Consistent with the real estate industry at large, the COVID-19 pandemic has necessitated significant changes in the ways that landlords operate apartment communities and other multifamily properties. Changes such as increased attention to cleaning protocols are applicable across asset classes, while others such as design considerations to accommodate long-term work-from-home arrangements present challenges that are particular to the multifamily space. Industry leaders have acknowledged that many COVID-driven changes in the operation, marketing and design of apartment and condominium communities will outlast the pandemic itself. Technology will play a key role in shaping both the near-term and post-pandemic new normal.
Sanitization and Access
Immediately following the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic,, sanitization and related issues became a priority for operators of all asset classes. The health and safety considerations seen in hospitality, office and other sectors have a significant amount of overlap with those in the multifamily space, including technology relating to the use of biometric screening tools. New technologies that are being used and developed to address these issues include the use of powerful ultraviolet (UV) light to disinfect public areas and electrostatic sprayers, which utilize power-assisted spraying technology to spray chemical disinfectants over a greater distance. Electrostatic sprayers also create much smaller micron droplets and positively charge the chemical particles that leave the sprayer, both of which enhance the coverage of a targeted area with disinfectant. These technologies are particularly important in the multifamily space where common areas such as fitness centers and pools present a higher risk for virus transmission.
In addition to sanitization, landlords can help to prevent virus transmission through the use of “touchless” technology which was already on the rise and is now poised to become a staple of the new normal within the multifamily sector. Expect familiar technologies such as motion-sensor-activated sinks and hand dryers to quickly become mainstays, even in older buildings. Smart locks, which allow the tenant to navigate the main entrance, common areas, elevator or staircase and unit door through the use of a single electronic “key” will further minimize contact with common area surfaces. In the near term, the data collected by smart locks can be used for contact tracing in the event that there is a COVID-19 outbreak within the tenant population of a particular property. Looking past the initial phases of the pandemic, landlords will benefit where the incremental cost of smart locks over less costly traditional locks can be offset by insurance savings and increased rents.
The use of smartphone applications, tenant web portals and property management software systems to circulate property-wide announcements or allow for online payments of rent have become increasingly common over the last decade. Multifamily operators can expand on these technologies to further minimize traditional contact between tenants, employees and service providers within the property. For example, property management teams can create do-it-yourself videos with instructions on fixing common maintenance issues and service repairs within units. They can provide mechanisms for tenants to order household items such as air filters or specific light bulbs that would be dropped off at units for installation by tenants instead of by a member of the property management team. Multifamily operators could also use these portals to quickly and safely disseminate critical health and safety information such as the latest guidance from governmental agencies or information on local COVID-19 testing availability to all tenants.
At the onset of the pandemic, multifamily operators restricted access to building amenities and common areas such as fitness centers, lounges, business centers and, in some cases, even outdoor spaces, most of which have traditionally been open to tenants at their convenience. As operators begin to reopen these spaces they will need to effectively manage the occupancy of these areas through the use of reservation systems that have been implemented in offices and traditional, standalone gyms post-pandemic. The reservation systems should be rendered easily accessible for tenants through technologies such as smartphone applications or web portals.
Further, some landlords have combined online reservation systems for communal spaces and touchless, electronic “keys” such that a tenant’s key will not allow access to the applicable space unless used during the timeframe of the reservation. This is just one example of the myriad of potential opportunities for multifamily operators to synergistically implement new technologies at their properties during the pandemic and beyond.
Landlords also recognize that easy access to public amenities are often key factors in a tenant’s decision to lease an apartment. While the use of public areas are staggered during the pandemic, multifamily operators should consider offering smartphone application-based amenities such as online fitness classes and streaming services to compensate for significant reductions in tenants’ ability to enjoy their building’s communal spaces.
Prior to the outbreak of COVID-19, virtual apartment tours were already becoming a popular way for prospective tenants to quickly and conveniently “tour” an apartment. The pandemic and associated safety protocols have accelerated this trend into a necessity for any landlord seeking to lease space. Tenants can virtually tour an apartment at their leisure without the involvement of a leasing agent prior to an on-site visit, which not only minimizes in-person contact with employees, but also help landlords and brokers to more efficiently narrow the field of prospective tenants who physically visit the building to qualified individuals who are serious about entering into a lease.
In the UK, developers of multifamily properties looking to sell or lease off-plan are increasingly budgeting for virtual tour capabilities from the outset of a project, and will provide prospective buyers or tenants with a virtual reality headset to be used for online tours. This technology has existed in Europe for several years; however, the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated its use, and virtual viewings of properties tripled in the UK in the first month of lockdown with 8% of properties now having a virtual tour option.
To build customer relationships in the era of social distancing, some operators use applications such as Google Hangouts, FaceTime and Zoom to allow the tenant to conduct an in-person visit while the leasing agent virtually joins the tour, allowing the leasing agent to answer any questions and build customer rapport. This arrangement is a promising middle ground for multifamily operators and brokers seeking to fill vacant units while complying with proper health and safety practices and, in the long term, saves time and costs associated with commuting from showing to showing.
In the post-pandemic new normal, real estate agents expect the use of virtual reality applications to continue to be expanded.For example, applications may allow prospective tenants to facilitate related services such as insurance, where AI can be used to scan the tenants apartment and identify home contents for insurance records.
While many communities are beginning to reopen their economies and people may be returning to work in the near term, owners and operators of multifamily assets must consider how to best position their properties to facilitate an increase in tenants working remotely for the foreseeable future. Buildings must be equipped with amplified internet connectivity capable of handling much larger bandwidth and information encryption demands, a need that has been recognized in the UK with BT Openreach announcing plans to employ additional engineers to carry out its target of providing superfast broadband (1Gbps) to an additional 94 locations in the UK in the next two years. Increased internet service should be available both indoors and outdoors, as tenants seek to utilize outside areas while working from home.
In recent years, the design of multifamily housing, particularly in urban areas, has shifted towards a “sleep in the apartment, but live in the building” philosophy with respect to floorplans and amenities that may be less attractive to tenants while the virus remains a significant concern. Multifamily properties operating in the new normal should consider including conference rooms with webcam and internet access and larger common areas that can accommodate individual workspaces which also comply with social distancing protocols. Similarly, operators should consider including in-unit workspaces in future multifamily projects. Outdoor space will also become more important for tenants working from home and should be structured to allow for small groups to congregate while staying sufficiently spaced apart. This is particularly relevant in the UK where inquiries relating to homes in the countryside and villages outside of major cities increased on average by 126% in June and July compared to the same period last year, with inquiries in Liverpool almost tripling (up 275%), inquiries in Edinburgh up 205%, and inquiries in Birmingham increasing by 186%.
Many of the technological innovations that were becoming more commonplace are becoming ubiquitous as a result of the pandemic, and many of those that have begun to be put in place to combat the spread of the virus are here to stay. Owners and operators of multifamily assets should understand that most, if not all, of these technology-driven changes will facilitate increased tenant demand and improved business operations in the new normal.
Part 7 Preview: Industrial Sector
The next article in our Envisioning the New Normal: Real Estate + Technology series will focus on the industrial sector. Aided by a pre-pandemic boom in e-commerce and the race for next-day delivery, the growth of activity in the industrial sector has been accelerated by the impacts of COVID-19. Particularly, COVID-19-related government regulations, general consumer safety tendencies and the convenience of staying at home have amplified the shift from brick and mortar retail to online shopping. The robust demand for warehouse and distribution space across the United States and Europe presents a unique opportunity for investors and one that does not come without challenges. Facing the need to respond to tenants’ advanced technology needs and human health and safety-based considerations, real estate owners and investors must be willing to adapt and embrace cutting-edge technology.