Ensuring Safety is a Top Priority:
Best Practices for Your Communities
While views and amenities are certainly appealing to today’s renters, security remains a major priority for them. HappyCo shares best practices to keep multifamily communities safe.
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A recent Multifamily Executive piece highlights the importance of security to modern renters, citing a national poll with powerful results; respondents ranked security “above proximity to work, schools, restaurants, and transportation, and even living in an environmentally friendly space.”
Some 32% of residents proved “especially concerned about security during the summer, possibly because their homes are left unoccupied when they vacation.” Meanwhile, many multifamily employees also see the need for increased security measures; a separate poll of real estate professionals suggests that “42% of respondents have been the victim of a crime or felt threatened at work.”
To that end, HappyCo shares best practices for multifamily operators to protect residents and employees before turning to hotly-debated artificial intelligence options and a range of design strategies that are key parts of the security conversation.
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“When people see signs that say a property is under video surveillance, anybody who has bad intentions now knows the likelihood of them getting caught is exponentially increased.” In an interview with Multifamily Executive, security firm CEO Robert Siciliano is quick to spell out why installing surveillance cameras can spell significant gains in resident safety.
Admittedly, a 2019 NAA piece concedes that motion sensors in surveillance systems used to be more of a liability than an asset to operators. Author Paul Bergeron stresses that: “at one time…a property could receive thousands of emails per day, one for each time something was happening when in fact it was just a cat walking past the camera.”
However, Bergeron writes that the technology has advanced significantly, such that these surveillance systems can now be “customized based on the communities’ characteristics.” Indeed, operators can choose only to “receive push notifications if activity is suspicious or unlawful” or be notified daily, “even when everything is okay.”
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Michael Haines of The Tangent Group is certainly reaping the benefits. Paying $50,000 for the security camera system at a 96-unit community he operates, Haines stresses to NAA that the “investment has easily paid for itself.” Haines notes that the cameras have captured trouble ranging from illegal dumping by non-residents to breaking-and-entering attempts to laundry equipment damage.
When those misdeeds are matched with either “lease violation fines to cover incurred costs or prosecution for trespassing” the punishments serve to “reduce or eliminate the unwanted behavior at the property.” Importantly, Haines says residents are notified upon move-in that cameras are recording activity at the property, and thus far no one has complained about their presence.
On the other hand, their presence shouldn’t be noticeable. Steven Gould of Elmstone Group Property Management concedes to NAA that cameras he’s used in the past “were not effective because of where and how they were installed.” Eventually, Gould admits, camera cables would be cut or ripped out.
Still, it’s important for operators to be aware of one potential downside to posting signage: new residents might be a bit alarmed. Christa Amidon, a former model home sales agent, tells Multifamily Executive her first reaction when a manager pushed for signage that would warn about the presence of a video surveillance system. Amidon confesses: “the thought was, what if a young family comes in with their children, and sees a sign that says they’re being watched? They might think it’s an indication it’s not a good place to live.”
However, Haines stands by his decision for both surveillance and related signage, stressing: “if you view a map of our neighborhood that indicates police activity, my property is the ‘donut hole’ because there is so little police activity. But every area surrounding us is lit up.”
Above all, Haines says developing healthy ties with law enforcement is a critical part of keeping residents safe. HappyCo explores how the presence of police — when the arrangement is a thoughtful one — can improve security at multifamily communities.
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In an interview with Multifamily Executive, Brent Sobol stresses the importance of involving law enforcement during the early stages of a community transformation. “We started by cleaning up the curb appeal while we addressed the loitering and trespassing problems because we wanted the immediate neighborhood to see there was drastic change happening.”
From there, Sobol says he started: “enforcing the lease agreements, giving a heads-up to the local authorities before doing so.” Kelly Ziegler of Drucker & Falk goes a step further, telling Multifamily Executive that “most of her properties have some sort of courtesy officer living on site.” Whether they’re paid as contract employees or simply receive discounted rent, these officers typically “patrol the property, work as a liaison and to check safety measures on the property.” These tasks might include whether lights work and if buildings are locked securely.
In Ziegler’s view, “having trained eyes and ears on site certainly adds value to keeping a property secure.” Indeed, she finds police officers are just the people to answer questions like: “‘Is this car supposed to be here? Is this something that is fishy?’” Additionally, she finds that officers can “serve a vital role as educators to help residents become more aware of their surroundings.”
Multifamily operators may even discover that their local police departments already offer free programs to keep residential communities safe. In Gwinnett, GA, for example, an initiative called the Crime Free Multi-Housing Program. The approach is quite straightforward: officers provide multifamily managers with a day of training, host meetings for residents, and examine the property for basic safety issues like doors that might be easy to kick in or poor lighting.
Though local officers admit the program is far from ground-breaking, they have seen noteworthy results: crime dropping by as much as 50 percent in certain locations. Perhaps best of all, communities that complete the program “receive a special safety certification they can advertise to prospective tenants.”
However, a piece by KATV out of Little Rock, AR suggests that police officers patrolling areas known for high crime might need to work on adjusting their relationships with local residents — before they’re truly trusted (and thus, effective) at apartment complexes. As Little Rock city director Ken Richardson sees it, “in some parts of Little Rock there’s a protect and serve mindset, and then in other places there’s a patrol and control mindset.”
It’s why Richardon is urging law enforcement officials to turn the tide of this pattern he’s seen: “on most days police treat residents as if they were suspects, and then the next day ask for their help in solving a crime.” Regardless of how stark the view is, it’s clear officers will have to make some sort of conscientious adjustment should they live or work full-time on multifamily properties.
Having covered the relationship between law enforcement and multifamily properties, it’s valuable to turn to a range of strategies that center on employee safety.
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Besides acknowledging the hard work their team members do every day, multifamily operators have reason to consider the safety risks they face, too. Indeed, the Bureau of Labor Statistics provides troubling data on workplace safety in real estate, revealing that “10 real estate and leasing professionals were murdered at work in 2017,” the most recent year where information is available.
As security consultant Matthew D. Seifer argues to Multifamily Executive, real estate and leasing professionals are “open to attack simply by the nature of the profession, going out into the field and meeting with people who they do not know for the first time in an unfamiliar setting.” Besides spending time alone in offices and on tours, these team members are also on the front lines when it comes to delivering bad news — such as delivering “eviction notices to inhabitants who could become volatile.”
One possibility lies in establishing a buddy system for team members who are giving tours, particularly tours in the evening. However, one former home sales agent admitted: “employers and sales agents sometimes have mixed feelings when it comes to pairing up with others,” as revenue might be too tight to pay two people and a successful tour would lead to a split commission.
Additionally, some security experts recommend providing employees with “panic buttons” they can use to quickly dial 9-1-1. Another straightforward strategy: having team members always warn someone before they go out and give a tour. Better still, these team members could benefit from devising certain “pre-agreed upon code words or phrases” that signal they’re in a potentially dangerous situation.
Finally, there’s certainly value in using smartphones for safety purposes. Leasing agents could share geo-locations with co-workers and family as a strong starting point to reduce risks on the job. Their managers, meanwhile, could shift policy to end evening tours, change business hours on a seasonal basis, and encourage team members to drive in separate cars from prospective renters.
Rachel Walla, owner of workplace safety firm SnapFox Safety, tells Multifamily Executive that companies are open for liability if they don’t offer the kind of trainings that help staff members identify and handle potentially dangerous encounters. Sadly, Walla stresses: “employee security and workplace violence is more of a hot topic now than ever.”
Turning from employee safety to overall property security, it’s useful to cover both sides of a tense debate — the conversation over facial recognition technology.
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“It is a conversation around balancing national security and individual liberty. Are we comfortable with anyone holding an omniscient overview of what individuals are doing?” In an interview with Bisnow, WiredScore President William Newton doesn’t shy away from the profound questions posed by facial recognition technology.
Still, Bisnow writer Mike Phillips fairly presents the case of employers who are “more safety conscious than ever, face ever-evolving types of threat, and are utilising new methods” to keep their communities safe. Willing to speak only on background, several property managers argued: “facial recognition technology has potential benefits in terms of making buildings… safer and protecting users from threats including personal attacks and terrorism.” Phillips points to one developer who argues “it could have the impact of reducing attacks on individuals using the space late at night.”
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However, critics of facial recognition technology suggest the products pose a grave threat to privacy. According to Phillips, skeptics stress it can be “ineffective, giving false positive results, especially in the case of nonwhite and female faces, and that it is inappropriately intrusive because it takes an image of a person’s face, scans it and sometimes stores it without their consent.” Importantly, Phillips argues “concerns over privacy and data use are more high-profile than ever before, particularly in the wake of revelations about Facebook’s use of data.”
Relatedly, Phillips argues that “lines between what is public space and private space blur,” making it even more difficult to balance issues of transparency and safety in real estate communities. As William Newton of WiredScore notes, “the average person doesn’t have a clue if they are in public or private space.” As a result, operators considering facial recognition technology should keep in mind nuances like these.
Having explored strategies ranging from surveillance systems to artificial technology, it’s helpful to mull over a range of design-based approaches operators can incorporate to prevent crime at their communities.
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In his 2019 NAA piece on multifamily crime prevention, writer Paul R. Bergeron interviews Clayton Burnett of Watchtower Security, who recommends a range of CPTED strategies — Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design. Burnett explains these efforts are meant to “reduce victimization, deter offender decisions that precede criminal acts, and build a sense of community among inhabitants so they can gain territorial control of areas.”
First, Burnett stresses the merit of making a property as visible as possible, since “people committing such behavior do not want an audience.” This might entail trimming overgrown shrubbery or using “open stair risers” so that would-be criminals have slim odds of going unnoticed.
Yet, Burnett also advocates for what he calls a more active approach: incorporating “activity generators” such as playgrounds and community mailboxes. These spaces, Burnett argues, “increase activity and natural surveillance,” thus giving criminals minimal incentive to cause trouble. Additionally, Burnett recommends offering a straightforward sense of what’s private vs. public property. In his view, “strategically placed trees, sidewalks, roads and signage are all great ways to help clearly delineate public and private space.”
Above all, Burnett stresses that the “broken windows theory” holds true. The idea being: “a few broken windows that are not repaired encourage vandals to break more windows.” In this vein, Burnett argues there’s great value in improving “daily rounds” such that the team members inspecting properties keep a careful eye on gates, locks, air conditioners, and litter in their maintenance efforts.
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From surveillance systems and thoughtful police relationships to artificial intelligence tech and environmental design changes, multifamily operators can improve safety at their communities through a range of strategies — some as simple as trimming shrubbery. By a combination of efforts, multifamily operators are likely to find an approach that suits their communities.
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