they won’t end up with lease violation. These processes are made much smoother with relationships in place, and mutual trust built, between ASCs and residents. Mangala thinks of the community as one big system where Property Management is the structure or “bones,” and Advantage Services is the connective tissue that brings things together and helps keep things functioning smoothly.

“Advantage Services Coordinators have to be creative enough to figure out how we can connect what is inside to the outside, so ultimately residents don’t need us anymore—they become independent, and they find their own helpers [in the larger community].”

Thank you to all of the Advantage Services staff who play such a vital role in fostering these connections with residents, helping build brighter futures and stronger, more vibrant communities.

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