In more than a decade leading 2Life Communities, Amy Schectman has worked to create a vibrant strategic plan, created a quasi-endowment to support agency innovation, built and nurtured an effective team at all levels of the organization, and launched an aggressive expansion campaign to fill the gaps in the senior housing affordability marketplace.
Through the Changemakers series, Schectman discusses the powerful diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives she leads at 2Life. She talks about the steps the organization is taking to tackle the affordability gap in aging America through its new Opus model, as well what it is doing to prepare for a new aging generation and the needs they bring to the marketplace.
Thinking back on your career in senior living, what are some of the changes you’re especially proud of leading?
I am very proud of elevating the profile of affordable, subsidized senior housing to make it more than just a place people have to live. I think we’ve created some incredibly dynamic and supportive environments shaped by what we call “resident-centric property management.” We articulated that, made it our benchmark and figured out how to turn it into a sustainable model. It’s about cherishing and nurturing our folks in the long run.
We work hard to prevent unnecessary ER visits and nursing home placements, and we’ve pushed the envelope of integrating housing and health care to maximize the chances of living a great life with us. The whole articulation of aging in community as a model and mapping out the eligibility for affordable housing put us on a path to fill the market gaps that other communities can’t meet.
One of those market gaps is the middle market, and the other is people in tax credit housing who don’t have vouchers. Many older adults who earn between 40% and 60% of Area Median Income qualify for affordable housing but not affordable services. We’re working with our case management program to figure out how to serve that group as well.
How have you changed as a leader in your time at 2life?
I certainly grew and learned new skills during COVID, not that I would have preferred to learn that way. But my model of leadership is very inclusive and participatory, focused on building teams and moving people forward together. COVID taught me to be more decisive instead of waiting for consensus, then driving it with intent, focus and spirit. I hope we get back to where we were in terms of collaborative leadership and servant leadership, if you will. But it’s good to know there are more tools in the toolbox for different scenarios that demand different actions.
Do you see yourself as a Changemaker? And are you always excited to drive change, even with the risk involved?
Yes, I do. I’ve been at 2Life for eleven and a half years. During that time, I absolutely focused on driving change. Before that, I ran public housing and rental assistance for the state [of Massachusetts]. Public housing is two-thirds older adults, but it’s not quite the senior living industry. As I look at my career, the one pattern I can point to is making change and moving agendas along.
Today, we’re making changes to expand our reach. We’ve built a stable organization that we’re trying to take to the next level. Understanding change and opportunities, then executing a strategy to realize them has been a consistent part of what I do.
What changes do you believe need to be made in senior living in the next 3-5 years?
As the baby boomers continue to account for more of the aging population, they bring their value set with them. They don’t want a cruise or a hotel experience, but to continue the pursuit of social justice, positive change and community.
I think we’re a different generation. What appeals to my parents’ generation does not necessarily appeal to my generation. We used to hear, “I don’t want to cook. I don’t want to clean. I don’t want to do those things. I want to relax and play cards.” I don’t think our generation wants to be catered to in that way. Our generation wants opportunities to make a difference in the world and to continue our thirst for justice. That creates a need for a different kind of environment. The future aging population will want opportunities to be part of something bigger than themselves, and I think we need to recognize that.
Do you feel like the industry is changing quickly enough?
Yes, in some areas, but affordability is not changing quickly enough. I don’t mean affordability in the sense of low income, subsidized housing; I mean affordability for the general market. The baby boomers are famous for not having accumulated much wealth, and what’s available in the market today is for the most part, not very affordable. That leaves many people choosing to “age in place,” causing more loneliness and exacerbating chronic health problems. If they had opportunities that were affordable and met their cultural ethos we could optimize the aging process.
How do you innovate and drive change without getting so far ahead of the curve that the market is not ready for your idea or product?
You just try. I think the best guard against going to market at the wrong time is really listening to the consumer. We did four rounds of consumer research before launching Opus. And, it’s listening to what we call our Front Row staff — those who directly interact with residents. The people who operate at the ground level have a better sense of how people are thinking, where they’re going and what problems they’re facing.
Being a good listener and observer enables you to test the ideas or products more effectively and learn what people are worried about so you can tweak as needed. We don’t shape everything to what other people want; we balance our own sense of justice, equity, fairness and goodness,.
One of the things I wanted when we did Opus was to eliminate the dining program. I just thought, “Let’s not get into that. Let’s have people organize themselves and through a group takeout and potluck model.” I was pushing for that, but the focus groups and consultants wanted to take a more traditional route. Eventually, we landed on a hybrid model that offers the best of both worlds.
Do you agree that Changemakers tend to be risk-takers? How do you describe your own appetite for risk?
Yes and no. It depends on the kind of change and the kind of risk. For example, when I came in to 2Life, we had no money in the bank. They had done some layoffs, furloughs and salary cuts the year before, soI decided to make major changes in how we did our finances. They always gave salary increases in December, but we didn’t find out about our revenue increases until March. I just said, “Okay. We’re gonna start doing salary increases in April, once we know for a fact what our revenues are.”
That was an easy change, but it was very important because it allowed us to avoid getting behind ourselves or ahead of ourselves. Then I looked carefully at our portfolio with other team members and analyzed what we could do to start building a rainy day fund. Thank God, we did it before COVID, because boy, did we need it then. That was a massive change in our financial structure, but it wasn’t risky.
When you take on something like Opus, however, it makes you realize how much of a risk-taker you are. In the affordable housing world, by the time you start construction, you’ve lined up 100% of the capital and operating, and you have 0% occupancy risk. It’s lovely. When you do something for the market, it’s 100% risk.
I think it’s critically important to our field. I think leaving out the middle market from optimal aging is morally reprehensible. That’s risky. Some of the other changes you make in personnel policies are risky, and some of them are not at all. You may remember when health insurance premiums were going through the roof every year, and I was worried because we didn’t want to offer less health insurance but had a limited ability to absorb it. I came up with a concept of tiering so that the lower income workers pay a much smaller percentage of the premium and the higher income workers pay more of a premium to even it out.
It was a little risky because we were asking the people at the high end to pay more than they would’ve, but w got enormous amount of support from people. There’s always financial risk. We’ve done a lot of things to make life better for workers, especially on the lower end, constantly raising the minimum wage and raising the minimum salary. That depends on our ability to continue to generate revenue the way we have, so there’s some risk to that. I think there’s also risk not doing it because we have amazing loyalty and tenure.
If you could change one thing about the senior living industry, what would it be and why?
Affordability. I haven’t always been in senior living, but I’ve always been about affordability, everything I’ve done, so everything goes through that lens.
How are you approaching diversity, equity and inclusion in 2Life and the industry at large?
We’re all part of a larger society and our larger society is not right. There is a lot of hate, racism and marginalization that needs to change. Every one of us has a responsibility to move toward fixing that, and none of us can fix it by ourselves. Again, that goes back to listening.
For example, now we’ve been designated to build at what’s called the old Boston State Hospital, which is in a neighborhood that is primarily African-American.
We’re going in, doing a lot of outreach and listening to what people want. We’re working with local community groups and raising our understanding of, and sensitivity to, their needs. Similarly, we’re going up to Lynn, Massachusetts, doing a lot of listening and working with local people to make a difference. We’ve identified five areas for our DEI initiative. Who do we serve? Who do we hire? How do we appear in the world? How do we welcome people of different cultures and backgrounds, and how do we spend our money in a way that promotes justice?
We’re moving on all five fronts simultaneously. We had 50 of our staff members develop a plan together. We put a DEI screen on our investments for our quasi endowments so we picked a management firm that oversees it. One of the money managers we hired is a Hispanic woman who runs her own money management firm. We’re trying to look at how we spend our money. We’ve always, as a matter of course, exceeded the government goals for minority-owned businesses for subcontracting and vendors.
We have gone all out in advertising and recruiting with WorkplaceDiversity.com. We’ve done training to teach our staff how to be culturally appropriate, sensitive and welcoming to people from different places. We’ll continue to do that on a regular basis. For Opus, we did a lot of outreach to the LGBTQ community and made it clear that we would be a welcoming place. One day, I got a call from a woman who said, “I’m representing a group called Lesbians Moving to Opus. We want you to meet with us.”
I met with them and they’ve said over and over again, “This is the first place we’ve ever felt like we really will be welcomed, treasured and respected.” It’s not something you do once. It’s something that has to be driven into the DNA of every way we operate. We have to get better and we’re not a model yet. An indicator of our progress however, was making the Boston Globe’s list of the top workplaces, with a star in the DEI category. That only motivates us to press harder and do more.