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Touring and leasing processes have largely transformed to digital platforms to ensure social distancing, and onsite teams are learning on the fly which tech features best enhance personalization.
Finding a new home is a personal experience. A new apartment may be where residents will bring home their first child, or perhaps it represents a fresh start. And the leasing associate normally can help set the stage for that experience.
But during the global pandemic it has become much more difficult for leasing teams to cultivate a personal connection with prospective residents, as apartment operators scramble to uncover the most innovative solutions to do so. Touring and leasing processes have largely transformed to digital platforms to ensure social distancing, and onsite teams are learning on the fly which tech features best enhance personalization.
In the effort to most effectively simulate an in-person experience while prospective residents virtually tour or self-tour amid COVID-19, apartment operators have gotten creative. Following are some ways they have been revolutionizing the leasing experience and perhaps creating a blueprint for future economic recovery in multifamily housing.
Leveraging the Capabilities of Social Media Tools
Cortland, an Atlanta-based apartment operator, has been using FaceTime and Google Duo to simulate live tour experiences. While the company is testing other platforms to offer more stable images during tour, prospective residents have responded better than expected. Associates have been diligently flipping the cellphone camera back and forth, from the face-to-face with prospective residents to viewing the community, maintaining the personal connection while being able to read visual cues.
Early in the pandemic, Cortland associates also used iPhones to create video tours of some of its most popular floor plans. After including captions and music as part of an internal edit, the team added more than 600 video tours to the Cortland website over a three-week span. It’s been a popular option for prospective residents who want to see floor plans and the community layout but don’t want to schedule a live tour. It was also Cortland’s best option, with 160 communities but no way to deploy professional film crews during the pandemic.
“We’ve asked prospects which of our media elements they have used and to rate those on a scale of 1 to 5,” says Brian Ericson, Cortland Vice President of Marketing Insights and Technology. “The reaction to the in-house videos has been very positive. They are averaging a rating of about 4.2 or 4.3. But the more compelling stat is how often they’re being used. The first month they were live, our 600 videos received more than 60,000 views.”
Enhancing Virtual Leasing, Virtual Move-ins
Already adept at leveraging technology for operations purposes, LMC, a Charlotte, N.C.-based apartment developer and operator, was able to make a smooth transition into virtual leasing.
“We utilized existing media from our digital platforms, such as Matterport videos, interactive sight maps and self-guided tours, to enhance our virtual-leasing process,” says Lee Bradford, Vice President of Operations and Training for LMC. “We leveraged our platforms for online applications, payment and lease execution. We added the ability to self-schedule virtual and self-guided tours and to chat with a leasing associate on community websites. We utilized our relationship with CheckPoint ID, locker systems, mobile facilities app and our access control systems, including remote locks and cameras, to facilitate virtual move-ins.”
LMC also employs virtual-meeting platforms for leasing associates to maintain customer service levels and cater to the needs of both current and future residents. The company’s resident portal has become a hub for communication between residents and associates, as well as an opportunity for residents to build their own virtual relationships. Through the portal and social media platforms, LMC has hosted virtual movie nights, trivia, scavenger hunts, talent shows and more.
While virtual resident events, self-guided tours and virtual leasing have become very popular among residents, LMC has received its largest number of compliments for its virtual move-in process. “Our new residents moving in appreciate the efficiency of the social-distancing process, and we intend to keep our virtual move-in as an option even after communities have reopened,” says Bradford.
“Our prospective residents have embraced anything that gives them immediate and personalized information, such as live chat, two-way texting and the sight maps powered by Engrain on our websites,” Bradford says. “They enjoy getting a sense of the community through our embedded 360-degree Matterport videos.” He adds that LMC has also done more online chatting with residents to get their feedback on living in the community.
For self-guided and remote tours, community teams are more often utilizing interactive maps. This helps prospective residents become familiar with the community before they’re onsite and to navigate it when they arrive. Until recently, location-awareness features — such as Google’s “blue dot,” which provides real-time location and movement — were not available as part of the tour experience.
Cortland has been piloting Engrain’s location-awareness feature and aims to incorporate the “blue dot” as part of the self-guided tour. “One of the biggest things missing from most of the solutions currently available is the lack of a location service,” says Cortland Marketing Technology Specialist Brianna Bocker. “That blue dot represents the first location service that provides wayfinding on a map and can be used on a self-guided tour route. Adding location awareness lets prospects know exactly where they are [on] the property and allows them to move around much more efficiently.”
A top theme in Cortland’s prospective-resident feedback has been the idea of having a sight map while virtually leasing. Now, teams are often using interactive maps when leasing from afar with prospective residents, both in webinar-style interactions and when they are on the phone and walking them through the website.
“Visually, it helps the prospect know where they’ll be located within the community and their proximity to amenities, green spaces, major roads and more,” Bocker says.
Screen-sharing 3-D Images, Maps, Floor Plans
Many apartment operators use 3-D technology to help reach prospective residents. These images, along with interactive maps and floor plan visuals, have experienced a dramatic uptick in screen shares.
Through this process, Cortland realized it had been showcasing only two to three floor plans per apartment community on community websites, when each community has about nine or 10. The increased engagement with digital platforms has prodded the company to add Matterport videos to all floor plans with high availability of apartments to give prospective residents increased visibility into the various layouts.
The removal of traditional site visits has also shifted LMC’s focus to connecting with potential residents through any digital manner possible. The company has combined web conferencing with 3-D videos and sight maps.
“We’ve often compared leasing to dating,” Bradford says. “The most successful relationships start with getting to know the other person and identifying shared interests. Now we are ‘online-dating,’ and prospects have already completed their online research.”
The pandemic has transformed many everyday processes from in-person to virtual. It’s no different in the apartment world. The silver lining is that some of the technology utilized by necessity could become part of the regular multifamily housing framework in the years to come.
Paul Willis is a Content Manager with LinnellTaylor Marketing.
NAA President and CEO explores the differences of short-term and long-term leases in the Washington Post.
There are numerous factors that go into a prospective resident’s decision to sign a short-term or long-term apartment lease. Apartment communities typically offer both time periods, but the decision comes down to the renter and what fits their lifestyle. NAA President and CEO Bob Pinnegar reviews both short-term and long-term leases in his latest Washington Post article, “Factors to help you determine if a long- or short-term apartment lease is best for you.”
A 12-month lease is the most common long-term contract, but long-term usually refers to leases more than six months in length. These are beneficial for residents looking for “stability over flexibility,” and allows for a more constant financial monthly obligation. Residents can put down roots, but like any legally binding contract, there are penalties with breaking them. This is why residents must fully understand the commitment that comes with signing a long-term rental contract.
Oppositely, short-term leases last six months or less, and can be as short as month-to-month living. “Flexibility is key when it comes to short-term leases,” according to Pinnegar. This allows the ability to move on short notice or become acclimated to a new area if moving to a short-term contract in a new market. However, while convenient for some, short-term leases usually come with higher rents.
Read “Factors to help you determine if a long- or short-term apartment lease is best for you” in its entirety on the Washington Post website.
Read more on how NAA is responding to the FCC’s move.
The National Apartment Association (NAA) recently participated in a Real Estate Coalition (REC) effort to provide comment on the latest Federal Communications Commission (FCC) decision to refresh the federal government’s understanding of broadband access in the multifamily industry.
In September, the media and broadband regulator issued a request to update the record on a 2019 FCC proceeding that examined competition and access for broadband service providers in multifamily properties, referred to as multiple tenant environments (MTEs) in the request. In particular, the FCC sought data on specific commercial activities like revenue sharing agreements, exclusive wiring arrangements and exclusive marketing arrangements between broadband service providers and MTEs. At the core of the FCC’s efforts is a mission to offer more choice in internet and cable options for low-income renters.
It is anticipated that the FCC will soon decide whether to further regulate broadband service providers and MTEs.
NAA’s comments were supported by an industry-wide survey that highlighted the accessibility and availability of high-speed, high-quality broadband service. The results of the survey, which reflect nearly 1 million units owned or managed, indicated that more than 79 percent of the apartment firms surveyed do offer choice in broadband providers. The results also showed that the commercial activities of particular interest to the FCC are successful in both protecting the business interests of both broadband and housing providers while also advancing the quality and affordability of services offered to renters.
Simply put, industry data and anecdotal evidence reported in the survey did not reflect the limited broadband landscape purported by the FCC and advocacy groups.
The FCC’s decision to revisit broadband access in MTEs coincides with several jurisdictions proposing their own sweeping changes to how MTEs and broadband service providers should engage. We anticipate that the FCC will likely keep a close eye on these activities when redeveloping its own position on broadband access. In 2016, a coalition of small broadband service providers led the charge that made San Francisco the nation’s first city to pass an internet choice ordinance, mandating provider access to properties where renters request service. In October, advocates also helped pass an internet choice bill in Oakland, CA. Similar efforts are now appearing across California, Illinois and Maryland.
When examined closely, these bills do not achieve their intended outcome, which is to offer wider broadband choice to low-income renters. Rather, they provide a self-serving pathway for emergent broadband providers to increase their market penetration and interfere with housing providers’ existing contractual obligations. The unintended consequences are reduced quality of service and increased costs for renters.
NAA and its coalition partners will continue to work with the FCC to maintain existing commercial partnerships between broadband providers and the apartment industry.
For more information on broadband and telecommunications issues, please reach out to Sam Gilboard, NAA’s Senior Manager of Public Policy.
The change would require RRP certification for property management companies. Learn more.
Since 2010, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has required that workers engaged in renovation, repair and painting (RRP) activity that may disturb lead-based paint must obtain firm or renovator certification and follow specific practices. Certification is required for RRP activity in all properties constructed before 1978, the same year lead-based paint was banned for residential use.
In November, the EPA issued a notice announcing its intention to roll back rules exempting property management companies (PMCs) from obtaining RRP certification. The PMC exemption is interpreted through the RRP’s Frequently Asked Questions and states:
Therefore, if the property management company uses its own employees to do the work, the property management company must be a certified firm and one of the employees must be a certified renovator. If the property management company hires a renovation firm to perform the renovation, the property management company does not need firm or renovator certification…
Furthermore, the frequently asked questions state that in circumstances where a compensated firm hired to perform RRP activities violates the RRP rule, “it is the certified firm’s responsibility to comply with the requirements of the RRP rule, and any enforcement action taken would be against the firm.”
The EPA’s anticipated withdrawal of these two frequently asked questions would require PMCs operating in buildings constructed before 1978 to obtain firm certification and be held liable for violations for RRP activity performed onsite. Under the EPA’s rule change, the largely administrative duties undertaken by PMCs when RRP activity is being performed, such as soliciting and evaluating contractor bids, applying for permits, granting access to property, informing residents of renovation activity and payment to contractors, would be subject to RRP compliance.
Not only does the EPA’s rulemaking process expose certain violations of the Administrative Procedures Act, the notice also neglects the rental housing industry’s longstanding commitment to providing safe, healthy, lead-free housing for the nation’s renters. The National Apartment Association (NAA) and National Multifamily Housing Council (NMHC) will submit comments to the EPA in opposition to proposed rule change.
For more information on lead-based paint issues, please reach out to Sam Gilboard, Senior Manager of Public Policy at NAA.
Here’s where rent control is on the table across the country.
Housing affordability concerns continue to dominate the political conversation in jurisdictions across the country. Advocates and progressive lawmakers have used this momentum to drive renewed calls for rent regulation as a solution to the challenge despite the policy’s long-term adverse impact on affordability.
What We’re Seeing:
- On October 20, the City Council of Santa Ana, CA passed a rent price stabilization ordinance which places a cap on rent increases at no more than 3 percent or 80 percent the local inflation rate.
- On November 2, St Paul, MN passed a ballot initiative which limits rent increases to 3 percent annually.
- On November 2, Minneapolis, MN passed a ballot question granting the city council the authority to enact rent regulations.
- On November 2, Montgomery County, MD passed a temporary rent regulation which prevents housing providers from raising rent higher than 1.4 percent until May 2022.
- The Association of Bay Area Governments recently finalized their Plan Bay Area 2050 which calls for local governments to enact similar limits on rent increases and mandate an inclusionary zoning policy.
- Spokane, WA City Council President Breean Beggs has introduced a proposal to tie a housing provider’s acceptance of emergency rental assistance to caps on rent increases.
- Boston, MA Mayor Michelle Wu ran on repealing Massachusetts’ preemption to rent control and instituting the policy in Boston. Her ideas have the support of other state lawmakers.
- Santa Barbara, CA Mayor Cathy Murillo and City Councilmember Oscar Guitierrez have proposed an annual rent increase cap of 2 percent.
Rent Control’s Reality:
While well-intentioned, empirical economic evidence demonstrates that policies which restrict or limit how rent is determined, assessed and collected achieves the opposite for the communities they purport to assist. In the long-term, rent regulation decreases affordability, hinders critical building maintenance and alters the makeup of surrounding neighborhoods and the wider housing market.
When rent regulations remove a property owner’s ability to respond to changing economic conditions, they may decide to remove their unit from the market entirely, placing upward pressure on existing rent prices.
The National Apartment Association (NAA) continues to work aggressively to protect the interests of the rental housing industry and advocate for sustainable and responsible housing affordability solutions. These include robust emergency rental assistance for renters facing housing displacement, as well as identifying and eliminating barriers to new housing development.
To learn more about rent regulation, please contact Ben Harrold, NAA's Manager of Public Policy or visit our rent regulation policy issue page. For information on the newest research tools on rent regulation, please contact Leah Cuffy, NAA’s Research Analyst.
During last month’s Assembly of Delegates meeting in Cincinnati, the National Apartment Association’s (NAA) Legislative Committee heard from Biden Administration representatives and research experts on important issues facing the rental housing industry. Receiving regular updates from thought leaders and officials is a critical element of the Committee’s mission.
Jonah Kaplan, Program Manager for Consumer Reporting Markets in the Office of Consumer Credit, Payments & Deposit Markets at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) kicked off the Committee’s discussion. He briefed the committee on current CFPB projects on consumer credit reporting and other data collection used for consumer screening purposes. This research, and the policy derived from it, will have long-term implications for how rental housing owners screen potential residents and manage risk in their communities. Recently, the Chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, Democrat Sherrod Brown (D-OH) urged the CFPB to open an investigation into consumer screening companies, especially as it relates to the accuracy of the data they use in their screens. In addition, Rohit Chopra, the newly appointed Director of the CFPB intends to initiate aggressive regulatory oversight in several areas of the economy. NAA has established channels of communication with the Bureau and will continue to engage with officials there to ensure the unique perspectives of rental housing providers are heard.
Noel Andres Poyo, Deputy Assistant Secretary in the office of Community and Economic Development, from the U.S. Department of Treasury also briefed the Committee. He is presently responsible for leading the effort to distribute critical assistance under the Emergency Rental Assistance Program (ERAP). Secretary Poyo updated the Committee on the program’s progress and efforts by Treasury to streamline the distribution of these critical funds to renters and housing providers. The Department is currently in the process of reallocating funds from ERAP grantees who have not successfully distributed enough of their funding to programs that have. While this is a timely move as some states begin to run out of ERAP funding but have millions in pending ERAP assistance requests, broader concerns still remain that housing providers and renters in underperforming programs may suffer through no fault of their own.
Finally, Mike Eriksen, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Real Estate and Academic Director, UC Real Estate Center in the Lindner College of Business at the University of Cincinnati, addressed the Committee. Professor Eriksen discussed trends in income growth versus rent growth over the past decade and what they mean for housing policy going forward. He also presented his view of the implications for low- and moderate-income families and housing providers from certain programmatic changes within the Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher program. Of perhaps greatest import here is the widening application of Small Area Fair Market Rents (SAFMRs) to determine rents instead of the current system. This shift away from metropolitan statistical area data to determine allowable rents increases the ability of voucher holders to afford rents in higher income, higher opportunity areas and reduces the allowable rents in lower-income, higher poverty areas. Though this may have benefits for new recipients looking to move into areas with better schools and infrastructure, it could negatively impact existing residents of affordable housing communities when their vouchers are worth less.
What you need to know about Congress’ hard infrastructure package and how it affects your industry.
The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act was passed on November 5, 2021, in a bipartisan vote of 228 to 206 in the U.S. House of Representatives. The Senate had previously passed the legislation and it has now been signed into law by President Biden. The more than $1 trillion deal includes new investments in the nation’s roads, bridges, rail and transit systems, waterways and broadband infrastructure, all to be made over the next five years.
Alongside the importance of upgrading our nation’s transportation infrastructure, the National Apartment Association (NAA) has been advocating for housing’s inclusion in the final infrastructure package. The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act directs substantial funding for programs aimed at increasing the resiliency and sustainability of the nation’s housing infrastructure:
- More than $65 billion for the rapid deployment of broadband across the country, ensuring internet accessibility for all communities, including low-income and rural Americans.
- $3.5 billion to assist low-income households reduce utility expenses through the Weatherization Assistance Program.
- An additional $3.5 billion to support the Federal Emergency Management Administration’s Flood Mitigation Assistance program, providing jurisdictions with the necessarily financial support and technical assistance to anticipate and prevent flood risk.
- $250 million in state energy grants for recipients to conduct energy audits, purchase energy upgrades or finance building retrofits.
- $225 million allocated for the creation of a grant program that will assist states seeking to implement new and updated building energy codes.
- $40 million dedicated to hiring and training individuals to conduct energy audits of buildings.
- $10 million in grants to higher education institutions to establish training centers to educate and train building technicians and engineers on new building technologies. An additional $10 million is authorized to cover a portion of the cost associated with obtain certification to install energy efficient buildings technologies.
These investments made in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act aim to ensure that housing remains ready to withstand climate and financial-based risk. With the passage of this bill, Congress has recognized, as NAA has emphasized, that housing and infrastructure are inextricably linked.
For more information on the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, please reach out to Jason Lynn, NAA’s Director of Federal Affairs.
The National Rent Report from Apartment List shows rent growth across the country remained relatively flat.
More than half of the 100 largest cities in the U.S. saw rent prices decline during November. The national index from Apartment List increased 0.1%, which is the lowest month-over-month (MoM) growth in 2021. Since January 2021, median rent growth increase is nearly 18%. This is compared to 2.6% rent growth, which is what was seen, on average, between January and November in 2017-2019.
Of the nation’s 100 largest cities, 53 saw month-over-month rent declines, and this is the fourth straight month of slowed growth following the July 2.7% growth peak. The national median rent is now at $1,312, which is $117 higher than predicted had the rent growth continued its pre-pandemic path.
Locally, rent declines continue to plague larger coastal markets like San Francisco, Boston and Seattle. Rents dropped 2.7% MoM in San Francisco, and Minneapolis, Boston, Seattle and Arlington, Va., also saw rent declines in consecutive months. Since March 2020, San Francisco is down 14%, while neighbor Oakland is down 10%.
Meanwhile, Boise, Idaho, saw a 3.7% dip in rents, kicking it off the top 10 list of largest pandemic-era rent increases. However, Boise is still up 32%. Nine of the top 10 cities are in Nevada, Arizona or Florida, with North Las Vegas at a 38% rent growth since March 2020. Glendale, Ariz., and Mesa, Ariz., follow. All top 10 cities have at least 34% rent growth since March 2020. Spokane, Wash., was the lone location outside the three states in sixth.
J Turner Research dives into resident apartment search and selection behaviors.
J Turner Research is examining resident and prospective resident online behaviors and how they compare to a similar study from 2018. More than 2,200 residents participated in the most recent research—four in five were conventional renters, while 18% were student renters. The purpose of the research is to study resident selection processes and how prospective residents gather available online information such as reviews and manager responses.
Physical visits are down slightly prior to renting apartments—4.22 communities visited compared to 5.2 in 2016. Apartment hunters are also actively researching more than 14 communities prior to renting.
Community reviews are also important for residents, with nearly two-thirds stating they read all reviews. Only 11% said they do not read reviews, while more than a quarter read 4- and 5-star reviews. Online reviews, no matter the time frame, are also vital for a community. More than a fifth of respondents reported past reviews are never irrelevant, while 25% said reviews become irrelevant after two years.
The speed at which a manager responds to reviews also matters to prospective residents. Nearly 60% want a response to a bad review with a solution within 72 hours, while 42% expect a response with 24 hours.
The majority of residents search for their next apartment within 6 months before moving—20% at three months, and 15% at two months. In 2018, roughly 12% of renters started searching at six months, the same as the current research.
When visiting a community, 20% of respondents said their interaction with office staff had a strong influence (10 on a 0-10 scale) on their renting decision. And 55% said staff caring about renters as the most important factor when selecting an apartment. Just shy of a third said online ratings and reviews was most important, while 14% said “other residents are like me” as their top priority.
Owner and operator Tricon Residential plans to deliver thousands of new build-to-rent homes.
Owner and operator Tricon Residential is expanding across the Sun Belt with 23 new home communities. The company announced earlier in November it was expanding to more than 3,000 rental homes in its build-to-rent (BTR) communities.
"At Tricon, we are committed to expanding the supply of accessible, high-quality housing for families who are seeking a single-family home and prefer the convenience and flexibility of a rental lifestyle,” said Gary Berman, President and CEO of Tricon Residential, in a release.
Most of the communities will be single-family detached homes with three to four bedrooms in high-growth Sun Belt markets. These include Texas, California, Arizona and Florida, and more than 600 homes will be available for rent by the end of next year. The entire portfolio will be available by the end of 2024.
“We are also focused on building sustainable communities that enrich the lives of our residents and the local neighborhoods they live in, which is central to our corporate strategy and our Environmental, Social and Governance ("ESG") priorities,” added Berman. “Our build-to-rent pipeline makes a positive contribution to alleviating America's housing shortage, while stimulating local economic growth and catering to the needs of modern residents."