As apartment communities begin to ease some coronavirus restrictions, rental housing providers are laying the groundwork for a new normal that will be anything but ordinary.
Apartment firms are concerned about the economy and the impact that the pandemic will have on operations, according to Amy Groff, senior vice president of operations for the National Apartment Association (NAA). Owners and operators rely on rental income to pay employee payroll, mortgages, taxes and insurance.
Residents’ ability to pay their rent is being closely monitored to maintain continuity of essential services. More than 40 million Americans have filed for unemployment benefits since COVID-19 forced the economy to shut down in March. An additional $600 a week in unemployment benefits is set to expire at the end of July if Congress does not pass another stimulus bill to extend benefits.
Groff said NAA is looking at the following safety guidance: occupancy enforcement for amenity spaces, including enforcement of maximum occupancy; staggered or group shifts for staff; allowing remote work to address employees with health concerns; one-way traffic paths in hallways/common areas and reconfiguring workspaces to accommodate social distancing and temperature checks; availability of personal protective equipment: product costs and training employees; an increase in standard daily cleaning procedures; and deferred apartment maintenance.
Technology will play a vital role in sustaining apartment communities. “Companies are leveraging technology that will assist in reallocating employee time, allowing for greater focus on priorities such as resident retention,” said Groff.
She added, “They are also utilizing automation and self-service channels to include virtual leasing and self-guided tours as well as programming resident fobs or creating platforms to reserve amenity spaces and assist with enforcing occupancy guidelines in areas such as the pool and fitness center.”
Self-guided tours and on-demand virtual tours could include online mechanisms for rental prospects to reserve an apartment, submit an application and easily pay fees.
Groff said, “Virtual meetings and opportunities for less employee travel are still at the forefront of changes to limit face-to-face interactions, as well as online learning to efficiently deliver much-needed training to team members on short notice.”
Enforcing occupancy standards and social distancing regulations could be the most difficult aspect of operating amenity spaces such as swimming pools and fitness centers this year.
“There are several options to consider for handling this situation, depending on budget, available technology and staff time,” explained Groff, including using technology tools to offer residents access to an online scheduling platform to reserve time at a pool; posting occupancy limitations and allowing residents to self-enforce this rule; limiting the number of people on a first-come, first-served basis; and staggering times in the pool.
Office space, amenities and in-person tours will vary somewhat, depending on the location of the apartment community.
“As shelter-in-place restrictions are lifted, companies are opening leasing offices and amenity spaces on a phased approach,” said Groff. “While the excitement of reopening amenity spaces is palatable among many residents, it’s important to proceed with extreme care and caution.”
Staff members in leasing offices are encouraged to adhere to a set of public health guidelines established by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and local health department protocol concerning opening to the public. These include having areas for greeting guests and waiting areas inside the clubhouse/leasing office.
Inside the office, social distancing markers should be placed 6 feet apart. Staff members should be required to wear face masks when interacting with others. Workstations for office staff must be spaced out and rearranged or removed to maintain safe distancing for residents and prospective residents.
Groff said limiting the number of on-site staff members who work at one time or limiting office hours can remain in place until the need arises for increased staff or restrictions are reduced.
Reopening measures vary by county, city and state. For example, at Bainbridge Companies, a leading owner, developer and manager of luxury multifamily apartment communities, property managers who have communities in multiple municipalities are diligently working to stay on top of the different local ordinances, according to Dana Caudell, Bainbridge’s president of property management.
“At Bainbridge, we have communities from Florida all the way to New York, with more than 20 counties represented,” said Caudell. “We’re monitoring the news and regulations in each of those areas daily to ensure we’re taking the appropriate steps. Local ordinances can change throughout the day, which impacts the capacity that our amenity spaces can operate at. There have been instances where we open with 25% capacity and that is increased to 50% capacity by the afternoon.”
For a lot of Bainbridge communities, the biggest challenge has been getting the solutions in place to reopen as different counties moved into phase one.
“This required our teams to be nimble and patient while taking the time to troubleshoot and communicate with residents,” said Caudell. “For example, we rolled out community apps to help with amenity sign-ups and other digital communication, but typically a change like that would be months in the making. Now, property managers are vetting new technology, training employees on how to use the technology and rolling it out to residents within a matter of weeks.”
Amenity spaces at some of Bainbridge’s Florida communities have opened, but with limited capacity in accordance with the local ordinances.
“For the community spaces such as the pool, fitness center and other areas where you tend to have more people gathered at one time, we’ve implemented a reservation process,” Caudell explained.
Virtual touring strategies and technology have been beneficial in providing prospects with extensive amounts of information about a given community. “We’ve been really encouraged by how prospective residents have responded and engaged in the process,” said Caudell.
Bainbridge has increased its contracts with cleaning partners to the point where they arrive daily to clean community areas and amenity spaces. Caudell said, “We’re also providing personal protective equipment for our on-site staff and have Plexiglass guards for the leasing office, similar to what you see in the grocery store.”
Office spaces have been reconfigured to make sure employees are appropriately distanced from one another.
As some Bainbridge communities have started reopening, maintenance teams have primarily been focused on outdoor community maintenance and emergency requests to limit in-person contact in units.
“We recognize that some of the modifications might be frustrating for staff and residents,” said Caudell. “Everyone is tired of being stuck in their homes and eager to get back to normal. But as we’ve all seen these last few months, normal isn’t normal anymore. We’re being really intentional about communicating the ‘why’ behind different policies so that our staff and residents know it’s truly for their well-being. People tend to be more understanding and receptive when we take that approach. Since there are so many unknowns right now, transparent, thoughtful communication goes a long way.”