Life with COVID: Reopening Community Spaces

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As the COVID-19 situation continues to evolve, multifamily properties are grappling with the thorny issue of reopening community spaces. They are in the process of returning to normal in apartment operations, but it looks like a very different kind of normal. The virus isn’t going away everywhere. In fact, cases are growing again in some states at high rates as the Great Reopening continues.

In a recent RealPage webcast entitled COVID-19: Returning to “Normal” Apartment Operations, Jay Parsons, RealPage Deputy Chief Economist/VP, engaged a panel of customers, including Camden Property Trust EVP Laurie Baker, AMLI President, and CEO Maria Banks and Kairoi Residential EVP Tammy Freiling, to discuss the issues around reopening shared spaces.

“How important is this issue to property managers and owners?” asked RealPage’s Parsons. “We asked our panel what their greatest challenge was in reopening apartment operations on-site. Was it managing community amenity spaces? Sanitizing everything? Working through maintenance requests? Or operating and opening leasing offices? Surprisingly, fifty percent said it was managing community amenity spaces. Why would this be?”

The answer: it’s complicated. There are three big variables property management companies must consider all at the same time. Combine those variables and you hear a range of responses from property management companies.

The big three in reopening community spaces

The first and most important variable is the government. The situation for PMCs varies by market based on differences in local and state regulations. Health and safety are big issues. The virus is unpredictable, and there is conflicting advice from health experts as to how to handle it. Government responses over time have varied accordingly. The second variable is property management companies themselves. While heeding regulations, PMCs are also going to apply their individual company policies when reopening community spaces and amenities. The third variable is residents. PMCs must take their residents’ wishes into account, and these can vary by community.

Regulations were the elephant in the room during the webcast, and their effects on reopening community spaces and amenities set the stage for the discussion. Jay Parsons asked AMLI President and CEO Maria Banks about the challenges of reopening while keeping up with vastly different and rapidly changing regulations across different municipalities and states.

“It is very challenging and time-consuming,” said Ms. Banks. “I would say it’s almost become a full-time job for a number of individuals. We are in nine different markets, and our re-openings have been mainly driven by what’s allowed in each jurisdiction. Sometimes each county has different jurisdictional requirements, and sometimes a municipality may even differ from what the county says.”

The other participants agreed that regulations by local, county, and state requirements were the linchpin of the entire reopening process. And their effect was felt as summer approached, with residents hungry for more in-person physical activities after sheltering in place for the past three months. The good news was that pools and fitness centers were starting to open. The not-so-great news was that availability would be limited to ensure social distancing.

Kairoi Residential handled the situation by opening their fitness centers and pools with a reservations-only policy based on whatever the state or local guidance was at a property. The effect of the limitation on residents was a matter of concern.

Noted Kairoi EVP Tammy Freiling, “Does everyone love having to make reservations? Probably not. But they have been so grateful to have those places open again. Sheltering in place in your private community without your amenities, it’s not ideal.”

Laurie Baker, EVP at Camden, had a similar experience with residents on Memorial Day weekend when they opened most of their pools. Regulations meant that not everyone could splash into summer when they wanted to. Camden decided to reach out to residents to help them understand some of the capacity issues. The company kept up the information campaign throughout reopening. Resident feedback included lots of appreciation for the care and attention Camden was providing them to make their living experience better during a difficult time.

The webcast participants agreed that maintaining social distancing regulations at pools and fitness centers was relatively doable. When the subject came to in-person community events, however, opinions varied. Creative virtual events had been very successful over the past few months for everyone. But face-to-face interactions in the time of COVID have posed a much greater risk. And this is where the second variable, individual company policies, comes into play.

Camden feels it is safest to postpone in-person events for the time being and take full advantage of now-proven virtual events.

Maria Banks at AMLI confirmed that they are staying with virtual events, too. Said Ms. Banks, “All our programs have been very well received, so we don’t feel the need to push it. And how do you have a pool party right now when you’re limited to 20 people at the pool? Whom do you decide can attend? We’ll just sort of wait to see when we think we’ll be ready to have in-person events again.”

A hybrid approach

Kairoi landed on a hybrid virtual/in-person approach. According to Tammy Freiling, “We’re approaching residents much the same way we approach prospects. How do you want to engage with us? In-person? Virtually? We’re looking at resident events in the same way. If your comfort level with the virus is that you would rather do everything virtually, we can offer some great events. An example that’s been highly successful is our virtual mixology class. We partnered with a local bar. We delivered the ingredients ahead of time outside the doorstep of the residents’ homes. But if you’re ready to go outside, we have events like outdoor concerts. Having a DJ or a band performing outside where people can either watch from the safety of their balcony or can be socially distanced, that’s been very popular.”

Ms. Banks at AMLI noted that they had also hosted concerts in the courtyard. However, in keeping with their virtual events policy, a musician would sit in the middle of the property while people watched from their balconies.

Keeping it clean

Back to government regulations: jurisdictions have also affected cleaning and sanitation. Every participant agreed that their communities were making a superhuman effort to meet or even exceed jurisdictional guidelines, such as ensuring cleaning vendors were using the right supplies for hand sanitizer stations and high-touch surfaces. Camden’s Laurie Baker noted that they have gone as far as hiring a hygienist to assist with all the proper protocols. She also pointed out that cleaning has a higher purpose than just meeting regulations.

“The dispensers, sanitizer stations, the spraying down of pool areas and seating and fitness centers lets residents know and see and sense that there is concern about everyone’s health and safety. And so far, we’ve been met with a lot of appreciation from our communities. Our residents appreciate having some space to go to since everyone is sheltering in place in our space.”

Which brings us to our third and final variable: resident reactions. Resident appreciation turns out to be the big constant in all the approaches to reopening spaces and amenities. This was a sign that the communities were doing an outstanding job creating great resident experiences despite all the difficulties.

Things may never return to the pre-COVID normal. But it’s comforting to know that communities can take a “new normal” and make it as good as possible for residents.

To watch the RealPage webcast “COVID-19: Returning to ‘Normal’ Apartment Operations,” please click here.

 

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