The apartment sector mobilized quickly when COVID-19 arrived in the U.S. Now that the curve has been flattened—even in hardest hit New York City—the industry is preparing for a return to post quarantine life. MHN spoke to several multifamily owners and operators to find out how their teams are preparing for, and adjusting to, the changes that will need to be made due to the impact of the virus. It won’t be business as usual for the foreseeable future. Until there is a vaccine or a treatment, masks and social distancing will continue to be the new normal driving operations at apartment communities even after commerce and other activities are permitted to reopen.
“We believe we were on the very early side of planning for this,” says Kevin Finkel, executive vice president at Providence Real Estate whose 7,000 units are located throughout the Southeast in the Carolinas, Florida and Alabama. “In late February we saw what was happening in Italy and we were also listening to indications from the CDC,” says Finkel. Currently, Providence has six subcommittees across the company working on the reopening plan. Phase one of the opening will actually be a continuation of the decisive actions implemented during the crisis.
“The first thing we did was make sure that our employees were safe,” says Finkel. “We locked the doors to our leasing centers. Our teams are onsite, but they each have their own space because we’ve turned unrented units into offices.”
“When we do come out of this, all these things we put in place in the early days will remain intact for a very long time.” Providence will continue self-guided tours, virtual tours, paying remotely and social distancing. “We believe that this virus is going to be transmitting throughout the year and it will keep people very cautious,” adds Finkel. So while phase two plans are in the works, that’s not the immediate concern. Phase two might start happening in six months.
Thousands of cloth masks meeting CDC guidelines and designed with the Providence logo and brand colors will be distributed soon so staff can look professional. “We don’t think masks are short-term. We think this is going through 2020,” says Finkel.
Providence has seen a surge of leasing during the pandemic, with good results enabled by technology. Finkel predicts that on-site self-guided tours will take off when stay-at-home restrictions are removed. Using locking and unlocking remote doors, prospects will be able to practice social distancing as they walk through the property and see the model without having to be with a leasing associate.
“We are currently starting the conversations about how and when to reopen our leasing and management offices as restrictions are lifted,” says Elie Rieder, founder & CEO of Castle Lanterra Properties, a New York-based national real estate investment firm with a portfolio of 7,000 units across 22 properties. “We will stringently follow protocols and guidelines established by the CDC and local health departments at all our properties to ensure the safest resident experience possible. We are also planning ahead in the event there is resurgence in the fall as we want to be prepared.”
Similar measures will be in place in all of Castle Lanterra’s communities, but each local manager will have input on how to employ new safety procedures to best fit their individual properties and will follow requirements set forth by each local jurisdiction. “We anticipate there will be different rules to follow in each location,” says Rieder.
Castle Lanterra is also in conversation with its managers and other industry professionals to evaluate best practices for elevators since social distancing will be the name of the game for the foreseeable future. “We hope to have our amenity areas open as soon as safely possible, but this will most likely be after the management offices re-open—and with significantly more cleaning and disinfecting procedures in place,” adds Rieder.
“Our primary focus is safety. We’re not in a hurry to reopen,” says Tom Sloan, senior vice president, operations at Camden Property Trust which operates 164 properties containing 56,107 apartment homes across the US. Currently all Camden offices and amenity areas are closed to the public. “We’re monitoring states’ and municipalities’ guidance for reopening.”
During the pandemic Camden’s maintenance teams have developed sanitizing protocol for high touch areas and this will continue into the the future. All team members have use of wipes, gloves and masks. “Similar protocols are being developed for leasing offices and public and amenity areas for after we open,” adds Sloan. “We’re researching other industry plans for reopening including national gyms and retail establishments. We’re also in active conversation with our industry peers on their plans.”
Maintenance teams have only been completing emergency service requests for plumbing, AC or major appliance repairs. Residents are asked CDC screening questions regarding health of occupants, and service for any apartment with confirmed sick occupants happens either virtually with a Camden team member walking a resident through minor repairs via Skype, or a maintenance team member self-help YouTube video, or a third party company trained in virus response assists with completing work in the apartment.
“Often, our teams are able to drop off supplies for apartment repairs that residents have been able to use to take care of their own needs. We have been pleasantly surprised with how few backlogged service tickets we have based on creative solutions our team has been able to execute,” says Sloan.
Like many of its peers, Camden leasing offices are now conducting 100 percent video, virtual and prospect self-guided tours. “We observed an interesting phenomenon, early in our ‘new normal.’ Essentially all tours were virtual with a Camden employee doing a FaceTime tour. But as stay at home fatigue has set in, we’re seeing a significant increase in self-guided tours where a prospective resident goes and sees the actual apartment they would be living in.”
Gables has established a national task force to address protocol related to the reopening. Each Gables office set-up, both corporate and onsite is being looked at individually because size, access, amenity offerings and more differ at each location. “Part of the process is to consider each local ordinance, along with federal and CDC guidelines,” says Donna Summers, president, Gables Management Co., which manages approximately 38,000 apartment homes.
“In some cases these directives may not align, so we must assess each one and related potential implications,” she explains. “We will then weigh the best proposed practices to ensure a re-opening with the well-being of our associates and residents being top of mind.”
Over the coming weeks and months, Gables will be working through the logistics around fitness spaces, package rooms and swimming pools. For package rooms, each community is being evaluated according to its package solution programming and the configuration of the property. Solutions range from signage and recommended protocol for use of the package room to allowing door-to-door delivery both by the carrier and the onsite team when possible.
Elevator usage is currently functioning under the pandemic protocol allowing just one person at a time. “We wipe down the elevators, just like other common areas, throughout the day as directed by the CDC,” says Summers.
The timely procurement of, and need for, personal protective equipment (PPE) supplies as well as additional cleaning supplies, hand sanitizer, etc., must also be assessed. “They are critical to maintaining an environment that follows CDC recommendations,” adds Summers. “The appropriate signage needed to cue residents, building access, deliveries and more must also be vetted to ensure expectations are set for all who will be accessing the community and corporate offices.”
“At the heart of our re-opening plans, safety remains the focus—for our employees and residents. With so much uncertainty, we are accounting for many variables,” says Stephanie Williams, president of Bozzuto Management Co. “We know that residents are keen to use our wonderful amenity areas again, and we can’t wait to open those spaces, but it must be done with the utmost caution and care.”
Bozzuto leadership has spent the past couple of weeks planning its re-opening strategy, which will be a phased, multi-faceted approach to meet the needs of the company’s different divisions. The Bozzuto operations team is following government officials, particularly those overseeing local markets, to understand their broader plans for re-opening local businesses.
According to Williams, everything must be reimagined. When guests, residents and clients are greeted, will handshakes and hugs be off limit forever? Leasing and touring are being done differently now in our new world. Will these virtual solutions become the norm going forward?
“While we understand that we won’t be returning to life as we knew it before, we are optimistic that we’ll be able to continue creating sanctuary for those we serve,” adds Williams. “It may look a bit different, but the feeling will be the same. Now more than ever, we are a family taking care of family.”