As the country has waged war against the pandemic, there’s been another fight raging within the apartment industry—the one to defend net operating income (NOI) from being further ravaged by COVID-19.
Take the perspective of Daniel Tenenbaum, founding principal of Los Angeles-based Pacific Crest Real Estate, which runs $200 million in multifamily assets across Southern California.
“We have been hit simultaneously with a decrease in rent revenues, higher expenses, and higher vacancy,” says Tenenbaum, who also serves on the board of the California Apartment Association. “Our revenues have decreased 12% to 15% per month, primarily driven by higher delinquencies.”
An eviction moratorium means collecting on those delinquencies is harder. To make matters worse, because residents are spending more time at home, they're using more water and electricity, causing utility costs to rise. As residents have spent more time staring at their same four walls, Tenenbaum notes, maintenance requests also have increased, resulting in higher labor expenses. Finally, because fewer people are going to work during the day, when prospects do visit available units, they can't always find parking, a perennial must-have in auto-centric L.A.
“That makes it harder to lease our buildings,” Tenenbaum says.
He's not alone. Across the industry, operators say the multifaceted challenges of the pandemic have impacted rent collections, while driving up expenses, resulting in NOI erosion. To combat the trend, industry leaders are using technology to cut costs and gain efficiencies where they can, while getting back to the basics of sound property management to collect every rent dollar they can.
“There are two ways to drive NOI: Increase collected rent and reduce costs,” says Nicholas Silvers, founding partner at New York-based Tavros Holdings, which counts 1,150 units in its portfolio. “We are very actively and aggressively trying to figure out ways to do both at once.”
At Summit, New Jersey-based Lexerd Capital Management, which runs 3,000 units, that two-prong approach entails focusing on income, first.
“We had to look for ways to minimize the NOI gap from pre- to post-pandemic,” says Albert L. Lord III, founder and CEO. “That meant adapting to our new environment and changing the way we collect rent.”
Lexerd moved to contactless and automatic payments through its resident portal, while engaging with a Walk In Payment System that lets residents pay rent at point-of-sale merchants, such as convenience stores, to give residents as many options as possible. Then, Lexerd leveraged revenue management platforms to sustain rents as much as possible during the crisis.
“Price optimization programs have assisted in managing everything from renewals and maximizing rental rates,” Lord says. “Rents have continued to grow even during the pandemic.”
Many operators also have attacked the problem by making sure residents have all the help they need to apply for any available rental assistance programs.
“We have assigned specific team members to assist residents to find and apply for assistance, as well as work with them on promise-to-pay agreements,” says Cindy Owens, vice president of operations at Phoenix-based Chamberlin + Associates, an operator of 30,000 units.
Aside from backstopping rent collections, savvy operators also have been attacking the issue from the expense side, looking for ways to save internally. That includes targeting fixed expenses, like utilities, and offsetting them in any way possible, including leveraging the power of the sun.
“We are actively reviewing any and all opportunities that can improve the operating efficiency of the communities,” says Sean Garland, chief investment officer at Baltimore-based Klein Enterprises, which oversees 2,500 units. “That includes installing solar panels where possible to reduce utility expenses and ultimately boost profit margins.”
Tech also has helped to reduce labor costs, especially with the advent of virtual showings.
“The largest impact we’ve seen from a technology standpoint has been people’s willingness to rent without visiting the property in person,” says Neil Schimmel, CEO of Woodland Hills, California-based Investors Management Group, which operates 3,600 units. “This has reduced staff time touring units and processing physical applications.”
While the pandemic continues to impact operators’ numbers across the industry, by pivoting quickly and leveraging technology, apartment pros can boost NOI, even in the face of a crisis.