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It’s been more than 60 years since George Orwell brought forth a frightening vision of brainwashing, redactive history making, and government video surveillance in his seminal dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty Four. While we’ve certainly evolved into a society where the cameras are among us, their presence is decidedly benign and may even offer the progressive multifamily operator an on-site monitoring and amenity upshot for residents looking for comfort, peace of mind, and a carefree lifestyle. “From the time you leave your house in the morning until you get into the office, you are being captured by dozens of video cameras—whether you know it or not,” says Avi Lupo, general manager for the Framingham, Mass.-based American unit of Israeli technology security company FST21. “Video surveillance and monitoring is a reality of society, and one I think that people have come to expect.”

While the use of video cameras—and their lesser key fob cousins—at multifamily properties is nothing new, the evolution of security and surveillance technologies has allowed for innovative uses of monitoring and access control at a lower investment than in days past. “The technology is getting less expensive and more detailed,” says Jerry Pindus, a board member of New York City’s Community Housing Improvement Program (CHIP), an advocacy group for 250,000 units of multifamily real estate managed by some 1,000 owners across New York. “The possibilities for multifamily [technology] get better all of the time.”

Consider that FST21 has developed a camera-based controlled access system called SafeRise that uses facial recognition and speech pattern analysis to provide residents and their guests with community access as well as deliver smart messages via phone, e-mail, or text. The system can even recognize individual gait patterns or tell by voice analysis if a resident is under stress. While SafeRise has obvious security upshot, Lupo says most of his multifamily clients are equally impressed with its sizzle factor in closing lease prospects. “When someone sees something before they even enter a building that talks to them and interacts with them, they will say, ‘wow,’” Lupo says.

Dino Iuliano, executive vice president of Parsippany, N.J.-based security and amenity services firm Planned Security Services/Planned Lifestyle Services, agrees. Iuliano, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran and former bodyguard and Sheriff’s officer, says technology can’t replace the power and presence of a warm body, but nonetheless recognizes some pretty impressive functionality to help on-site staff and security personnel deliver more to their residents. Iuliano says security and front-desk technology systems are increasingly becoming integrated with traditional on-site customer service and property management platforms, with trends in application development being driven specifically by resident desires for greater convenience.

Case in point: the Techcierge Web-based system from Dania Beach, Fla.-based Simplikate’s Systems. At luxury condo and apartment communities, Planned Security/Planned Lifestyle staff uses Techcierge to process package deliveries, initiate valet calls, and preauthorize and log visitors. “We can send out notifications to residents via e-mail, phone, or text alerting them that they have a package at the front desk, or a resident can use an in-unit touch pad to call up a live video feed of the front of the building so they can see when their car is ready to roll,” Iuliano says. “It’s really a combination of security and concierge-level technologies.”

Affordable options

Lest the word “concierge,” scare off budget-minded apartment operators, recent multifamily adopters of security and camera systems stress that there are applications and platforms tailored for virtually any asset class and investment point. “All of the different levels of one star to five star apartment living are going to demand some type of access control,” says Scott Johnson, vice president of construction and development for Venice, Fla.-based development and owner/operator firm Palladium USA. “A high-rise luxury tower is going to dictate a sophisticated system with cameras, fob-control, and an automated traffic gate, but on a high-density, four-story wrap product, the control system might be limited to a parking garage and clubhouse entry controls.”

Despite the scalability of systems, Johnson and other multifamily pros nevertheless stress that operators should pad their investment budgets, prepare for several months of debugging, and communicate with both residents and on-site staff to ease change management when adopting security and access technologies. “There are a ton of camera options running the gamut from A to Z on quality, lens type, zoom function, and more,” Johnson says. “It’s easy to start jumping up to more cameras than you could ever imagine, and you should prepare budgets with some stretch factor.”

On-site operators should also stay cognizant of installation issues—sometimes camera outputs don’t meet expectations or needs in terms of fidelity or field of view. Additionally, cameras need to be adjusted for accuracy and possible exposure to environmental elements. Once access systems have been installed, residents need to be educated on how the system works as well as have their personal data imported or keyed into control software. “This isn’t ‘set it and forget it’ technology,” Johnson explains. “It takes a two- or three-month debugging period for a system to run through all of its quirks. But keep your residents updated throughout that entire process. Don’t just go from nothing to a system with all kinds of upgrades and access controls—you could get a mini-revolution on your hands.”

Reap the rewards

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After the kinks have been worked out, Pindus says CHIP associates have found a wide range of uses for both video and radio-frequency fob controls on the back-end that are helping to speed system ROI. In one application, a property owner used boiler room video footage to help audit over-billing by an unscrupulous HVAC contractor. “The camera in use there was just part of a simple, eight-camera system that cost around $7,000 installed. In a few instances, these applications can pay for themselves.”

Johnson likewise suggests that video and key fob technology can be used to confirm maintenance or leasing professional property rounds, but the preventive security is where the real ROI can be reaped. “The upshot is very simple: You sleep at night because you’ve taken efforts to put your building in a safer position,” Johnson says. “It makes the residents and the office staff feel better, an easy plus. Then you realize you don’t have the vandalism or mischievous destruction of property: You don’t have a soda spilled on the pool table without admission, or landscaping torn up, or a window broken. A couple of those instances averted and you have paid a big part of your system off.”