Last month, my mom flew out from California to spend a long weekend with me in Washington, D.C. As we pulled into the driveway of my apartment building, she noticed that the garage door was broken. “ That can 't be very safe—anyone can get in,” she said, as all good mothers would. “You should let your manager know that it's broken so they can fix it.”
I assured my mom that I would, but what I didn't tell her was that the garage door had gone unreplaced for nearly a month. Our property manager was “seeking approval” from the building's owner for the funds to replace it. Earlier this year, the management company also announced that it would be delaying turning on the air conditioning from its usual May 1 start date to June 1. And the pool's hours were simultaneously cut back by four hours each weekday this summer—presumably in an effort to reduce maintenance and personnel costs.
Clearly, cash flow is a precious thing these days in the multifamily industry—as the situation in my apartment building demonstrates. Yes, I nabbed a two-and-a-half-month concession on a one-year lease for my unit. But by achieving the marginal increase in occupancy that my lease offered, the company also increased its risk. And that leads to belt-tightening in the form of “deferred maintenance” (read: waiting to replace broken garage doors).
I can't help but wonder what will happen if concessions industry-wide continue in the direction they've been headed. Reports coming out of the distressed Florida and Southern California markets indicate that a growing number of buildings are offering three months of free rent on oneyear leases. And the outcome of that reduction in effective rents will mean slower maintenance response times across the board, if not an outright failure to repair broken gates, replace burned-out bulbs, and trim overgrown hedges. And that could bode problematic for residents and owners alike.
In fact, “deferred maintenance” is one of the factors that lenders weigh when considering whether to refinance a property. A property in poor shape may not be the best candidate for a workout, they told our senior editor, Jerry Ascierto, whose feature on refistrategies, “The Gathering Storm,” starts on page 24.
Despite the potential downside to this concessionheavy, cash flow-risking behavior, when you ask property managers to rank their most important business objectives, filling vacancies lands at the top of the list. That was the outcome of a TransUnion survey of more than 870 property managers conducted last month: 25 percent of the respondents cited increasing occupancy levels as their most important objective, a goal followed closely by decreasing bad debt/losses (24 percent of respondents). Interestingly, half of the survey respondents also said they were experiencing more difficulty locating qualified renters this year as compared to last year. In other words, in addition to giving away the farm, these owners and managers will be doling out those goodies to renters who may not be capable of ultimately making rent each month.
As an industry observer— and an apartment resident— these indications are worrisome. Luckily, the garage door at my building will finally be repaired this month. Perhaps occupancies—and cash flow—are up, despite the rise in concessions. Or, perhaps the safety and satisfaction of the residents finally outweighed the costs.
Either way, my mom will be very happy to know that the repairs have been taken care of.