From establishing a policy for handling rent deferral requests to tackling service requests from tenants in a way that is safe for employees to implementing new technology to handle virtual tours for prospective tenants, property managers have a great deal on their hands, and a rapidly shifting situation to constantly adapt to.
“What we’re doing now and what we were doing two weeks ago has changed markedly, just because things have elevated so quickly,” Mission Rock Residential President and co-founder Patricia Hutchison said during a Bisnow webinar on March 19.
Property managers are dealing with escalating federal, state, county and city measures on a daily basis, as well as rapidly evolving recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The Institute of Real Estate Management released its pandemic report for property managers on March 10. The report includes guidance on how to create a plan, infection control, operations and legal considerations.
“I can’t honestly say that anybody was thinking about pandemics, maybe two months ago at least,” said Barry Blanton, IREM senior vice president and Blanton Turner principal.
“If we look at what we thought we knew three days ago, and we look at where we are this morning, it’s different.”
Blanton is based in Seattle; Washington has the highest number of coronavirus-related deaths by state. Blanton Turner’s portfolio includes both regular multifamily residential and student housing buildings, as well as commercial properties.
Staff members at Mission Rock, which is based in Denver and manages residential properties across 15 states, have been instructed to restrict interaction with the public. The company communicated to residents that service requests are being attended to, but that there will be a delay in taking care of nonemergency issues.
Moratoriums on foreclosures and evictions have begun to appear across various U.S. states and cities, as the retail and restaurant sectors continue to lay off workers amid the ongoing economic impact of the coronavirus outbreak.
Blanton said about 16% of the residents within his properties work in the retail or food industries, and many are out of work, which could affect their ability to make rent payments.
His advice to other property managers is to ask for all deferral or forgiveness requests in writing, including details of what steps those tenants have made to address their circumstances.
“We’re going to make arrangements, and I would strongly recommend that there are cases that we will make arrangements for rent abatement, either deferral or forgiveness, depending on what those circumstances are,” Blanton said. “Some people are going to take advantage of this, or try to take advantage of this, so your system needs to be such that it can sort the wheat from the chaff, in terms of who really needs the assistance and who doesn’t.”
Hutchison said it is important to develop a strategy with owners to handle requests from distressed tenants. Within only 10 days, owners and property managers will need to have a plan to deal with late payments.
“Let’s face it: We’re going to have delinquencies like we’ve never had before. You’re going to have all these restaurants, waiters and waitresses and all the people — I mean, they’re all shut down, basically. They can’t pay their rent,” Hutchison said. “You’ve got to make choices right now, of what you’re doing and how you’re going to attack it.”
Both Blanton and Hutchison said it is important for property managers to be aware of any residents or tenants that have tested positive for COVID-19, so that safety steps can be taken.
“For us, we definitely want to know if there is somebody testing positive, or even if they have the symptoms,” Hutchison said. “We’re not going to go into those units, if that’s the case.”
If there is an extreme emergency and there are suddenly habitability issues within an apartment, Hutchison said Mission Rock would ask a third party to deal with the issue, as those employees may be better equipped to protect themselves from infection.
Blanton said Blanton Turner created a task force to address the issue of how to assist sick residents and protect healthy ones at the same property.
“We would not be, obviously, going into their apartment. What we would do is take extra care to clean and sanitize around the outside of their apartment, any place in the common areas they may have been,” Blanton said.
“We would be communicating with them to make sure that if they need food delivery or whatever, that it gets to their door, and then we re-clean and sanitize after they get it in front of their door. We’d have to figure out things like, how do you get garbage out of their unit, or do you?”
It is also vital to protect the privacy of tenants who are ill. Hutchison said that while property managers can inform other tenants of a positive COVID-19 case, they can’t identify the unit number or person, or else face serious legal trouble.
“You have to be very careful about crossing that line,” she said.
The best thing to do is provide signage and information to tenants about how to sanitize and take proper precautions, as recommended by agencies like the CDC and local health departments.
In a worst-case scenario, Hutchison is also considering what it would mean to close down some properties, which could become a reality.
“Right now, I’m having my people make a full plan on what that looks like, and how they’re going to do it, and whose responsibility is this, and all those sort of things,” Hutchison said.
“What you guys have to be prepared for, in my opinion, or what we’re preparing ourselves for, is the event that we have no people at the property. Because that is conceivably what is the next step. And, how do you remotely have the business continuity of running an apartment community?”
The advent of remote working technology is helping property managers during this difficult time. Blanton said that his company has been actively embracing the technology around virtual tours and self-guided tours for the last six to eight months, in response to the demand from new generations entering the market.
“They don’t have traditional hours, they don’t live traditional lives, they have a 24/7 sort of business acumen. We had to be prepared to do that,” Blanton said. “Being in Seattle, it’s a very tech-savvy place, most of our portfolio is in urban Seattle, so with that, we’ve been fortunate enough to be able to push the envelope a bit.”
Blanton said the company has leased five units this week, and it was exclusively through virtual means. Hutchison said Mission Rock has also been providing self-guided tours and online rent payment options to residents in order to meet demand prior to the outbreak.
“Millennials want to look at apartments after 6 o’clock, and if you’re closed on Sunday, that doesn’t work for them,” Hutchison said.
The silver lining of the coronavirus outbreak could be that the real estate industry will be motivated to speed up online and virtual services, she added.
“Working remotely today is much easier than it’s ever been before, and I’m sure it’s going to get streamlined even further.”
Blanton said property manager’s primary focus should be on protecting and helping people — both staff and tenants — through this difficult time. “Our first and foremost priority is safety, health, security and sanitation right now,” he said.
But beyond planning and preparing for hardship, Blanton said property managers should also be thinking about recovery, and how to ramp back up after dealing with an extended period of reduced business. “It seems kind of remote right now, but we will return to a new normal or whatever, we need to be prepared for that as well.”