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Multifamily Executive and its parent company, Zonda, held a two-day virtual conference at the end of May exploring how technology is impacting the multifamily industry—from design and development to resident experience. Here are seven takeaways from the proptech event.

1. The Future of Multifamily

In the kickoff panel, Waterton CEO, chairman, and co-founder David Schwartz and CREtech CEO Michael Beckerman discussed disruption and the future of technology in the multifamily housing industry. They both weighed in on what the industry might look like in 2040.

“I’m guessing all rent will be accepted in crypto,” said Schwartz. “And I think we will have a lot fewer people [in terms of staffing], and it will be a much more automated process.”

Beckerman added that there are a couple of areas that are worrisome when it comes to the industry’s long-term viability, with the first being climate change and climate technology.

“Every major city in the world is forcing the real estate industry to combat its responsibility in terms of climate change. You’re seeing it in New York and Los Angeles, and you’ll see it across the world,” he said. “Understand the risks that are coming and the penalties of not getting to net zero.”

Beckerman said the other major risk for the industry is companies coming into multifamily to steal customers. “Who is that?” he asked. “Is it some big tech company that wants your data? Yes, they want your data, and they are bigger and more equipped to do more with it. It leaves the industry sort of core and shell, and we are in the shell business. We want to get to the core business. The core business is data and technology and services and solutions.”

2. Top Tech for On-Site Management

John Helm, founder and partner of RET Ventures; Shawaun Alexander, vice president of operations software and systems at Bozzuto Management; and Brandy Daniel, vice president of business intelligence at BH Management Services, shared their top 10 technology products for improving site management.

Daniel cited smart access control, which is rolled out at about 18,000 units in the BH Management portfolio, as one of the top amenities residents want.

“Many communities aren’t taking advantage of this strong demand that is out there for this particular amenity. It sets us apart. It allows you the opportunity to stand out from your competitors while also getting a return on investment (ROI). It’s a win-win on the access controls,” she said. “Additionally, it helps manage the community. There are a lot of pieces to the community that right now we are having to do manually.”

Daniel added that having an automated access control has saved time for staff, for example not having someone manually lock the pools at night, and has made self-guided touring much easier.

Helm, whose firm RET is an investor in SmartRent, a smart home automation company, said, “We have had LPs tell us that they are seeing about $25 in technology fees that they can charge to the residents; that’s the clear ROI.”

For Alexander, COVID-19 has been a learning process of balancing technology and high-touch communication on the leasing process. Bozzuto Management has been utilizing FaceTime to conduct guided tours as well as using a self-guided tour technology solution.

“The big opportunity for us has been providing our customers with the ability to select the kind of experience they want and being able to facilitate that using a combination of technology and human touch from beginning to end,” she said.

3. Meeting Residents on Their Terms

The COVID-19 pandemic taught multifamily firms many lessons and emphasized the importance of meeting residents and prospective residents on their terms.

“Leasing remotely proved to be wildly successful,” said Yakov Belousov, executive director of operations at Pegasus Residential. “The second lesson is how partnering with technology and how we are engaging our customers and teams have really revolutionized our industry.”

Khushbu Sikaria, vice president, Mid-Atlantic, at Lincoln Property Co., added that the pandemic solidified that the industry needs to be more omnipresent in offering different types of tours, whether it’s guided, virtual, or self-guided.

“The goal is not to take away guided tours or completely disrupt what we’ve been doing,” she said. “We are just adding optionality and omnipresence to the mix.”

4. Demographic Update

“As a continuing trend, you need to know the demographics of your communities and know the demographics of your prospective renters,” said Chelsea Kneeland, director of research and development at J Turner Research.

Kneeland and Rick Haughey, vice president of industry technology initiatives at the National Multifamily Housing Council (NMHC), explored how generations are looking at technology in their homes during their demographic breakdown panel.

On the hot topic of short-term rentals, Haughey said NMHC data has found that almost 45% of Generation Z respondents said it was very important or important to be able to earn extra income by renting their apartment as a short-term rental. The percentage declined through the generations to 11% for the silent generation. When asked how knowing if a community allowed short-term rentals would impact a leasing decision, 75% of Gen Z renters also responded as positive or neutral, followed by 64% of millennials, 51% of Gen X, 42% of baby boomers, and 34% of the silent generation.

“Bottom line, you better know your resident base if you have short-term rentals in your community,” said Haughey. “Older residents are not a fan, but it doesn’t seem to bother younger renters.”

The pandemic exponentially increased the package and delivery headache for multifamily communities. J Turner Research recently surveyed if renters would pay an additional fee for package solutions, such as smart lockers, refrigerated lockers, or in-home deliveries.

“Overwhelming, across all generations, every respondent said ‘we are not interested in paying for a package solution.’ They really view this as a cost of doing business to our owners and operators and don’t want that cost passed on to them,” said Kneeland. “One key takeaway, the younger the generation, the more willing they are to let someone in their apartment.”

5. Post-COVID Amenity Trends

Cindy Clare, chief operating officer at Bell Partners, and Jeff Kok, chief innovation officer and chief information officer at Mill Creek Residential, shared the trends they think will stick around long after the pandemic and the ones that might fizzle.

“I do think the AI tools that we have seen, the virtual leasing, and self-guided tours will stay,” said Clare. “You still need people, but I think [these tools] allow for meeting the customer where they want to be met.”

Kok said there’s been a lot of conversation around trying to boost revenue by adding indoor air quality and monitoring, but he feels there are simpler solutions to implement. “While there is some science tied to that, it’s not as concrete as other elements. Why not just upgrade the air filters from MERV 8 to MERV 13, which you know blocks certain strands like COVID-19 and therefore you just have better filtration into the building?”

6. Whole-Building Wi-Fi

The pandemic also emphasized the critical importance of connectivity.

Elizabeth Parks, president of Parks Associates, an IoT market research and consulting firm, said its research shows that 53% of U.S. broadband households reported they value technology more than before COVID-19.

Parks said the average broadband household has 13 connected devices in the home, which is expected to grow to around 20 connected devices by 2025.

“When we look at the apartment environment, we certainly see a number of network issues that continue to grow as a result of devices being added, creating an issue for property managers to deal with, and that’s certainly where broadband and connectivity can play a big role,” she said. “We also see that the benefits of adding in certain platforms to help manage services in multi-dwelling unit environments has a great deal of impact for the residents in terms of increasing comfort, highlighting energy efficiency, convenience, security, cost savings, and finally health and wellness.”

Steve Yahnke, director of IT at Continental Properties, said his firm uses a bulk Wi-Fi model with a white-glove service for its residents. Instead of residents signing up with the provider of their choice, the units are already hot at move-in.

“The pandemic has certainly brought this to the forefront,” he said. “With a lot of consumers working from home, streaming from home, playing games from home, they want as fast as speed as they can get. We want to make sure we get the residents the best cost, best speed, and best customer care.”

7. Future-Proofing

Andrei Girenkov, senior managing director of enterprise technology and information security at Greystar, is looking ahead to essential building blocks for the next five to 10 years. He said there are so many tools out there, such as AI-based lead tools, smart home devices that are dependent on Wi-Fi infrastructure, and basic apps, but nobody has tied them all together.

“That’s really what needs to happen. And I think that’s going to happen quickly over the next five years,” he said.

Girenkov said if you’re in a certain class of housing—Class A, Class B+, luxury as well as middle market—if you don’t provide some of these capabilities, the building is going to be antiquated.

“What we are doing as a future-proofing measure, every building we are constructing today we are wiring for full-site Wi-Fi, even if we don’t have a full guided tour or digital access solutions to every unit today,” he said. “We are confident it’s an essential building block to this ecosystem that has to be in place. I think five to 10 years from now, in the higher end of the market, you’re not even going to be able to operate unless you have this class of solution.”

All of the sessions from the Multifamily Proptech event can be viewed on demand for $99 or for free with registration to the annual Multifamily Executive Conference, which will be held Sept. 13 to 15 at the Bellagio in Las Vegas.

In addition, Multifamily Executive and sister publication Affordable Housing Finance will hold a two-day virtual event focused on Missing Middle Housing on Aug. 10 and 11. For more information or to register, visit https://www.ahflive.com/events/ahf-august-forum.