What we're doing differently during the pandemic
Over the past few months, we've gotten a crash course on the fundamentals of epidemiology and biology. We've become proficient at concepts like virus transmission rates (represented by the intimidating sounding metric R0 or "R-naught") and infection curve flattening. We've gained an appreciation for how personal decisions - hand washing, mask wearing - can impact the physical and economic health of our communities.
As with virtually all industries, some important aspects of housing have evolved to meet the needs of our various stakeholders. In some cases, these changes will be longer lasting or will inform process evolution well beyond the moment when we can officially say we've beaten the novel coronavirus of 2019.
We wanted to share some of the process changes we've made since the start of the outbreak in the hopes that our practices can be helpful to other operators and / or that we might be missing some opportunities to improve what we're doing.
If you have feedback for us please don't hesitate to reach out.
Our top priority is the safety of our residents, staff and other members of our community.
In late February, prior to the first reports of community transmission in California, one of which was in Solano County where Waterscape is located, our teams implemented a number of precautions including:
Clorox wipes and extra hand sanitizer in the gym and clubhouse areas; signage reminding residents to wipe down equipment before and after use
Maintenance teams wear gloves and masks when in residents’ apartments and use hand sanitizer multiple times daily
Signs in the office requesting use of hand sanitizer upon entering
Coffee bar removed
Office staff wiping down office surfaces and door handles at least daily
Staff instructed to not shake anyone's hand and to fetch beverages for prospects (vs. letting them open the refrigerator themselves)
By mid-March, we’d developed and implemented a an additional set of procedure changes to reduce risk of transmission, including:
Office and all non-essential amenities closed
All leasing activity virtual
All interviewing and hiring activity virtual
Signage throughout the properties related to social distancing
All non-essential amenities (pool, spa, gym, clubhouse, etc.) closed until further notice
Laundry and package lockers / mailroom remain open but receive extra cleanings
Maintenance teams entering apartments for emergency tickets only; wearing P100 respirators, gloves and booties
Non-emergency maintenance issues resolved with tools / supplies left at residents’ doorstep with instructions for self-repair
All resident events cancelled
Social media campaigns for residents to help reduce stress
Wellness program implemented for site teams to help manage stress
Resident communications and resources
To help reduce confusion (and counter some of the incorrect information spreading on social media), we implemented a multi-touch resident communications plan starting in late March. First and foremost, we wanted to encouraging residents to reach out to us (virtually) if they felt they were going to struggle to make rent payments.
We repeated a version of the campaign in May that was modified based on resident feedback and some simple A/B testing of message and medium.
As a result of these campaigns, nearly a quarter of our residents engaged in a dialog with us about making rent payments late or arranging payment plans. We also saw a surge in resident portal sign-ups and electronic payments (encouraging use of these resources was a part of our outreach campaign).
We trained our staff on handling and documenting resident interactions and their requests. We also provided our teams with lists of financial assistance resources that they could provide to residents.
We created and trained our staff on using pandemic lease management procedures for engaging with residents around hardship requests. We offer residents flexibility on timing of rent payments and have waived debit card fees (in addition to our standing policy of waiving ACH deposit fees). After considerable debate, we decided to waive credit card fees on a case-by-case basis.
When requested by residents, we present payment arrangements based on three template plans we developed using a worksheet that clearly spells out when each month's rent payment will be due. Non-standard plans, a necessity in some cases, are reviewed by the regional manager and us before being finalized.
We felt that the approach of having pre-approved payment arrangements would give the site teams the tools they needed to move quickly and serve the needs of a majority of our residents who were struggling without creating approval bottlenecks.
Leasing and renewals
We made a number of changes to our marketing and leasing approaches, including:
Virtual tours – initially we used FaceTime or WhatsApp to guide prospects as they walked the property but moved to pre-recorded videos and other platforms (such as Facebook) a few weeks into the pandemic. We also posted virtual apartment tours to our websites and updated the internet listing services to reflect the availability of these assets. We clean each vacant or model apartment after it’s toured.
Signage and greetings – we created custom physical signs (banners and A-frames) and updated our voicemail messages alerting passers-by and callers that we’re open for business.
Online marketing – we updated our website and internet listing service presence to reflect the fact that we’re open for business with new procedures to ensure safety.
Pricing – we modified pricing on new leases to reflect a slight softening of the market; we’re currently optimizing around occupancy at both properties.
Prospect qualification – we noticed a spike in lease applications that were failing our credit, employment or rental history checks. As a result, we further clarified the suitability criteria in our online marketing and implemented a qualification phone call for new applications prior to submitting an application for processing.
Renewals – we implemented zero-increase rents on leases expiring from April through June, sent renewals notices early and call each resident to discuss their plans for renewing. Since the pandemic started, our renewal rates have been 5 – 10% better than budgeted.
We also implemented a number of changes to our maintenance and move-in procedures.
Emergency repairs – when they must enter a resident’s apartment for a repair, our maintenance teams request that the residents stay in a different room and they wear a P100 respirator, gloves and booties. As a standard practice, our maintenance teams are trained and certified on the procedures for donning and doffing respirators.
Non-emergency repairs – where possible, our maintenance teams are leaving supplies or tools by resident’s front doors and giving them instruction on fixing issues themselves.
Cleaning – third-party cleaning services and our maintenance teams have upped, considerably, the frequency of common area cleaning, e.g., for the package, mail and laundry rooms that remain open.
Vendors – we require vendors to wear full PPE if entering resident apartments for emergency repairs.
Undoubtedly there were dozens of other things that we've been doing differently since the start of the pandemic that aren't included in this post...we'd love any feedback you might have.
Importantly, I want to recognize the tireless and heroic efforts of our front-line and leadership teams from our property management partner FPI. Sarah, Anabelle, Alissa, Katrina, Jenn and Carey - thank you for your exceptional service to our communities, especially during these extraordinary times.