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Apartment Operators Put Plans in Place to Re-Open Leasing Offices, Amenities and Clubrooms

Apartment Operators Put Plans in Place to Re-Open Leasing Offices, Amenities and Clubrooms

Expect a gradual re-opening of leasing offices, club rooms and amenities, with some opening their doors as soon as mid-May.

Editor's note: I recently reported on the re-opening of apartment communities for NMHC. Following is an expanded version of that article, and includes comments from more sources, such as Camden and Bell Partners. It also covers more of the operational strategies, such as maintenance requests, prospect tours and info about the expanding number of states and their policies.

JUST IN TIME

Many apartment owners and managers currently are preparing to open their communities and have intimated that it will happen in the days after shelter-in-place policies are lifted in their states.

Just in time. The New York Times reported today that Nearly half of the United States will reopen in some form beginning this week. Interestingly, public officials have begun to dig in, as some are saying, “the states are open, but the cities are not.” You figure that one out.

Plans also are in place or are being finalized about how to perform in-unit maintenance work orders, the pursuit of additional personal protection equipment (PPEs) and cleaning supplies, as well as crafting liability waivers for residents and prospective residents.

Most say they will follow the recent Phase 1-2-3 guidelines announced by the White House last week. For management companies, some decisions will be left to individual owners, rather than expressing one blanket policy for their entire portfolios.

Georgia last week was among about a dozen states to re-open for business to some degree per instructions from their governors. Colorado was another, as its governor announced “safer-at-home” policies for social and business interaction. Among the guidelines, Colorado mentions that real estate showings could take place starting April 27.

Extra stress on re-openings will come to those operating multi-state portfolios because germs don’t recognize state lines. Each governor will be announcing their own policies and roll-out timelines. For example, in Virginia on April 24, Gov. Ralph Northam outlined a “strenuous plan,” according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch, for reopening the state’s economy after the coronavirus shutdown.

Northam said a reopening would not even start until the percent of daily positive tests and hospitalizations decline for 14 consecutive days. Northam said this hasn’t occurred yet in the state, even though the spread of COVID-19 has slowed.

Opinions and strategies about the timing and logistics of re-openings apartment leasing offices, amenities and clubhouses were shared during an industry conference call April 24 led by Jamin Harkness, Executive Vice President, The Management Group, Atlanta. The 11 a.m. Friday weekly call – this “Multifamily Leadership Huddle” has broadcast for seven weeks – and welcomed a record-high nearly 200 apartment industry professionals May 1. (Note: Harkness says the call might soon move to a monthly schedule.)

Generally speaking, for the leasing offices and clubhouses, staffs will follow all municipality, CDC and health department protocol as it relates to opening up to the public. Ideally, they will create areas for greeting people and waiting areas inside the clubhouse/leasing office. Inside the clubhouse/office, social distancing markers will be placed 6 feet apart.

Staff members will be required to wear face-covering/masks per CDC recommendation when interacting with others. Prospective residents will be allowed in, but the number will be limited, depending on available personnel and size of clubhouse/office. Some will place one staff member outside to monitor how many people can enter the clubhouse/office. Prospects/residents would be required to wear face-covering/mask per CDC recommendations.

Prospect-tour policies will vary, with most offering an option of “self-guided” tours where feasible. Others will offer virtual tours, if their technology is in place to provide them. In-person prospect tours would be offered, but would be limited to two persons per tour so that social distancing can be maintained. Sharing a golf cart probably won’t happen due to following the 6-foot rule and prospects will need to use their own vehicles to tour the property if not taking a walking tour.

Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan recently surmised, “No one is certain what to do. Everyone’s acting on insufficient information. No plan will come without cost. A lot will become clear in retrospect. The bias should be opening as soon as possible as safely as possible. Don’t sacrifice safe for soon. Have a solid, sophisticated, mature definition of ‘safe.’ ”

‘YOU CAN’T JUST FLIP A SWITCH’

Jamie Teabo, Senior Managing Director, Real Estate, Southeast Division, Greystar, says communities cannot just “flip a switch and re-open.”

“We’re taking a slow-and-steady approach,” says Teabo, a sentiment echoed by all on the call. “We’ll be following a three-pronged approach and evaluating carefully before we move from Phase 1 forward.

“With amenities, we’re in the process of ensuring we have appropriate amounts of cleaning supplies to make sure we have enough on hand as we reopen since the supply chain has been hindered in the short term.

Apartment communities by and large are working to stockpile cleaning supplies and PPEs so they are ready to swing open these doors given their state’s (and owners) blessings.

“We anticipate an amenity open date of mid- to late-May and will be watching trends carefully over the next few weeks to ensure we feel that timing makes sense. From that point, we’ll take baby steps,” Teabo says.

“With the pool, we’ll be removing some of the deck furniture to create social distancing. There has been discussion in certain municipalities about needing to hire pool attendants to help to monitor social distancing so we will be sure to check on all legal requirements ahead of any openings. The fitness room will most likely be the last amenity we open. Many commercial gyms are electing a wait-and-see approach in the short term to ensure that once opened, the environment is safe.”

Camden’s Executive Vice President of Operations Laurie Baker says the safety and health of Camden’s residents and our employees have always been and will remain its top priority.

“We are continuing our current operating strategy for our communities and we will continue to evaluate the situation and plan for reopening our clubhouses and amenity spaces, following local government guidance,” Baker says.

“Our teams have quickly adjusted during these complicated times and are now perfecting new ways of doing business -- including virtual tours and “how-to” videos for self-service maintenance tickets -- that will strengthen our ability in the future to deliver our brand promise and leverage innovative approaches.

Cortland Executive Vice President of Operations & Facilities Jonathan Tucker says, “Over the course of the pandemic’s spread, we’ve designed our community operations policies and implemented our precautionary actions under the assumption that anyone could be infected. So, as we re-open parts of our communities (based on state guidelines), the main additions to our approach will be limiting in-person traffic and ensuring physical distancing.

“We are pursuing an appointment-only and reservation-style approach with our offices and other select amenities, like fitness centers. Nevertheless, [for tours] we’ve seen that consumers have moved to virtual-leasing fairly seamlessly, and our teams have adapted well to providing virtual live and recorded tours. When we do open offices, we expect to continue our focus on enhancing virtual and online leasing for future residents.”

Lynn Bora, Senior Vice President of Operations, WinnResidential, says she is taking things one market at a time.

“We operate (65,000 apartment homes) in 16 states and the protocols often differ even within a state,” Bora says. “Our first lens for decision-making is to review what the public health experts in the immediate market are recommending. We want team members and residents to stay safe so, when we have to choose, we tend to adopt the stricter rules or recommendations.”

John Marti, Vice President of Operations, Hammond Residential is operating with a skeleton staff and plans to keep it that way for as long as possible, he says.

“We’ve been operating so efficiently via video conferencing and phone calls, etc.,” Marti says. “There’s no drastic need for one-on-one interactions. We’ll open our weight room when Gold’s gym, for example, opens theirs. We’ll open our playground when the local parks open.”

Lorena Pal, Vice President, Ventron, says in Georgia she is not following the plan issued by its Gov. Brian Kemp, which calls for a gradual opening beginning April 30, a bit sooner than when the White House is advising.

Georgia reopened some nonessential businesses on April 24, including gyms, despite warnings of a possible spike in infections. Restaurants and movie theaters, meanwhile, will be allowed to restart service today (April 27).

At this time our offices are remaining closed to the public,” Pal says. “With all we’ve accomplished from the hard work we put in to make our virtual office what it is today, we see no reason to open soon. We are following the White House Task Force guidelines. Shelter-in-place ends April 30 and we’ll revisit our strategy every two weeks, eventually bringing people back in phases.”

Wendy Dorchester, CAPS, Vice President, Pegasus Residential, says her best guess is that her offices will open about five days after the state mandated, stay-at-home policies are lifted.

“For our leasing areas, we’ll have six-foot separation signs,” she says. “Our employees will wear masks. We will probably open our clubhouse, but there will be occupancy limitations and clubhouses and common areas will not be used for leisure by the residents or prospects. We are offering self-guided and virtual tours, and would do a one-on-one tour if it’s requested, with proper face coverings and social distancing measures in place.”

Bell Partners’ COO Cindy Clare, CAPS, says it is taking a phased approach to re-opening.

“Outdoor amenities will open first with other amenities following in Phase II,” Clare says. “We expect to continue with staggered shifts to protect our associates and will keep our offices closed to the public in Phase I.

“We continue to offer virtual tours and will roll out self-guided tours as we go from Phase I to Phase II. We recognize these phases will be timed differently in different parts of the country. This has to be a customized approach, not one size fits all.”

RESIDENT WAIVERS AND LIABILITY

Melissa White, CAM, CAPS, Director of Property Management, Perennial, says, “We are considering having our residents sign waivers to use the amenities. Given limitations based on social distancing, we’ll have residents reserve times to use the fitness room, pool, etc. Coincidentally, our pool permit expired in April, we applied for our annual inspection earlier this year but given how backed up the County is, it could take a while before it’s reissued. We don’t plan to resume in-person tours until June.”

White says she is looking at the company’s general liability insurance policy “to get an understanding of our coverage in case anyone would sue us over contracting Covid-19. I understand tracing this back to our communities to suggest we are liable would be very difficult, but still concerning.”

Apps are in place to take some of the load off of onsite staff once amenities open.

Tracy Bowers, Executive Managing Director, Rangewater, says, “We’re going to have residents use an app for making reservations for amenities to ensure against inappropriate crowding. This way, it won’t be something that takes up our staff members’ time.”

Edgewood and Vantage Management operates in 11 states. Its President & CEO Cindy Sanquist says her communities could open as soon as late May. She operatesaffordable, market-rate and mixed-income property management companies in the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast.

“We anticipate a phased and tactical method of expanding services in conjunction with the current efforts already in place, which include social distancing, using company supplied masks and cleaning regimens, as well as a comprehensive resident communication technology platform for which we’re currently launching.”

Sanquist says that quick-and-easy communication will be key for our employees and residents to coordinate together during re-opening.

“We don’t expect that it will be the casual use of amenities and community spaces that our residents have become accustomed to – they will likely have to schedule their use by engaging with the latest communication platforms to book or reserve amenities, process lease renewals, and numerous other services they can activate online or from their phones.”

She’s also coordinated with her supplier Geiger to provide longer-lasting washable masks that offer optimistic and cheerful messages in vibrant colors.

MAINTENANCE TEAMS’ 3-QUESTION QUIZ

For maintenance, once stay-at-home policies are lifted, communities will shortly thereafter begin completing routine work orders. The maintenance team would ask the resident three questions as outlined per COVID-19 protocol.

1.      Has anyone in the apartment home traveled internationally?

2.      Does anyone in the apartment home have a fever?

3.      Is anyone in the apartment home taking care of someone has been sick?

If the answer to any of these is “Yes,” the maintenance tech can politely refuse to enter the apartment home. Otherwise, work can be completed while the resident is not in the dwelling; if the resident is not able to exit the home, a time will be scheduled when the resident is not home.

Work orders would be prioritized based on the level of urgency, and a tiered approach would be implemented to sort through all routine work orders. The maintenance team will follow the COVID-19 protocol that was set in place with regards to PPEs and CDC guidelines.

“We intend to begin routine work orders once we re-open,” Dorchester says. “We will cautiously proceed with the ‘three question’ rule. For sure, they would only be done if the resident is outside the home.”

Brenda Lindner, Executive Vice President and Managing Partner, RAM, says, “For us, it’s all about going slow-and-right, and not fast-and-wrong.”

Some responses in this article were gathered from those who were not on the Multifamily Leadership Huddle call. To participate on the Huddle call each Friday, contact Jamin Harkness at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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