Complete Property Management FAQ for Crisis Situations

MHN answers the questions property managers are asking about operations during the coronavirus and other natural disasters.

Apartment building operators have to be especially agile today because they’ve been tasked with safeguarding the health of their employees, while also ensuring the safety of their residents. MHN has been reporting extensively on best practices since the pandemic first started. Now we’ve compiled our “Complete Property Management FAQ for Crisis Situations” with information sourced from MHN articles and webinars, the National Multifamily Housing Council, the National Apartment Association, the Institute of Real Estate Management, the Building Owners & Managers Association, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the Centers for Disease Control and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, as well as Yardi Breeze and Apartments.com.

This FAQ is designed to answer some common questions property managers have regarding COVID-19 as well as other unforeseen disasters, such as blackouts, floods, blizzards and hurricanes. Emergencies come in all shapes and sizes, but your team doesn’t have to be taken by surprise. Apartment communities that have a solid emergency preparedness plan do far better under very stressful circumstances.

Eye of storm, Hurricane Isabel. Image courtesy of nps.org
  1. What can property managers do to prepare for pandemics, natural disasters or other emergencies?

    The most important thing property managers can do to prepare for future emergencies is to have a detailed emergency preparedness plan in place and update it at least once a year. Having a plan—and rehearsing response procedures before they are needed—enables property managers to act quickly and efficiently if an actual emergency occurs. Being able to execute the rehearsed plan, even under tremendous stress, is the best way to ensure residents and properties are thoroughly protected during a hurricane, earthquake, tornado, fire, pandemic or other disaster. Sharing emergency procedures with residents ensures everyone is on the same page. 

    Also, be sure to check on insurance coverage to understand policy limits, deductibles and limitations. Extreme weather events are on the rise and they are changing flood and other catastrophic coverage needs. Be sure to ask about exclusions that may exist and whether the policy reflects the most recent valuation of the property and recent renovations or construction. Attention to detail now will ensure a smoother process later if a claim is necessary.

  2. What are the most effective ways to communicate operation changes and safety precautions during a pandemic?

    Keeping the lines of communication open between the management team and residents is so important even in the best of times—and absolutely critical now as the industry transitions from pandemic lockdown to the new normal. Residents want to know that their apartment community management is making their health and well-being the top priority. Communicate to them every day that “we’re all in this together,” and all the steps you’re taking to keep the environment safe. In an evolving situation it’s important to provide daily check-ins and updates using a variety of channels from email to texts to social media. Not everyone will see messaging everywhere, so having a variety of delivery methods is key. Signs and posters should be placed around the property to encourage hand-washing, social distancing and other steps individual tenants can take to make themselves and the property safer. Communication is a two-way street, so respond immediately to questions, concerns and issues sent through resident online portals and community social media pages. Also, direct residents to helpful resources such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website, the World Health Organization and the specific pages where residents can find recommended steps to prevent contracting and spreading the virus.

  3. How can property managers maximize rent payments during a public health crisis?

    Every fulfilled rent payment helps keep properties afloat and property owners able to pay their mortgages. It’s important to communicate to renters who haven’t been financially impacted by the pandemic that they’re responsible for the rent in full. This is not a rent holiday—everyone has to do their part to help those around them. Thankfully, many apartment residents have kept their jobs during the pandemic, have been able to work from home and are paying rent on time. According to NMHC, 93 percent of renters had paid full or partial rent for June by the third week of June.

One way to ensure a continuation of this model behavior is through payment incentives. Residents who are able to pay their rent on time will want to keep doing so, especially if they’re recognized with an incentive such as a gift card for a local takeout business, a future discount or a special offer that can be redeemed once the pandemic is over. Online payment applications can also increase the degree to which tenants meet their obligations in a timely fashion (see below).

 

  1. What should property managers do when residents cannot pay rent?

Some apartment residents have lost their jobs or been on indefinite furlough as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. There is growing concern that the number of residents who were able to pay rent in May will decrease significantly going forward, as the unemployment situation worsens. Apartment owners are encouraged to be flexible and patient when considering these cases since the economy will eventually open up and create a certain number of jobs. In the meantime, during these unprecedented times, operators can focus on resident retention by keeping the lines of communication open with renters who are grappling with financial, health and other hardships that can make it difficult to cover housing expenses.

Start by accepting late payments and waiving late fees. Work with your residents on payment plans and agreements, which should always be put in writing. Implement eviction moratoriums from one week to 90 days, unless the eviction is for criminal or negligent behavior that jeopardizes the life, health or safety of other residents. Be empathetic, and make sure the residents who have been impacted are aware of the federal and local resources they might be eligible for, such as rent and food assistance programs. NMHC has been actively working with Congress to secure federal support for those who have been negatively affected by the outbreak, including direct rental payment assistance for American families who suffer a loss of income during the crisis. The National Apartment Association has created a standardized Payment Plan Agreement and Notice of Temporary Waiver of Late Fees.

 

  1. How can electronic-pay applications help bolster collections?

There will be many takeaways from this health crisis, but one of the most important from an operations standpoint is the necessity to have all residents on board with electronic rent payment. At the onset of the pandemic, with in-person interactions curtailed, it became clear that rent collection was one service that could potentially be disrupted. Communities that have historically welcomed residents stopping by the office with a check had to pivot quickly, reminding residents that there are other options. Right now, operators should continue reminding residents that there generally are no fees to pay by bank transfer, in case this is why they are hesitant to take advantage of online payments. And, if fees are involved, consider limiting or waiving them. There are even ways for renters who prefer to pay rent with cash to use electronic-pay systems.

Apartment companies that have been processing rent payments electronically through their existing online portals are happy they transitioned long ago. Owners are finding that online rent payers have been more likely to maintain rent payments during the crisis. It seems that even tech-phobic residents who are now exploring other options will likely emerge from the health crisis with a new appreciation for touchless rent pay. Online rent collection keeps everyone socially distanced, helps prevent the spread of germs and is also a huge time saver for property managers.

 

  1. How should common areas be managed during a public health crisis?

By their very definition, common areas are not conducive to social distancing, so special care needs to be taken in order to reassure anxious apartment residents. Closing the gym, clubhouse and rooftop pool until further notice is a no-brainer, especially if fewer maintenance employees are reporting to work. The CDC, along with guidelines from local ordinances, is the ultimate authority on when and how to reopen these spaces—as well as how to sanitize and manage the flow of residents through elevators, mail rooms and other spaces that have remained accessible. For social distancing purposes, consider designating certain floors of a building to be allowed to use the laundry room on certain days. And, certainly, when residents venture out and they observe maintenance sanitizing high-touch areas, they will want to see staff decked out with masks and gloves. Install hand sanitizer stations in common areas.

You can’t possibly clean every surface every moment of the day. You can, however, institute a more in-depth cleaning protocol with increased frequency, and upgrade the products you use. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency released a list of disinfectant products that are qualified for use against this strain of coronavirus. Below is an excerpt of “Disinfectants for Use Against SARS-CoV-2 (COVID-19).”

 

EPA Registration

Number

 

Product Name

39967-137 Virkon S
91861-2 Bona STL Disinfecting Cleaner
5813-124 Clorox Bleach Blanqueador
1672-65 Austin A-1 Ultra Disinfecting Bleach
6836-336 Lonza Disinfectant Wipes Plus
70627-62 Phato 1:64 Disinfectant Cleaner
70627-75 Avert Sporicidal Disinfectant Cleaner Wipes 
74986-4 Selectrocide 2L500
1677-21 Mikro-Quat
5813-121 CRB I

Source: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

Make sure to hit high-traffic areas and surfaces like laundry rooms, elevator buttons and front entry door handles. The majority of the spread of coronavirus is caused by people touching a surface, then touching their face. Something as simple as posting guidance about washing your hands and not touching your face in common areas can be quite effective. Signage in general is key for keeping residents apprised of the latest safety guidelines. Repeat this messaging through all your communication channels and provide frequent updates on the status of common areas even if nothing much has changed. Residents will appreciate that management is concerned.

 

  1.  What are some strategies for handling maintenance requests?

Responding as quickly as possible to resident maintenance requests will build a stronger relationship when it’s time to renew the lease. If only a minor repair is needed in the apartment home, see whether the request can be handled remotely via video conference. If so, drop off the supplies and then do a virtual session to walk the resident through the work. Obviously not all residents will want this, but offer it as an option. Alternately, have your maintenance technician enter the apartment with PPE—including a mask and gloves—and following the recommended social distancing guidelines. Consider limiting or prioritizing maintenance service requests and repairs to emergencies that affect health or safety.

Either way, always have a plan in place for when an emergency would require maintenance to enter an apartment. Review with maintenance personnel proper guidelines for social distancing, PPE, cleaning chemicals and other relevant procedures. Bring similar PPE for any occupants in the unit while the repairs are performed. And, of course, stay on top of pandemic-related safety and health standards put forth by the Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Act. Not providing an appropriate action plan can lead to financial or legal liability. OSHA has developed Guidance on Preparing Workplaces for COVID-19. By following existing OSHA standards, you are contributing to the reduction of employee exposure to COVID-19.

 

  1. How do property managers attract and retain residents amid a pandemic?

Resident retention is always top of mind during spring leasing season. It’s almost always more profitable to keep a resident than to have to turn the apartment and close a new lease. So hopefully the excellent rapport that you’ve established with residents in the weeks leading up to, and during, the pandemic will positively impact resident retention. Interestingly, the coronavirus does not seem to have hindered new leasing activity as much as expected. Some operators actually saw a surge in leasing, with good results enabled by technology.

Leasing agents have been leading virtual walk throughs of communities and model units for remote prospects. On-site self-guided tours have also been offered and are expected to really take off as stay-at-home restrictions are removed. Using doors enabled with remote locking and unlocking technology, prospects are able to practice social distancing as they view the property and see the model without having to meet with a leasing associate. Other strategies include offering renewals at current rental rates or offering extensions on renewals upwards of three months, without charging any type of short-term fees. Care packages with toilet paper, hand sanitizer, masks and nonperishable food go a long way in generating goodwill, and make good tenants think twice about moving.

 

  1. What are best practices for package and food deliveries?

The surge in package deliveries and food deliveries during the coronavirus lockdown has led to the question of whether people can contract COVID-19 from packages or takeout containers. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said the chances of getting coronavirus from delivered packages or food containers is likely very low. For package acceptance, follow the guidance of your local public health agency. If you currently allow delivery of packages in the leasing office, consider referring deliveries directly to the package recipient’s address. Packages should be left outside the apartment door to avoid contact with any self-quarantining resident. Consider using a third-party service to assist with deliveries. If your apartment community uses a program to monitor a package room or a locker system, continue using that system so employees can avoid contact with any packages. And if your protocol for package or food delivery is changing because of COVID-19, communicate these changes immediately to your residents.

 

  1. How can noise issues be addressed when more residents are working at home?

Unless they’re essential workers, your residents are spending all their time at home. Some may be more irritable than usual and have a hard time dealing with even normal noise levels. Other residents may be staying up later than usual and making more noise. This is a good time to revisit the noise clause in the rental agreement. If a resident breaks the property rules, you can refer them back to the lease and act based on the written repercussions. Hopefully, one warning will be enough to make the noise stop. Make sure the rental agreement states your community’s quiet hours and includes examples of disturbing noise that won’t be tolerated, such as shouting, loud singing or loud music from an apartment or vehicle. Consider adding a noise violation penalty fee from the landlord or police, and define a probationary period that will begin after the first offense as well as the repercussions of additional noise notifications. These might include a rent increase, fees and an eviction notice. Address all noise complaints immediately and follow up right away with results of the investigation—even if the complaint turns out to be invalid.

  1. How can property managers assist the elderly and other high-risk residents during health crises?

Communication and consistency are key factors that will help elderly and other high-risk residents weather the current situation, as well as the new normal once stay-at-home restrictions are eased. Make sure they are receiving the information you distribute about how you’re keeping the community and residents safe by following best practices for wearing masks and other PPE, washing hands, disinfecting surfaces and social distancing. Spell out what steps a resident should take if they think they have symptoms of COVID-19. This might include keeping telehealth numbers handy.

Have grocery sign-ups for residents who can’t shop for themselves because they might be more susceptible to the virus or do not want to risk going out to a store. Other residents might be looking for ways to help and can pick up some things for the ones who can’t. Keep a centralized list to connect volunteers with the residents you want to make sure are being taken care of. Property managers also provide value by helping these residents who may be living alone to feel connected and combat loneliness and depression. Use social platforms like Instagram or Facebook Live for daily or weekly check-ins. People love to feel important and like they are a part of their community. Check in on how everyone is doing and keep them updated on current events and neighborhood information.

  1. What are some ideas for virtual events for residents?

Property managers have been doing a great job boosting morale for their residents by moving events online. Virtual meeting platforms such as Zoom can be used to host a book club. Facebook Live or Instagram Live are great for workout demonstrations that don’t involve gym equipment. Or you could host a talent night or movie night now that Netflix has a Google Chrome extension where a group can watch on their individual computers and chat together. Technology has been our greatest tool during the global pandemic.

There are so many ways to engage residents. The National Apartment Association has created 10 Ways to Keep Residents Engaged During COVID-19. They include:

  1. Sharing a music playlist with residents
  2. Gifting subscriptions to Disney+ or Netflix
  3. Hosting an online game center for Scrabble, chess or crossword puzzles
  4. Creating a photo scavenger hunt where residents post pictures of objects they find inside their apartment homes;
  5. Designing your own community potluck cookbook and sharing all recipes on Dropbox or Google Drive. 
  1. What if a resident is diagnosed with coronavirus or another highly contagious illness?

Residents are not required to tell property owners that they are infected. In turn, property managers are not obligated to let residents know if one of their neighbors has been diagnosed. Besides, property managers legally cannot divulge residents’ personal medical information to other residents. If you do inform residents that “someone” in the building has been infected, let them know what you are doing to clean the areas where the infected person may have entered and contact your local health department for guidance on the next steps to take.

When entering an apartment for maintenance requests, however, a property manager can inquire if someone is infected and then proper precautions should be taken.

  1. What are the elements of a quality emergency preparedness plan?

A quality emergency preparedness plan provides residents with clear, easy-to-follow instructions for how to evacuate, as well as when, where and how to shelter in place during disasters such as earthquakes where they must remain indoors. The plan also includes a roadmap for the operations team regarding building procedures in case of power failure and outlines all tasks that need to be performed for various scenarios; for example, who is responsible for contacting 911 and/or shutting off water, gas and electricity.

According to the NAA, a comprehensive emergency preparedness plan includes these elements:

  1. Establishing a clear first step
  2. Delegating key people for immediate action
  3. Creating a list of key people who need to be notified
  4. Establishing a comprehensive messaging plan (and backup plans)
  5. identifying and training key media spokespeople
  6. Practicing your plan thoroughly and revising as needed. 

 

  1. What resources are available for property managers?

NAA, NMHC, IREM and BOMA are four resources that can offer guidance to property management teams seeking to create a new emergency preparedness plan or to revise or expand an existing plan. (See BOMA’s Emergency Preparedness Guidebook, for example and NMHC’s hurricane preparation steps.) Information can also be obtained from insurance providers, local fire and police departments and the Red Cross. FEMA’s Business Ready Hurricane Toolkit and NMHC’s hurricane preparation procedures offer steps to take in mitigating specific risks posed by the storm season. FEMA has additional resources for other situations.

  1. How can managers prepare residents for emergencies?

Property managers can prepare residents for emergencies by keeping open lines of communication with residents and sharing a version of the emergency preparedness plan written for this audience. Include basics that will resonate with residents and their sense of safety, like when and how the operations team will notify 911 if an emergency occurs. You can also prepare residents by ensuring all emergency exits and fire-safe stairwells are clearly marked, fire extinguishers are strategically placed throughout the property, specific fire safety protocol is communicated, and “safe spots” (such as doorways) are identified in case of an earthquake. Residents with pets can place a special decal on apartment doors or windows to alert emergency services.

Also, maintain and periodically update a list of residents along with the name of a contact person and check-in phone number for everyone. During an emergency, first responders might require a list of residents and staff to make sure everyone is accounted for. Also, be aware that medics might need access to locked doors, so keep keys and codes organized and available. Certainly, you will need a special emergency plan that takes into account the whereabouts and limitations of disabled and elderly residents so that emergency responders know who will need extra assistance.

  1. What are the best ways to communicate preparedness measures?

Communicating preparedness measures to residents should start upon move-in when paperwork is distributed. Include all pertinent emergency preparedness information with the new resident packet. Also provide written updates whenever important information has changed—and consider re-distributing the complete emergency preparedness plan on an annual basis. Create and distribute your building’s emergency plan in paper and digital formats. It should always be on the resident portal for easy access, with salient details shared periodically in the newsletter and on social channels.

  1. Should I conduct emergency drills with residents?

The emergency preparedness plan should address what to do in case of snowstorm, blackout, fire, flood, hurricane, tornado, earthquake and any other unforeseen emergency. The best outcomes when meeting these situations are achieved through advance education and practice. Organizing emergency drills with staff and residents is an effective way to prepare for emergency events. Local government offices may have requirements or recommendations on how often drills should be held and what should happen during the drills. Contact your nearest fire department for details. You can notify residents that the alarms will be sounded for the staff fire drill and invite them to participate. Schedule fire drills and walk through other scenarios annually so staff and residents will be familiar with the routines.

  1. How can property managers manage buildings during a crisis? 

Online portals allow the operations team to manage properties remotely and keep rent payments coming in. During an emergency there may be limited staff on-site and the management office might be closed; however, you can enable residents to submit maintenance requests electronically via an app or portal. This will expedite the work, and residents will feel more confident knowing that staff are already thinking about finding the right solution. A fully integrated notification system that connects staff with vendors will streamline this aspect of remote property management.

Link a contractor to a maintenance request, receive their uploaded invoice, process it and pay it. The contractor will receive status updates throughout the process. Maintenance apps for technicians ensure that you can get vital work done at your properties without having to physically meet with anyone at the office. Vendor, maintenance and resident apps retain permanent records of all communications, so you can keep important financial documents in one system.

Increasingly, smart building technology is enabling digitized power and HVAC systems to automatically provide property managers with real-time updates and alerts remotely to their desktops and mobile devices. Condition-based monitoring is now possible via intelligent, connected devices like smart power meters and building controls.

  1. What are residents’ biggest concerns during a crisis?

Residents’ biggest concerns during a crisis revolve around keeping their family members, pets and property safe. They will also be concerned about ensuring the safe evacuation—or sheltering in place—of elderly or disabled neighbors. They will also want to know when the utilities are coming back, if they have been disabled, and generally when life will get back to normal. Having a detailed emergency response plan that addresses these concerns will alleviate anxiety, build confidence in the apartment community’s management team and help ensure a more orderly response as the emergency unfolds and ultimately comes to a resolution.

  1. What are the first steps in times of crisis?

The first steps to take in a crisis—after locating the emergency preparedness plan—are to notify the authorities via 911. You will also need to have an accessible list of emergency response numbers including water, gas and electrical suppliers to initiate fast shut-off. At the same time another team member should begin getting in touch with all residents using the contact list you’ve already put together for this purpose. A large apartment community could use an automatic dialing system for resident alerts, but this system should not be used in the case of a natural gas leak. 

If you reside in a hurricane-prone location, you might already have plywood for boarding windows. Keeping an NOAA weather radio in the management office can ensure you stay one step ahead of many disasters. In the event of a power failure, your computer will not be working. If your community is large enough, consider investing in a standby generator to provide emergency power for required services. 

  1. How often should I review and update my emergency preparedness plan?

An apartment community should review the emergency preparedness plan at least twice a year and update as needed at those times. Updates should also be made following an actual emergency situation to reflect lessons learned. At least once a year—and whenever major updates have been made—the plan should be reissued to residents as well as to staff. Preparation is the best protection in all emergency situations.