Never let a crisis go to waste: Such was the sage advice of Winston Churchill more than 75 years ago. Today, that could be the mantra of many COVID-tested multifamily executives. Managing through the pandemic has posed formidable challenges, but it has also prompted the industry to embrace innovative strategies, often years earlier than they might have been adopted otherwise. Implementing those practices effectively could help stand communities in good stead for years to come.
Multi-Housing News recently invited five industry leaders to weigh in on lessons learned, challenges and solutions. Participants in our virtual roundtable were Cindy Clare, COO of Bell Partners; A. David Lynd, CEO of Lynd Living; Patrick Carroll, CEO of CARROLL; Sheryl Klein, COO, Alta Housing, and Kristina Rauscher, marketing director with P.B. Bell.
How are you applying lessons from COVID to management?
Patrick Carroll: Historically, we’ve had a 50 percent turnover rate, and now we have 75 percent retention. People are more inclined to stay put at home if you make it more attractive through community events and other affirmative activities. People want more space, so we’re prioritizing workspaces in renovations. We’re also prioritizing high-speed Internet and moving Google Fiber into more properties.
David Lynd: Overcommunicating. In the absence of communication, people default to the worst possible outcome. Step two is to build morale. People were sitting around, drinking, eating and watching TV. They’d lost jobs. We created a door-decorating contest, which carried a month’s free rent for every first-place winner in every property across the U.S.
Cindy Clare: It showed us we need to meet our residents and prospects where they want to meet us. Many liked the idea of AI and self-guided tours. When we went into the pandemic, we got most of our residents doing rent and renewals through (automated clearing house). We looked at virtual events. We couldn’t do inside events but (we) could bring a food truck and have people come outside.
Kristina Rauscher: We’re using different ways to communicate: by text, email, social media and Zoom. The more you communicate, the less likely you’ll feel you’re in the dark.
What are your current operational priorities?
Clare: We use revenue management software, and the recovery from the pandemic has rent rising this year as dramatically as it fell last year. You have to watch that very carefully and make sure you’re adjusting as quickly as things change. There are no algorithms for a COVID recovery.
Lynd: Our priorities are to locate and buy value-add properties, upgrade them and reposition (the assets) just beneath new construction deals, so we offer the consumer a higher-quality, lower-cost option to new developments. I’m seeing rent increases I’ve never seen in 20 years.
Carroll: It’s keeping up with a fast-moving market. It’s almost a daily thing, watching where rents need to be and managing the limited supply of units we have available, and trying to turn those units as fast as we can.
Sheryl Klein: We are making sure our (personal protective equipment) supplies are plentiful and readily available. We have also expanded our list of vetted vendors and suppliers, so we can continue to maintain our apartments and properties.
What’s the top strategy in your marketing toolkit?
Carroll: Ninety percent of our marketing is online, with online advertising, specific placements and traditional online ads. We are also marketing within our own portfolio, marketing to existing clients. If they’re looking at relocating, we want to be the company they choose.
Lynd: We’re doing more high-quality video and investing in that to evoke emotions in people. We’re beefing up our online photos and videos, to give prospective renters a sense of how it is to live in our properties, and the lifestyle the properties promise.
What are your renters’ biggest requests?
Clare: Space for working from home—and that leads to the next question, which is a request for larger units. That doesn’t necessarily mean they all want two-bedrooms. They could still want one-bedroom units but instead of 550 square feet they want 650 to 700 square feet.
Carroll: Higher-speed Internet is the No. 1 request and top priority. With people working from home, the bandwidth has to keep up with the downloads.
Klein: Many of our residents continue to be negatively affected by the pandemic. We continue to provide them with resources and help so they can get rental assistance. In addition, we have been working with other local nonprofits to keep providing residents with groceries and food as needed.
What are your goals for the next six months?
Rauscher: We want to make sure we’re using strategies to keep our teams happy. But it’s tough because people are changing jobs and industries; they’re looking for opportunities everywhere.
Clare: Retaining the talent we have, and hiring new talent, which is a challenge for our industry. Knowing where the market’s headed, given the pandemic, and trying to stay ahead of the curve.