Several items have become more prevalent or were added during the pandemic—staying put long after.
One common goal of apartment owner-operators is the health and safety of the community. This can result in resident and employee satisfaction and retention—a more overarching goal and objective for the rental housing industry.
The initial unknowns throughout the beginning of the pandemic ensured a consistent approach of trial and error and the implementation of newer policies, procedures and technology. Among the many software approaches and applications was the use of self-guided or virtual touring. Again, meeting customers where they are and showing the willingness to satisfy residents and staff.
Among the items to see a boost was controlled access technologies, culminating in ease of access for residents and staff as well as a way for communities to keep their eye on the pulse of many security concerns.
If controlled access wasn’t part of a company’s strategic plan, there is an incredibly good chance it was implemented during the pandemic through the rush of bringing units to market as well as keeping residents in their homes—one of the main benefits of controlled and ease of access. But is that just the bare minimum? Controlled access bleeds into other smart home technology solutions such as controlled lighting and sound systems that can all be managed through a single resident app.
“Access control has become an important focus for us in both our new developments, and as we retrofit and upgrade our existing assets,” says Jeff Klotz, President and CEO of the Klotz Group of Companies. “We are obsessed with making sure our communities have the latest and greatest tech available for both entry and access to the community, building, amenity and unit.”
But name badges and key fobs can be outdated. “RFID is old technology,” Klotz says. “Biometrics and video is smart technology...” Residents at Klotz Group communities can adjust their lights and thermostats as well as pay rent and book classes 24/7.
Crime prevention is always option number one, but there are times when that is not possible. This is where the work of cameras and/or security systems can help. “We have upgraded the gate systems at some of our properties in response to an increase of car break-ins and catalytic converter thefts,” says Todd Watkins, COO and General Counsel at RailField. “We’re also increasing the number of cameras on our properties including an AI-based system that will network all of the cameras on a property and track both criminal and health-related incidents in real time.”
Parking and garage access are no different for Henry Torres, CEO of The Astor Companies. They use cameras at all access points of the buildings—this can add up to hundreds of cameras at one location as well as fobs for elevator access and shared areas. “For access to parking, if you do not have a transponder, you cannot open the gate for the garage. Visitors must call the front desk to provide information on which resident they are visiting, and then that resident is called to confirm.” At the newly completed Douglas Enclave, an attainable housing development in Miami, The Astor Companies utilizes a “call box” outside the front entrance so residents can have their name and/or unit number to be called.
Alarm systems are also available for units and communities. “It is the perfect balance of comfort, ease and value,” says Lance Goss, Senior Vice President at HHHunt Apartment Living. “We are now integrating alarms in our new communities that are being delivered this year and moving forward. In certain markets, we are adding monitored alarms into [residents’] already installed smart system as well.” Moving to one platform has also helped with resident satisfaction. “Residents love the simplicity of having the same, individual code to access everything or by using their smart phone.”
Patrick Boel, Vice President, Development with Roundhouse says his company partnered with an app to bring everything under one roof. “This app provides access control, guest pass functionality, features resident communication options, reservations, community marketplace, event announcements and community perks like partnerships with businesses,” he says. It’s also a way for residents to manage amenities such as the BBQ and spa.
All this must run on a network, so making sure Wi-Fi connections are strong and secure is imperative across the community, amenity spaces, units and more.
With so much information available for fraudsters and even more available now than ever before, data needs to be under lock and key regardless of technological involvement. Bristol Development Group uses ID checks for package pick-up and ID screenings for community and unit tours to avoid fraud, says Lisa Gunderson, MBA, CPM, Partner with Bristol Development. “As for package access, that has cameras to prevent theft.”
Goss and company have also partnered with a company to halt fraudsters in their tracks. “This is a third-party company that we use on top of our screening program to help identify fraud. We saw an uptick in fraud during the pandemic, and this software has helped control that part of the application screening process.”
With any change comes its pushback from stakeholders. However, residents and staff understand the value of the changes that come with enhancements of security and tech solutions.
“There has been no pushback from residents, employees or anyone else. On the contrary, they all understand the need for these components,” says Torres. Boel also says there wasn’t any pushback.
“Regarding residents, we find that younger residents love being challenged by new technology and almost expect it. They are easily impressed and will quicky pay a premium for it,” says Klotz. “The older residents have a little bigger learning curve, and so it’s a bit more difficult to convince them of the value initially. But once they learn to adopt it, they are the biggest fans of it.”
Goss says the challenge of busy lives has made implementation vital. “Our executive team has embraced all our efforts to make living at our apartment communities as effortless as possible.... We all know our lives are busier, more connected, and at times more cumbersome; we are constantly looking at ways to make things easier for our employees and residents. This is just another way we can do just that,” says Goss.
Gunderson saw pushback due to the additional costs but a cost-benefit analysis was run as well as an ROI calculator. “Strategically, we decided to invest in these types of technologies to distinguish ourselves from our competitors. Having been successful with serval test projects, the resident feedback and rent increases achieved led us to expand our efforts.”
As with any additions, there are costs associated with the new items. Watkins says safety is top of mind at RailField communities, and there are no charges or fees for security.
Torres says everything is wrapped into the rent payment: “We want our renters to know exactly what they are getting for their money, with no surprises.”
Goss says most of the time, costs are built into the rent, but in some cases there is an amenity or concierge fee for 24/7 service. “Our residents understand that our smart home systems are included within their rent. We don’t advertise a lower price and add this on top of it; it is a part of the pricing when they move in. That makes it simple for everyone.”
Gunderson also says a technology fee for community Wi-Fi and smart home solutions is paid within the rent. Boel says they communicate the cost to residents during the tour and move-in process. “We don’t directly charge for this; it gets charged to the property as an operating expense.”
At some communities, much has changed due to the pandemic, e.g., offering a virtual or self-guided tour when it wasn’t before. Some new additions evolved as the environment changed.
“We implemented smart locks, hubs and thermostats during the pandemic,” says Goss. “This allowed us to do virtual tours, self-guided tours and monitor HVAC systems remotely. That efficiency was continued outside of the pandemic. The addition of security and access control was a new functionality that we added recently.”
Gunderson says access control was around pre-pandemic and will stay—a video call box has also been installed for residents to verify callers. Watkins says that while safety changes were made during the pandemic they were more for health and safety protocols to reduce in-person events like tours and person-to-person contact. This resulted in video and self-guided options for prospective residents.
Non-Tech Items to Consider
Courtesy officers are available at some RailField communities, says Watkins. The company offers—usually local law enforcement—a rental discount for the patrolling services. Package pickup at communities requires an ID depending on staff familiarity with residents. “Honestly, our biggest success has been ‘shoe-leather’ methods. The more we’ve had guards, the fewer incidents we’ve had. I am looking forward to deploying the AI-based camera system, but I still think the human presence is what’s going to be most effective.”
Residents at The Astor Companies pay a one-time fee for a package locker, and depending on the weight and package placement, an ID check is a must at the front desk. The front desk also provides “detailed reporting when front desk personnel change shifts, with descriptions of what was done during the previous shift and what the next shift can expect. It helps the team be prepared and service oriented,” says Torres.
On top of asking residents for ID when picking up packages, during peak summer pool season, IDs and unit numbers are requested “to ensure it is just our residents and their guest enjoying the amenities,” says Goss. “We continue to focus on ways where we don’t have to ‘police’ those things and allow technology to work in our favor. We want to make sure our residents are the ones using the amenities, but there are better ways to monitor that than having our people constantly asking for that information.”
Michael Miller is NAA’s Managing Editor.