Boosting Resident Satisfaction With Topnotch Management

Strategies for keeping vacancies low, even in challenging times, from Jamin Harkness of The Life Properties.

Property management company The Life Properties was founded in 2017, as a subsidiary of Olive Tree Holdings. Despite the relatively youthful presence in the multifamily market, it is not an inexperienced unit but rather a burgeoning one, having grown through a worldwide pandemic to more than 15,500 units in 49 communities across eight U.S. states. This proven tenacity is what keeps its leaders assured that the Atlanta-based company can both overcome varying challenges—including a much-debated recession—and increase the supply and quality of affordable housing options across the U.S.

Multi-Housing News talked to President Jamin Harkness about his company’s operations tactics and all the strategies that help not only retain residents, but also keep them satisfied.

Tell us a bit about The Life Properties’ core principles for property management. What is ingrained in the company’s culture?

Jamin Harkness

To maintain resident satisfaction, The Life Properties focuses on offering valuable amenities and programming, including educational events and resident celebrations, said Jamin Harkness. Image courtesy of The Life Properties.

Harkness: The Life Properties’ core principles for property management revolve around providing an elevated living experience for residents, rooted in a people-first approach and sustainable practices. We focus on delivering tailored capital improvements, implementing sustainable programming efforts and prioritizing community engagement activities for resident enrichment. Simultaneously, The Life Properties prioritizes sustainable impact in its approach to capital improvements, with attention to environmental and social responsibility.

We conduct extensive operational research to gain a deep understanding of the current state of our properties. This research forms the foundation for strategic decision-making and allows us to identify areas for improvement and desired amenity implementations from residents.

We craft tailored capital improvement programs for each property based on our research findings. Capital improvement programs typically include roof replacements, improvements to landscaping, HVAC system upgrades, walkway construction for accessibility and critical interior unit renovations. Additionally, we place significant emphasis on revitalizing the exterior appeal of our communities, often installing pools, playgrounds, dog parks, community centers, fitness centers, among other improvements valued by our residents.

What strategies help you maintain resident satisfaction while ensuring the financial success of the properties under your management?

Harkness: Resident satisfaction is at the heart of our mission. When our residents are happy with their living space and the community, they choose to stay with us. This, in turn, supports our operations and allows us to continue performing needed upgrades to the community and implementing new programming efforts to support resident development.

Strategies such as Stake—which offers cash-back rewards to residents who make lease payments on time—as well as Flex, which allows residents to break down their payments into smaller, more manageable installments, are two implementations that have allowed us to support residents’ financial health and satisfaction. Additionally, we offer Moved across several properties within our portfolio. Moved is a resident onboarding platform that automates tasks for leasing agents and on-site teams. Residents can schedule key pick-up, upload their renter’s insurance directly to the portal and set up any utilities if applicable. Each property has a customized dashboard for residents with site-specific information.

Most recently, we have implemented a Social Media Influencer program across each property within our portfolio. This program gives our selected influencer, either a manager or leasing consultant within The Life Properties, the opportunity to promote resident events, take event photos, post to the property’s social page, advertise open positions at the property and encourage overall resident engagement. The program was started in May 2023, and since then, we have witnessed over a 3000 percent increase in engagement on our social media pages.

How do you attract and retain high-quality residents?

Harkness: To maintain resident satisfaction and attract high-quality residents, we focus on offering valuable amenities and programming, including educational events and resident celebrations. Our capital improvement programs aim to continuously improve and enhance our properties. This includes infrastructure improvements, technology upgrades and aesthetic enhancements that contribute to the overall appeal of our communities.

In line with our capital improvement programs, our construction and maintenance teams are focused on providing top-level customer service that leads to satisfied residents. Overarching our entire approach, we believe that communication is key to understanding and addressing residents’ concerns. We utilize satisfaction surveys to maintain open lines of communication with our resident base. This platform allows us to gather feedback from residents, enabling us to address any issues or suggestions they may have proactively.

READ ALSO: Fall Maintenance at Residential Communities

Are there any specific strategies you use to foster a sense of community within the multifamily properties you manage? 

Harkness: Our approach to fostering a sense of community is deeply rooted in our mission-driven philosophy and commitment to elevating the living experiences of our residents… We prioritize open communication channels, responsiveness to resident needs and a friendly, welcoming atmosphere in all our communities.

Some of the strategies we employ include bringing in local speakers to allow our residents to have a platform to communicate with critical community leaders and share their thoughts.

Additionally, at many of our communities, we hosted back-to-school carnivals with bounce houses, games, cotton candy, as well as hot dogs and hamburgers grilled by our team members. One special feature we’ve offered is free haircuts to kids for back-to-school. It was so popular the first time that we had to engage two barbers for our Backpack Giveaway event the next month. Our residents engage with us when we care for and support their families, even in a small way such as a haircut. The smiles of the kids and self-esteem building were evident. Our goal is to implement programs and improvements that are unique to the community’s desires, promoting a sense of belonging and elevating the living experience of our residents.

Sustainability is a growing concern for many residents. What environmentally friendly initiatives have you implemented across your portfolio?

Harkness: The implementation of low-flow plumbing retrofits and LED lighting fixtures as standard practices has not only reduced energy consumption but has also had a positive effect on water conservation. The Life Properties has conserved more than 144 million gallons of water with the implementation of low-flow plumbing upgrades and has saved more than 232,000 kilowatt-hours through the installation of LED energy-saving lights across its portfolio nationwide. Additionally, sustainable practices in capital improvement plans include the installation of EnergyStar appliances and energy-efficient ACs and heat pumps and the utilization of low-VOC paints and sealants.

The Life at Timber Ridge

The Life at Timber Ridge is a 316-unit community in Houston, managed by The Life Properties. Image courtesy of Yardi Matrix

Water Warriors, an ESG initiative that is specifically designed to reduce water consumption across our portfolio, was recently enacted at The Life at Brighton Estates and initially at The Life at Timber Ridge. The project has already made considerable progress, with our team replacing 362 toilet flappers in two days at The Life at Brighton Estates. At The Life at Timber Ridge, our team was able to reduce the properties’ water usage by 23.8 percent through the replacement of toilet flappers.

In line with our dedication to sustainability, our maintenance team members are trained to repair rather than replace to avoid prematurely scrapping quality parts.

Additionally, The Life Properties recognizes the importance of social impact within the communities it serves. By organizing events such as financial literacy workshops, tutoring programs, holiday celebrations, food drives, back-to-school backpack drives and breakfast-on-the-go events, we foster a sense of community and promote resident interaction. These efforts not only improve the quality of life for residents but also contribute to the overall well-being of the community.

READ ALSO: Green Buildings Need More Than Sustainable Construction Practices

Which technologies have you adopted at your properties?

Harkness: We have adopted a range of advanced technologies to enhance operational efficiency and the living experience for our residents. Firstly, we have transitioned to paperless payment systems, making it convenient for residents to pay their rent and associated fees electronically. This not only simplifies the payment process but also aligns with modern payment preferences and our commitment to sustainable impact. To streamline communication and service requests, we offer a resident portal that empowers our residents to submit maintenance requests and conveniently pay their rent online. These apps provide a user-friendly platform for residents to interact with our property management teams, enhancing convenience and responsiveness.

Our application process for Affordable Communities requires many documents from future residents. We utilize an advanced portal for easy uploading of documents and ensure it is mobile-friendly. Additionally, we utilize heat maps on our desktop and mobile websites to analyze consumer behavior and drop-off/slow-down points to enhance the UX.

We also utilize AI to help streamline communication and gather insights into what our residents find valuable. Our innovative approach begins with intuitive website chatbots that allow prospective residents to schedule property tours effortlessly, eliminating miscommunication or delays. These chatbots are also equipped to provide instant, accurate responses to frequently asked questions, enabling swift access to information. More so, analyzing the questions asked gives deep insights into the unique needs of our prospects and residents. This enables us to tailor our offerings, creating an even more personalized experience. The leasing process can be daunting, but our AI-driven interaction ensures that every prospect feels fully supported.

Lastly, we have implemented monitoring systems that include advanced camera surveillance and LED lighting. These systems not only deter potential threats but also provide peace of mind to our residents.

What amenities are renters most drawn to these days?

Harkness: With community listening as a key component of our approach to capital improvements, amenities such as swimming pools, playgrounds, dog parks and pet-friendly buildings have ranked highest with our residents.

Swimming pools offer residents a place to relax, unwind and socialize during the warmer months. Our properties feature well-maintained pools, with facilities like grilling stations and lounge areas, creating a refreshing oasis for our residents to enjoy. Families and children alike appreciate the presence of playgrounds within our communities. These spaces provide a safe and fun environment for children to play and for families to bond. We prioritize well-designed and secure playgrounds to meet this demand.

With the increasing popularity of pet ownership, pet-friendly buildings and dog parks are in high demand. We understand that pets are cherished members of our residents’ families. Our commitment to being pet-friendly means creating an accommodating environment, such as designated pet areas and facilities, to ensure that both residents and their furry companions feel at home.

Finally, we are adding in-unit washers and dryers in most of our affordable communities as a critical unit amenity instead of community laundry rooms.

READ ALSO: When Tackling Affordability Is a Family Business

What are the most effective ways to maintain communication with your residents? How often do you reach out?

Harkness: Many of our properties utilize monthly resident newsletters to share pertinent information. If there is anything urgent, door and email blast communications go out to all residents. We utilize e-blast and opt-in texting quite often, as well as the resident portal, in which residents can pay rent and submit work orders. Additionally, our team is able to add timely and relevant notices (contests, important dates, notices of events, etc.) to the portal. We also host events to communicate with our residents, hear their feedback and allow our community managers to bond with the community.

Tell us about property maintenance at The Life Properties. Do you have on-site maintenance teams, how do you ensure prompt responses to resident requests?

Harkness: Yes, we have dedicated on-site maintenance teams in our communities. Their physical presence on-site allows for quick response times to address any maintenance issues that may arise.

Additionally, we have implemented a resident app that serves as a central hub for communication between residents and our maintenance teams. Through this app, residents can easily submit maintenance requests, detailing the nature of the issue. The use of technology streamlines the process, ensuring that requests are received promptly and accurately. The resident app enables us to efficiently track all maintenance requests in real time. This system ensures that no request goes unnoticed and residents receive timely responses.

For example, our summer initiative was to focus on our team members’ health and safety from the extreme heat. We hosted a weekly call with all on-site maintenance supervisors to address concerns, remind them to locate cooling stations throughout the community and provide them with a weekly grocery order filled with Gatorade, water and snacks. We’ve also provided neck HVAC fans and hats with umbrellas. Additionally, we have provided Easy-Up heat-protecting tents when our team members were working on HVAC outside. Furthermore, in every market, we designate an area maintenance coordinator, who jumps in and helps where needed in their group of communities.

Rising inflation pressured rent growth, which forced some renters to change their lifestyles. How do you tackle this issue? Have the current economic woes impacted vacancy?

Harkness: Given the constraints of the tighter capital markets, we have shifted our focus towards leveraging the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit program. This approach enables us to undertake extensive renovations in our naturally occurring affordable housing units. By lowering operating costs through these improvements, we can ensure that affordable rent restrictions are maintained for an extended period. This strategy helps alleviate the burden of rising operating costs on our renters.

Our commitment extends beyond providing traditional housing, prioritizing community development. To this end, we have intensified our efforts in community and social programming. This includes educational initiatives, promoting financial literacy, introducing a food pantry at The Life at Timber Ridge and organizing various events.

Regarding the impact of these strategies on vacancy rates, we have observed positive outcomes in terms of tenant retention and demand for our properties. These measures not only address the challenges posed by inflation but also contribute to creating a more resilient and vibrant living environment for our residents.

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