by Samantha Chalmers
The year 2020 brought multifamily a battery of operational and leasing challenges.
But as the saying goes, necessity is the mother of invention, and operators showed impressive resilience by embracing emerging technologies and adopting new procedures and processes.
Many of these innovations and adaptations were detailed by panelists in the “Report from the Front Lines: A Leasing, Management & Operations Update” session at the recent InterFace Multifamily Southeast Conference. The conference took place in mid-December in a virtual format.
Laurie Lyons, vice president of client services at Pegasus Residential, told attendees that operators who already prioritized innovation and technology were well positioned to navigate the year’s challenges.
“Pegasus is a company of pioneers. Because we have a pioneering and innovative mentality, we were ready for the things that needed to happen as a result of COVID,” Lyons said. “We already had virtual leasing in place at some of our communities, so we were immediately able to turn that on everywhere when the COVID shutdowns did happen. And it’s really driven our success. In the last six months, we’ve had 3,000 tours and 300 leases. Approximately 40% of our business is ground-up developments, so we had to make sure we were able to capture those leases.”
Pegasus has also adjusted its recruiting of onsite associates during the pandemic, Lyons noted. For instance, the third-party operator now seeks out service workers who lost their jobs because of the coronavirus-induced recession.
“We made some changes on the recruiting side,” Lyons explained. “So, we changed the titles of our positions. Now we have ‘sales associates’ and ‘technicians’ instead of ‘leasing agents’. We attract people in retail, hospitality and restaurants, and those positions transition very well in our industry. The greater pool you can attract, the more likely you are able to hire the best people.”
The expanded recruiting pool also makes it easier for Pegasus to give time off to associates who need to care for family members who become sick with COVID. And the company’s virtual and online leasing technologies and self-guided tour solution have enabled the company to ease the burden for onsite team members, Lyons noted.
“Because our prospects were taking advantage of virtual leasing, we were able to close our leasing offices on Sunday,” Lyons said. “This cuts back on the staffing expense, and it’s also a bonus to our teams to not have to work on those days. And we are still generating the same amount of leads in six days as in seven days.”
Ed Wolff, chief revenue officer of LeaseLock, a provider of lease insurance that replaces security deposits, described the pandemic as an opportunity and encouraged apartment managers to examine how their operations will change due to the challenges operators overcame in 2020.
“The pandemic has forced us to change the way we do business and, in some cases, for the better,” he said. “As we look at leasing and operations, has the demand changed? What are we doing differently as a result? Do you think this is a long-term change?”
Unfortunately, the pandemic has exacerbated the country’s housing affordability crisis, Wolff added. States and local jurisdictions across the country are passing regulations that limit the size of security deposits and, in some cases, mandate that operators offer certain alternatives to deposits.
“As we look to the future, housing affordability has been a big challenge and will continue to be,” Wolff said. “We have been working very closely with NAA and NMHC within their Government Affairs organizations on affordable housing and how to navigate this challenge. We have seen [security deposit regulations] recently pass in Atlanta, Cincinnati and Florida, so it’s important to make this a continued focus for operators.”
Teresa DeVos, senior vice president at RKW Residential, said the company has had to ensure compliance with the Atlanta security deposit law.
“There are compliance issues, but they haven’t had a significant impact on our operations,” she said.
RKW Residential has eliminated security deposits by implementing lease insurance through LeaseLock Zero Deposit. The operator also has been diligent in helping residents who have been financially impacted by COVID and need help making their rent payments.
“Our owners want to work with our residents,” DeVos said. “We find a way to help them through payment plans. We want to minimize delinquency rather than force evictions.”
Looking ahead, Greg Mark, senior vice president of operations at Pinnacle, said a reevaluation of amenity spaces will be a big focus for the company in the future.
“We are starting to see a change in what residents want to see in amenities,” he said. “The use of more outdoor space makes sense, especially in the Southeast where the weather has more warm days in the winter. More outdoor space, more green space – we’ve put more attention on these. I think these are good changes that will make a difference.”
Panelists also reported a general optimism about the year ahead for multifamily.
Kevin Owens, senior vice president of operations at CF Real Estate Services, said the resilience and innovation of his associates is the reason the firm will enter 2021 with high expectations.
“In most of our markets, we saw an initial slowdown, but it’s really picked back up,” Owens said. “Leasing has been strong over the last few months, and occupancies have gone back to pre-pandemic levels. We have 20 lease-ups that are active right now, and we are offering more concessions than we expected, but the velocity is strong. So we are happy. We are seeing really great things happening in the market and that’s because of our team.”