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Adapting to the Automation of Rental Housing

As automation continues to cement its place in operational decision-making, it is important to understand how to effectively continue its implementation without overwhelming the teams.

By Marlena DeFalco

Automation is a growing discussion in multifamily housing. The industry has embraced the modernization that PropTech brings to the table in all areas of operations – payments, maintenance, communications and more, but that adoption has traditionally been slow and very systematic. 

Enter COVID-19 and we find automation at the forefront of operational business-decision making.

At APTvirtual, Terri Nicholson, Vice President of Strategic Accounts for Domuso, led an in-depth discussion with technology experts in the session, “Preparing Your Organization for Automation of the Apartment Rental Industry.” Joining her were Kerri Davis, Partner at Elmington Property Management; Vanessa Siebern, Senior Vice President for FPI Management; and Terry Danner, Chief Executive Officer of SightPlan.

When the pandemic struck, it sent the world into a tailspin, including apartment operators. “We didn’t know what the next 30, 60, 90 days were going to look like,” Siebern said. “FPI established a task force with executives, HR and risk management to determine a path forward for property operations.”

The Pandemic Response – Payment Automation Was a Must

With the looming uncertainty of if residents would be able to still pay their rent as shutdowns happened nationwide, that first order of business was rent collection with leasing offices closed.

FPI implemented system changes that enabled one-time payment acceptance, credit card payments and stopped charging convenience fees. These touchless, automated efforts helped FPI realize an increase from 16% of properties offering online payments to almost 56%.

“It’s really exciting to see how many residents were actually adopting the service on the market rate side and the affordable side,” Siebern said. “We’ve jumped significantly over the last several months, and it’s helped us with our collections.”

Elmington, which built its own property management system, Fortress, took the payment collection process one step further by automating resident communication to help emphasize the importance of payment. While faced with questions from residents regarding whether rent was still due, it was important to stay at the forefront of the conversation. 

“We sent out automated text messages and emails telling residents how and when to pay, reminding them that rent is still a priority,” Davis said. “We then automated messages thanking our residents for making those payments.”

Residents who may have liquid balances received additional automated messages to encourage payment and inform them that Elmington had a lot of resources to help. Communication included information about groups that could assist with securing rental funds or helping to file for unemployment.

Incorporating Automation into Daily Business Operations

While it was a race to complete as much automation as possible during the pandemic, many operators would say many lessons were learned during the process. First being that multifamily is capable of engaging new technologies and automation quickly.

As the industry moves out of the pandemic, it is important to recognize how to effectively continue this positive forward momentum without overwhelming the teams.

Danner says operators should practice the three C’s: Carefully, collectively and collaboratively, when looking to implement new technology and automation. Often, an individual or a department will see the value in a technology and want to jump on it without an in-depth analysis.

“Our industry has tended to be reactionary despite the fact we haven’t really always been open to change,” he said. “We have to resist the temptation to just move forward because someone thinks something is cool. It has to be multi-departmental. A lot of technology isn’t just about IT. It is marketing, operations, HR and all of those platforms. You need sophisticated groups doing things collectively.”

By identifying pain points in the organization, operators can then seek potential solutions and bring all the departments into the decision-making process. Furthermore, it can’t be only about what the product can do today. It has to be about where the product is going. Operators should partner with organizations that are sustainable and supported down the road.

FPI engaged an internal innovation committee to vet technology solutions that are scalable and not just those that are hot right now. As portfolios grow and change, automation needs to likewise scale and translate between all business units.

“I’m really excited to hear we aren’t the only ones doing this,” Siebern said. “It’s always best in our industry to figure out who is the best-of-breed so that we’re offering our clients the best solution to each situation.”

For Davis and Elmington it is a little different. The organization engages focus groups to determine which elements of its processes can be automated, then it starts building the technology with input along the way.

“We’ve opened up Fortress to allow our onsite teams to give us criticism anonymously if they so choose,” Davis said. “We received a lot of great feedback on ways to improve our team members’ time. By quickly fixing those things in Fortress, we showed we are here to quickly adapt the technology, to make their jobs more efficient and overall more successful.”

You have to look at why you are doing things and explain that “why” to people – not just the “what,” because they have to buy into the concept, said Danner. Team members tend to follow organizations and management they have faith in.

“There aren't really many revelations in property management,” Danner said. “You have to push forward in looking at things and being open-minded to automation is one of those ways.  So, if there's a positive that's come from [the pandemic], it’s that we’ve learned, ‘Hey, technology and change maybe aren't so bad. Maybe there are some things that we can try to help make us better.’”

Marlena DeFalco is an Account Director for LinnellTaylor Marketing.