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How Property Managers Are Dealing With Tenants Forced To Stay At Home

In six weeks, multifamily property managers have had to completely reinvent their profession in the face of an uncertain future.

That has created anxiety for managers and tenants alike. It has also forged a determination to see the crisis through, property managers say, knowing they must devise ways to work around pandemic-imposed barriers to ensure they can take care of their residents who are stuck in their apartments.

N95 and city

"Our property management team is experiencing a range of emotions" from apprehension to resolve, Habitat Co. Vice President-Market Rate Gina Fortune-Harmon said.

"Being separated from residents and unable to interact with them is difficult, but we're working through it, like anything else. You get used to doing things differently, with a goal of being be more nimble and creative."

The entire multifamily industry is now focused on how to deal with the pandemic in a way that not only maintains services, but also keeps staff and tenants as safe from exposure as possible.

Critical operational best practices for apartment managers include keeping communications with residents clear and open, limiting accessibility to leasing offices, recasting physical events as virtual ones if possible, and using tech to handle prospect tours, according to guidance released by the National Apartment Association.

The NAA also recommends doing only emergency maintenance, such as that involving life safety or the habitability of a unit. Avoiding contact between maintenance workers and residents is also important, but usually no more complicated that standard social distancing and the use of personal protective equipment.

A major goal for property managers like Chicago-based Habitat, which manages about 22,000 residential units in six states, is to help ease its tenants' feelings of isolation. To that end, property management companies have ramped up their communications with tenants, Fortune-Harmon said.

Habitat is using email, push notifications via property apps and social media, to keep its residents informed. From a communication perspective, it is not a huge departure as many residents are used to a virtual environment, she said.

"But for those who regularly stick their head in the office just to say good morning, we know that personal interaction is definitely missing, and we hope they'll reach out through other methods," Fortune-Harmon said.

Hubbard Place in Chicago
Hubbard Place in Chicago, managed by the Habitat Co.

Property management companies are also rolling out an array of virtual gatherings to help create a sense of belonging. 

"At the onset of stay-home orders, we began to brainstorm how to continue to create sanctuary for residents," Bozzuto Management Co. President Stephanie Williams wrote in an email.

Events have always been a powerful tool for creating community, and Bozzuto wanted to create a similar experience virtually, she said. Bozzuto, which manages 70,000 apartments up and down the East Coast, first surveyed its residents to identify topics of interest — such as yoga, cooking, wellness and styling/dressing for work at home — then gave them the opportunity to apply as presenters.

Habitat property managers likewise host and participate in virtual fitness classes, cooking classes, trivia contests, art classes and movie nights, among others. In one case, the company reached out to a local comedian to host a trivia contest.

"Afterward, one of the residents posted that she’s never been so excited to come in second place," Fortune-Harmon said.

The pandemic means property managers are busier than ever, MEB Management Services founding principal Libby Ekre said, with a great deal of phone traffic from residents and prospective customers adding to their workloads. 

"We're only taking emergency calls, dispatching certified vendors into apartment units," Ekre said. "We tell our vendors that they have to be polite, but be firm about social distancing. Most people get it, but a few still don't."

The added work is stressful, but maintaining contact is important because most property managers care about their residents, Ekre said. Some staff at Phoenix-based MEB, which manages more than 24,000 units and 1.8M SF of commercial properties, have been delivering toilet paper and food baskets to doorsteps when they hear of a tenant in need, she said.

Property managers are also focusing on learning all they can about pandemic-related restrictions and possible sources of relief for tenants, said Greg Block, the president of Block Property Group, which manages a small portfolio of Chicago apartments.

"Being knowledgeable has become an essential component of the services we're providing as property managers," Block said.

Coronavirus

The last six weeks have been punishing in part because events have moved so quickly.

"Early in March, we started zeroing in on what we needed to do, forming a committee of property managers and on-site managers who started brainstorming," C&R Real Estate President Craig McConachie said. "Since then, it seems like the situation has changed every other day." 

In the early days of the pandemic, the focus was on hand-washing, social distancing and asking if employees were showing symptoms, said McConachie, whose Portland, Oregon-based company manages more than 35 apartment properties.

"Then it morphed into the need to lock down all of our leasing offices, and soon we had to devise a complete protocol about how to interact with tenants and vendors — without seeing them in person if at all possible," he said. "And we had to communicate that protocol to everyone."

Limiting access to leasing offices has been widely adopted among multifamily property managers, although not everyone is doing it the same way. 

"Our management offices are closed to residents, with no more than one staff member at a time in each of them to answer phones," Sunrise Management & Consulting President Jesse Holland said. Albany, New York-based Sunrise manages about 1,500 apartment units in the region.

Leasing offices are locked to control the flow of people in and out, but some offices need to have more than one person at a time, Ekre said. In that case, she said her company's employees are required to be at least 10 feet apart, a wider berth than is legally required.

Property managers are still preparing units for leasing and then executing leases, but not how they used to. It is a necessity: The pandemic has inspired a rush of people looking to move into places they feel more comfortable being holed up in for months.

"We're still showing apartments — and in fact our closing ratio has gone up," McConachie said. "People are still interested in moving in. Even more interested than before. They don't want to shop around. When they find something, they jump on it."

Block Properties makes a video of each of its units for lease, answers questions electronically, and does the application and lease document processing online, Block said. The remote tech used to facilitate the leasing hasn't been an issue.

"People are comfortable with the idea of virtual tours and applying online," Block said. "For leasing, the current crisis just has accelerated what was happening anyway."

CORRECTION, APRIL 17, 9 A.M. ET: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the number of units managed by the Habitat Co. The story has been updated.