Centralization Assists in a Staffing Shortage
wooden person-shaped blocks

By Bendix Anderson |

7 minute read

Apartment companies are using new technology to keep staff happy at a time when finding new employees is not without its challenges.

Many firms struggle to find and keep staff to operate their properties. They spend weeks or even months to fill vacant positions in leasing offices and on maintenance teams. In the meantime, leasing agents and maintenance workers whose colleagues have left often have to work overtime to do the work that needs to be done. 

The strain may get even worse in 2024 as developers open hundreds of thousands of new apartments. Leasing agents will have to fight even harder to attract new residents to vacant units. 

Technology can help 

Workers once worried technologies like artificial intelligence might take their jobs. In today’s tight labor market and competitive rental markets, technologies can help make up for vacant positions and help keep hard-to-find employees happy. Many apartment companies are centralizing their operations for groups of properties or entire portfolios. 

Technology can handle drudge work, allowing once overworked employees to focus on the parts of the job in which they are most interested. Repetitive tasks like lease renewals or scheduling property tours can be automated. 

Technology can also give workers more flexibility—even the chance to work remotely from their own homes. 

Apartment companies struggle to find workers 

The percentage of workers who said they were unemployed and actively looking for work was just 3.9% in the U.S. in February 2024. That’s down from over 14% during the pandemic and only slightly higher than 3.4% in April 2023—the lowest level in 54 years. Apartment companies had to compete to hire workers with other growing industries like hotels, single-family rental companies and Amazon, which offered wages as high as $25 an hour for some entry-level positions. 

For apartment companies, job searches that would normally take 30 days stretched to 60 or even 80 days, according to experts like Kristy Simonette, Senior Vice President of Strategic Services for Camden Property Trust. 

The remaining workers had to do the same amount of work with fewer people, says Marcella Eppsteiner, Chief Experience Officer for Mission Rock Residential. “On a team that is short-staffed for 60 or 90 days, that’s an incredible weight on them.”Sometechnology is now making it easier to both find employees and keep them. “We have fewer open positions than we did last year at this time,” says Eppsteiner. “And they’re open for a shorter period of time.” 

That has helped break the cycle of overworked employees leaving under-staffed teams. “We’re back down to about 30 days to fill a role,” says Simonette. That’s almost back to normal, even though the national unemployment rate is still low. 

Centralization allows more flexible employment 

Technology lets apartment companies offer jobs more suited to the strengths of their employees—that can help keep good employees from quitting in the first place. 

“We had a superstar leasing consultant in the D.C.-Virginia-Maryland area,” says Simonette. This leasing agent asked to use the new technologies of centralization to allow her to cover multiple apartment communities. “This allowed her to have a bigger book of business as a salesperson and lease apartments at a community across the street or a mile away when they are short-staffed.” 

Centralization is a technology trend that lets companies do some of the work of operating apartments for several properties at once rather than doing each task separately at each individual property. 

Much of the technology was already in use long before “centralization” became an industry buzzword to help solve the staffing shortage. During the pandemic, companies including Camden and Mission Rock rushed to deploy tech to keep leasing apartments despite lockdowns and social distancing rules. 

Potential renters could take virtual tours, pose questions to artificial intelligence chatbots, verify their identities and self-schedule tours, among many other tasks. They could physically visit the apartments they were interested in opening electronic locks and other smart home gear controlled by online systems. Customer relationship management systems stored the information that customers shared throughout their journey. 

When workers became very hard to find, starting around 2020-21, apartment firms used many of these same technologies to accomplish more with reduced staff. “We had to do centralization out of necessity,” says Simonette. “We had to do more work with less people because there just wasn’t the workforce.” 

For example, in April 2022, relatively few of the “assistant manager” jobs at Camden’s properties were filled. These assistant managers usually handled administrative and transactional tasks at individual, large properties, such as completing move-outs, generating final account statements, collecting rent and processing lease renewals. 

“There’s no reason you need to be onsite to take care of these types of tasks,” says Simonette. “We were able to eliminate the 170 positions—not people, because many of the positions weren’t filled—and redeploy the remaining assistant managers to various other roles.” Camden created a “shared services” team of 35 and another dozen operations analyst professionals who now handle work like budgeting and invoicing and contracts. 

These new, “centralized” jobs can be performed remotely. That means they can be performed by a worker who—because of a life situation needs or prefers to work from home. That creates another opportunity for Camden to hold onto employees that it would otherwise lose. 

“We’ve created a couple of new career paths,” says Simonette. 

Centralization is also helping apartment firms hold onto talented employees who prefer to focus on sales. In the past, a leasing agent at Camden would progress in their career by becoming an assistant manager. “It was very administrative. A lot of them didn’t thrive in that area,” says Simonette. 

Today, a great leasing agent at Camden can be promoted to become a sales manager managing the sales team across a “nest” of up to three Camden communities. 

This gives apartment companies the ability to move people up the ladder through promotions and different career paths without having to place them into those previous paths that weren’t necessarily the best fit moving forward. 

Machines and people working together 

Centralizing technologies are also helping leasing agents work across multiple properties. Leasing agents often earn more in these new structures—because they are more productive, and it’s having a positive impact on residents. 

So far, customers continue to rate their “centralized” experience highly. Camden’s customers rate their experience at more than 90 points on average on the company’s 100-point customer satisfaction surveys. 

Leasing agents for Global Integrity Realty Corp. are often located at a leasing office in a larger property with more than 100 units. They often also cover several smaller buildings nearby. 

A leasing agent with a packed schedule may get a telephone call or text from a potential renter at a smaller building nearby. The agent is tied up at the moment, they can direct the prospect to schedule a self-guided tour immediately and arrange to meet the prospect to talk through a lease in person after the tour. 

“Otherwise we would probably lose that person—once they leave, they usually won’t come back,” says Scott Kurzban, Chief Operating Officer for Global Integrity Realty Corp. The firm is now implementing its self-touring program. It already uses its “hub and spoke” model to manage groups of properties located near each other from the largest property in the group. 

A few apartment companies, like the real estate investment trust UDR, no longer have leasing offices staffed by human leasing agents. Other apartment companies maintain leasing offices with human staff at all of their properties. 

“While we use centralized solutions to assist our onsite team and have incorporated AI technology such as text and chatbots, we find our properties demand an onsite management team,” says Elie Rieder, founder and CEO of Castle Lanterra. 

For firms that have embraced centralization, the balance is constantly shifting between automated tools and in-person interactions. Many are increasing the number of days that their leasing offices are open and staffed by humans. 

“We just had this conversation with multiple clients,” says Eppsteiner. The majority of Mission Rock’s clients keep their leasing offices open for in-person tours five to six days a week, but the offices are closed over the weekends. Several clients are now considering re-opening their leasing offices for certain hours on Saturdays and potentially revisiting being open on Sundays. 

The customers are different customers 

Customers continue to embrace all of the tools that apartment managers are able to provide, from in-person conversations to self-guided tours. 

For example, the most popular time to self-tour an apartment is 7 a.m. The early morning turns out to be a convenient time for many prospective renters to visit a community before they go to work, according to Funnel Leasing. 

All of these technologies are changing the potential renters who are now shopping for apartments. Today, most prospects have already done a lot of research using tools like virtual tours and artificial intelligence chatbots before they have the first conversation with a human in a leasing office. 

“Five years ago, when someone toured they were still in their research phase,” says Eppsteiner. Today, potential renters have often looked at dozens of properties in several neighborhoods before they even share their own email with a chatbot, let alone speak over the phone or in person with a human leasing agent. “They’ve done all the online research… when someone tours they’re in the decision-making phase.” 


Bendix Anderson is a freelance writer.