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Winter of COVID-19 Is Coming. Are Your Buildings Ready?

November 2020

Altering your policies and procedures for weather preparation, events, leasing and staffing your offices to prepare for an uncertain winter.

Apartment management companies will soon face their first full winter during the COVID-19 pandemic, which has caused them to alter their buildings’ policies and procedures on a number of fronts. These range from weather preparation to events and leasing to staffing their offices, especially in the event of a spike in coronavirus cases in their area.

Winterization protocols are pretty standardized for Denver-based Cardinal Group, which has more than 31,000 apartments in 175 communities across 36 states. They typically involve securing vendors for snow removal and salt application as well as procuring snow blowers, salt and appropriate tools. But the company plans to build on those protocols this year, says Will Conroy, Vice President of Administrative Services.

“With the challenges of COVID, we’re focusing on that a lot this year to make sure we’ve got what we need early” to guard against any potential shortages, Conroy says. “So [that] we’re not in a position we don’t want to be in.”

The company also will focus on areas like ensuring that gutters, catch basins and storm drains are all cleared, with water funneled away to prevent ice damming, which is all part of Cardinal’s usual preventive maintenance program. “We have multiple resources available for our teams in the event that… something’s looking like it’s going to be an emergency,” says Conroy. “We can surge resources to communities that need it if there’s going to be a large weather event.”

Equipment and Supplies: More Important Than Ever

Alissa Mcclard, Director of Asset Management for Nashville-based Bristol Development Group, agrees that companies need to ensure they have winterization vendors and supplies lined up in case the experience limited resources. With 1,300 apartments on five sites and another 1,000 in the pipeline throughout the Southeast, her company has been making sure that there will be equipment on hand, and that vacant areas in buildings, whether due to vacancies or social-distancing restrictions, are properly heated so sprinklers or pipes don’t burst.

“Thinking ahead and making sure you’re covered is hugely important,” says Mcclard. This includes the scenario in a COVID hotspot where you might need a backup maintenance plan if someone falls ill. “There’s a greater need this year to evaluate common-area spaces,” she says. “We’re looking for opportunities to reduce temperatures, or increase them, so you’re not spending in common areas unnecessarily.”

Memphis-based Fogelman Properties, with about 30,000 apartments in 85 communities in 13 southeastern states, is making sure teams have ample supplies for any inclement weather, says Director of Marketing Tammy Yeargan. “You need to be prepared for that.”

Capstone Real Estate Services, based in Austin, Texas, plans to distribute notices about freeze warnings and other inclement weather-related information digitally rather than by talking to residents face-to-face or slipping notices under their doors, says Kelly Blaskowsky, Chief Operating Officer for the company, which services about 25,000 apartments in 149 communities, almost entirely in Texas.

“We’ve just lost that opportunity under COVID,” Blaskowsky says. “Even though things are easing up, some residents feel very strongly that they want to maintain their quarantine atmosphere. Other want a sense of normalcy and want that face-to-face. Being open to that with protocols in place is really important for us.”

Changes to Events and Leasing Procedures

Striking the balance between quarantine and normal operation will be important — but tricky — in other aspects of apartment management as well. Capstone, for instance, no longer keeps open 24-7 amenity areas like fitness centers, libraries, movie rooms and other indoor spaces particularly popular in the colder months.

“We’ve had to change the structure around those to ensure that we offer social distancing,” Blaskowsky says. “We have to have supplies to wipe down the equipment and keep everyone safe, in a comfortable environment.”

In the early spring, Capstone’s apartment communities leaned toward social media platforms to promote events like virtual bingo and virtual happy hours, and that will likely pick up again later this fall. “We’re still practicing safe protocols with masks and social distancing, which does limit our ability to ramp up those events that help us live through the winter months,” says Blaskowsky. “We’re continuing to do anything that gives residents comfort and touchpoints.”

Fogelman has been discussing event ideas for the fall and winter, when traditional cold-weather events, especially those that lack social distancing like Thanksgiving potlucks, won’t be happening, Yeargan says.

Up to now, “our spirits have been a little more lifted because folks have been able to enjoy the outdoor spaces,” says Yeargan. “The frustration level is probably going to grow [during the winter]. ‘What are you offering me?’” Following online cooking demonstrations, the company is considering offering gift cards for grocery items, “so they can buy whatever meal we’re cooking.”

Finding and retaining residents during a pandemic in the middle of winter will prove another challenge. Capstone has been making touchpoints earlier than it normally would with regard to lease expirations, Blaskowsky says. “Most of that is from the perspective of trying to secure the occupancy,” she says. “We’re making sure the resident knows we’re still here, still trying to help them be comfortable in their homes.”

When it comes to new residents, Capstone has been working to find ways to do outreach and continue to drive traffic, Blaskowsky says. “We’re using FaceTime to create opportunities to visit with people, to build up that relationship,” she says. “We’re using social platforms as well as digital platforms to drive traffic into the property. Online leasing is critical at this point. We’re doing self-guided tours for people who are not comfortable touring with us directly. That’s helped make people feel more comfortable that there are options there for those who want to take a more conservative route.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has prompted Fogelman Properties to do self-guided touring with technology so prospective tenants can still talk to someone as they’re seeing the unit in a socially distanced way, Yeargan says. “We want that to be the preferred way,” she says. “As we reach the end of daylight savings time, we can still offer tours after dark, so there’s some flexibility there. “But if it’s bad weather, if it’s icy conditions, are we still going to allow those tours to take place?”

One leasing-related issue facing Bristol is that because of the income level of the company’s demographic, a couple of communities on the brink of stabilizing have seen vacancies resulting from rock-bottom interest rates. “The low interest rates have been a challenge with early termination due to home purchases,” Mcclard says. “Our markets don’t completely slow down [in the winter], but they do slow down a little. We need to be more focused on that and be aggressive with [leasing] concessions when needed.”

Monitoring Staffing Levels

Will management companies be able to keep their staffing levels the same if COVID 19 spikes during the winter? It may vary market by market, companies say.

Bristol, which had everyone back in its offices by June, has a number of communities in lease-up that the company is adding staff to, Mcclard says. “Our goal is always to command the marketplace and have the highest rents in any area,” she says. “A lot of communities are scaling back [staff]. That’s not congruent with our business model.”

Bristol uses a customer relationship management program called “I Love Leasing” that enables staff to work remotely, including a feature that can forward their office line to a cell phone, says Mcclard. “That will help us if we have to close offices again, whether because of COVID or because people can’t get there due to ice,” she says.

Capstone also has maintained its pre-COVID level of staffing, Blaskowsky says. “The level of need is still there, and so we’re still keeping our teams engaged. There have been no changes to the number of people on our properties.” Dealing with the pandemic, she adds, requires more administrative time, not less.

If an employee needs to quarantine because of COVID exposure but isn’t necessarily sick and has no symptoms, that person can work from home, says Blaskowsky. “That’s worked out pretty well. You can track it and see, based in the software we’re utilizing, how productive they’ve been, how many hours they’ve logged on the system. So far that’s been helpful to us. It gives peace of mind to employees.”

The unemployment rate is so high that keeping the company’s teams engaged is critical and has helped team members feel good about what they’re doing, Blaskowsky says. “And it helps our clients, from the perspective that nothing is stopping. There’s no less time [devoted to] follow-up.”

Cardinal Group plans to keep a close eye on conditions on the ground in determining staffing levels throughout the winter, Conroy says. “As you look forward to the winter season, with that being flu season and respiratory illnesses more likely to spread, what we are likely going to see will be similar to what we saw in the spring,” he says. “Depending on the local situation on the ground, different states, municipalities and local government will be issuing orders.”

Cardinal’s initial COVID-response plan was based on the idea that one size wouldn’t fit all, and Conroy expects that same strategy to be revived if cases spike. “Our COVID field guide for all of our team members allows for flexibility in scaling up or scaling back on restrictive operating measures that we have in place,” he says. “There are triggers to go from phase 1, to 2, to 3, dependent on some of the features of the local market we’re in. It could be case rates or local policies, whether that’s stay-at-home or restrictions on amenities like gyms.”

The current phase 1 operations allow for standard staffing in the office along with contact-free and social-distancing policies, including limits on gatherings in amenity spaces, Conroy says. Phase 2 would mean going to 50 percent of team capacity, with alternating A-B schedules, a reduction in density of team members in the office, and the added flexibility of working from home.

The most restrictive scenario, phase 3, would be implemented if there’s a major COVID spike in the winter, and local ordinances shift to shelter-in-place, says Conroy. Or if there’s a stay-at-home order from the governor, staffers would come to the office for emergencies only. “Folks would be on call to address customer service needs,” he adds. “In a phase 3 posture, we’d be closing our offices to the public. We may still have one person in the office to make sure we can address any emergencies that arise.”

Cardinal plans build in plenty of flexibility, with high levels of communication and support for onsite teams, to make sure that if there are changes in circumstances, there will be resources in place to put up signage, for example, or communicate as necessary with vendors or clients.

“I would anticipate that we’re going to lean pretty heavily in the winter on the policies that we developed in the spring and summer,” says Conroy. “We’re not going to overreact. We’re going to make decisions based on data and based on evidence. If COVID is resurgent in a market, we’re going to lean heavily on the policies we’ve put in place.”

 

Ed Finkel is a freelance writer.