United Church Homes grows to be one of the largest nonprofit providers while keeping true to its century-old roots in compassionate care.
By Jeff Shaw
At 106 years of age, United Church Homes (UCH) is still trying to operate by its founding mission. The nonprofit organization began as a faith-based ministry responding to the needs of aging members of local congregations in the Toledo area.
From a historical perspective, it was a tumultuous time in 1916. Anti-German sentiment during World War I led to discrimination against some of the congregations of the United Church of Christ. Meanwhile, industrialization spawned a wave of people moving to the city from the countryside, potentially stranding aging parents who previously would’ve been cared for by their children.
That’s when several congregations of the United Church of Christ banded together to build what was one of the first seniors housing communities in the country.
“It started with a five-bedroom house near one of the churches,” says Rev. Kenneth Daniel, president and CEO of Marion, Ohio-based UCH, who joined the company in 2011. “In 1920, the church bought land in the countryside — Upper Sandusky, in north central Ohio — and they called it The Fairhaven Community.
“It was a place of peace, acceptance, inclusion, care and compassion. That’s where we began to lay down our values that are still a part of our culture.”
When the funds were available, UCH would develop a new campus — about one every 10 years, says Daniel. The Fairhaven campus still serves seniors, though it has, of course, undergone many changes since 1920.
A head for HUD
In the 1980s, the organization became involved with the HUD Section 202 program, which helps expand the supply of affordable housing with supportive services for older adults. It provides very-low-income elderly with options that allow them to live independently, but in an environment that provides support services such as cleaning, cooking and transportation.
Specifically, UCH began developing affordable housing — both for seniors and families, including properties for those with disabilities or brain injuries — in addition to seniors housing campuses.
“From our history, our culture and our faith, we see our mission as one of serving people in need,” says Daniel. “While the focus is different from 1916, the commitment, the ethic, the interest and the ability to support populations in stressing times are very important to our mission.”
In the decades since, the company has grown to 82 senior living communities in 14 states and two Native American nations, plus 62 affordable housing communities. United Church Homes is the 21st largest multisite nonprofit senior living organization in the U.S., according to the 2021 LeadingAge Ziegler 200 ranking, serving more than 5,500 residents in its owned and managed communities in 15 states.
Daniel notes that the COVID-19 pandemic caused the federal government to implement “a massive influx into the Section 202 program that I have never seen before in my career.” UCH is looking to capitalize on that influx to build more affordable housing.
The current development pipeline includes a project on government-owned land in Washington County, Ohio, with the county leading the way.
“That’s exactly our sweet spot, to partner with a local agency,” says Daniel. “That is an ideal project for us.”
UCH uses HUD 202, which provides direct loans from the government for developments. The company does not currently have any properties built using low-income housing tax credits (LIHTC), which uses tax credits for private investors and has less stringent restrictions on the income levels of residents.
However, the organization is starting to dip its toe into LIHTC, also utilizing public-private partnerships.
“LIHTC housing reaches a more modest income level, people that even might not qualify for HUD housing, so it picks up that next tier,” says Daniel.
UCH is partnering with a development group out of San Antonio to develop up to four LIHTC projects over the next three to five years. These properties will total over 1,000 units and represent UCH’s introduction to Texas.
Open communication lines
While many mid-sized owner-operators tend to focus on one or two regions, UCH has a true national spread. The organization currently operates properties in Ohio, New York, West Virginia, Georgia, Florida, Tennessee, Mississippi, Indiana, Michigan, Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, Minnesota, Pennsylvania and Washington.
This wide geographic spread can create difficulties while trying to manage so many communities from the organization’s home in Marion, Ohio.
“One of my challenges early on here was to really consolidate and develop a strong central support program with shared services, create unified branding and put more robust technology in place,” says Daniel. “We really developed the strong operating core, which is what we need to manage a portfolio that’s spread out like this.”
In his time with UCH, Daniel has centralized a lot of the technology — including for managing clinical data regarding the skilled nursing beds and financial data for billing and management. He has also increased the number of regional managers to “put leadership closer to the operating site.”
One silver lining of the COVID-19 pandemic, Daniel notes, is that it forced remote technology to become a matter of routine over a very short period. Throughout the pandemic he had daily meetings with leaders across the system. The top 50 leaders still meet monthly to “identify issues, deploy resources, address concerns and celebrate successes.”
“That connectivity has really unified our management team,” says Daniel. “People ask, ‘How do you get around to every campus?’ I can’t. It’s just not possible from a time standpoint. But I can connect in this way with the leaders.”
“I know many of the leaders by their first name. It would’ve taken me decades to have that relationship,” continues Daniel. “I know what’s happening in the four corners of the organization, and the leaders understand the values, history and heritage. My job as CEO is to extend and deepen the culture. We’re accomplishing that in large part due to the connectivity we now enjoy.”
Heed the call
In the past decades, many nonprofit, religion-affiliated seniors housing companies have changed their names, often removing the specific religious order such as “Lutheran” or “Episcopal.”
Generally, the purpose of the name changes has been to clarify for prospective residents that they need not be a member of that religious order to reside at the community.
UCH, however, is very open about its affiliation with the United Church of Christ. The organization’s board must be made up of at least 75 percent members of the denomination. Daniel says that the church’s dedication to social justice, anti-racism and other social causes makes it a good partner.
“We embrace that and see our mission as very aligned with those values,” says Daniel. “We’re not providing housing for housing’s sake. We provide housing justice for people affected by discrimination, redlining, segregation and systemic racism. We see that as a higher calling.”
In fact, Daniel notes that the organization is more likely to remove “homes” from the name than it is “church,” as the organization is branching out into more services unrelated to providing housing.
These new services include UCH NaviGuide, a technology platform that recently launched and aims to provide family caregivers with a link to services.
“We’ve not taken any course of action to create a secular-oriented name,” says Daniel. “The name is distinctive and helps to define what’s unique about UCH and how we serve people.”
Believing in social justice, though, is ongoing work. Daniel told the board, in a recent report, that he was increasing his focus on fighting bias in recruitment and retention of front-line staff. Recent efforts “didn’t go far enough.”
The organization is now designing some internships specifically for students at Tougaloo College, a historically black college in Jackson, Mississippi.
“We see our mission as allied with organizations and institutions that want to bend the arc of history toward justice,” says Daniel. “This is our way of doing that.”
Its quest for justice is also why UCH operates the Ruth Frost Parker Center for Abundant Aging. The center focuses on education, an endowment fund, research opportunities, programs, conferences, and a podcast, all related to improving aging. Ruth Parker was a former UCH board member known for supporting worthy causes.
“We started out with an annual symposium across professions, businesses and organizations that touch the lives of older adults,” says Daniel. “I wanted the Parker Center to be a safe place where people from hospitals, long-term care, home health, academia, nonprofits, agencies, advocacy groups and the LGBTQ community can engage in conversations with the common goal of working together to improve the lives of older adults.”
The center has funded several documentaries about aging and partnered with The Ohio State University to work on technology for seniors. The UCH NaviGuide program even sprang from the Parker Center’s work with MIT.
“That’s the mission, to bring people together from diverse backgrounds to think and plan and maybe even develop some new things,” says Daniel. n