Since President Bill Clinton signed the Electronic Signatures Act in 2000, the race has been on in multifamily to achieve a completely virtual, out-of-beta online leasing program. The Washington, D.C.–based National Multi Housing Council (NMHC) began a serious study of the issue in 2003, and over the next several years beta-testing and pilot programs were rolled at by industry bigwigs from the San Diego-based ConAm Group and Houston-based Camden Property Trust to San Francisco-based BRE Properties, Englewood, Colo.-based Archstone, and Atlanta-based student and military housing firm Place Properties.
Now, New York City-based Related Cos. says it has achieved the impossible, announcing this month the availability of a fully virtualized online leasing platform across the company’s portfolio of 21 luxury apartment communities in New York, Boston, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. “It is something that we are very proud of,” says Related Management president Jeff Brodsky.
The lease virtualization was part and parcel of an entire Web platform reboot at Related that involved redesigned Web sites and resident portals, changes and improvements to package notification systems, service request systems, payment functionalities, and, of course, online leasing. “It’s not something that we tacked on to an existing platform. There were massive amounts of integration," Brodsky explains. "It wasn’t done easily, but it's something that we are not aware of having been done before.”
Indeed, just weeks ago multifamily technology experts were prophesizing widespread industry adoption of online leasing, albeit with some uncertainty as to just when a company would break through integration and functionality barriers that include the acceptance of online signatures and alignment with automated unit pricing platforms.
“We don’t believe that online leasing has truly been solved properly yet,” says Blaine Davis, a senior product manager with Cleveland, Ohio-based Intuit Real Estate Solutions, who shared his thoughts on the future of technology with MFE earlier this month. “But more than likely, within the next three to five years, it will be adopted by the industry as a whole and expected by prospects that are looking for it already.”
Related’s online leasing functionality was realized by the integration of several disparate technology components from Santa Barbara, Calif.-based Yardi Systems; Seattle, Wash.-based electronic signatures firm DocuSign; Rockville, Md.-based Internet resident screening provider First Advantage SafeRent; New York City-based online communications firm Live Person; and Related’s own internal enterprise systems. “There is no single provider in this space,” says Brodsky, who notes the integration as a singular achievement in the ability of Related to go live with lease virtualization. “Clearly there were major functional issues with integration. That and overcoming legal and regulatory issues in highly rent-regulated markets like New York and San Francisco were our major challenges.”
At Washington, D.C.-based multifamily technology consulting firm EverGreen Solutions, president and CEO Georgianna Oliver says the next step towards a broader adoption of online leasing in multifamily is to streamline the integration of systems. “There is waste in the integration process,” she says. “That is going to become the past as technology moves us forward. It has been nearly impossible to completely go through the entire lease process and move in online, but [multifamily operators] have to become more Web interactive and handle the prospect all the way through the resident lifecycle.”
For now, Related is not putting any expectations on its online functionality. Although Brodsky notes that the firm sees a logical fit with overseas corporate renters who need term-based rental housing in major U.S. metros, Related is not looking for definable ROI from its lease virtualization initiative. “As much as this is a very large investment, we don’t have a break-even expectation, and we don’t have an adoption rate expectation,” Brodsky says. “We are making it available as an enhancement to the potential resident experience and part of our brand promise. The nature of luxury is to have your choice.”