Silver linings during the pandemic A view of the rental housing industry from the CFAA Operations Roundtable
By David Gargaro CFAA held its Virtual Rental Housing Conference from April 22 to June 17, including education sessions, networking events, awards presentations, and a tradeshow with virtual booths. On May 13, CFAA hosted the Operations Roundtable, a panel discussion among four members of the rental housing industry, moderated by John Dickie, President of CFAA. The panelists discussed rent collection, operations during the third wave of COVID-19, what has worked well or improved during the pandemic, gender equity in the industry, and rising insurance rates.
Rent collection Even though the panelists manage properties in different parts of Canada, they all found rent levels and rent collections were in good shape and comparable to pre-pandemic levels. Of course, there were variations in vacancy rates and challenges due to eviction freezes, but their respective situations were relatively solid moving forward. Moving to electronic rent collection helped to ensure timely payment from tenants. Trish MacPherson, Partner at Alignvest Student Housing REIT, offered a different perspective as she focused on student housing. Although colleges and universities had moved to online learning and there were fewer international students, she said the student housing market was still strong. Since students sign leases months in advance of needing the units, many had signed before the pandemic struck and occupancy rates remained high. The widespread use of guarantors supported rent collection. In 2021, leasing is being pushed later into the year than usual, as there is uncertainty about when students will return to inperson learning.
Managing under COVID-19, including working from home All the panelists found managing the changing rules during the pandemic to be challenging, particularly for rental providers operating in multiple provinces and municipalities. Ruth Buckle, Senior Vice President of Property Management at Killam Apartment REIT, said they had implemented stricter rules as the restrictions increased early on. However, they saw a need to reopen when it becomes possible so they can provide the services that tenants expect.
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The panelists acknowledged that management and employees were dealing with COVID-19 fatigue. They also recognized the effectiveness of enabling employees to work from home. They recommended developing best practices to support remote work and providing opportunities for managers to have in-person time with employees, albeit with physical distancing. Brandi McIlvenny, Director of Residential Rentals at Sifton Properties, suggested creating clarity and ensuring transparency around remote work and working from home. Her company allowed employees to design work schedules based on their lifestyle, allowing more inclusivity for parents. McIlvenny also acknowledged the need to recognize and support mental health while working from home during a pandemic. For example, Sifton provides wellness supports, opportunities for one-on-one counselling sessions, and Zoom sessions to help support employee resiliency and break down the negative connotations around mental health.
Silver linings The panelists identified a number of positive outcomes from being forced to change how they do business during the pandemic. While realizing the benefits associated with employees working remotely, they identified ways to reduce expenses and increase engagement with employees and tenants. McIlvenny mentioned that newsletters were seeing higher open rates, as more tenants were working from home, and there was higher participation in contests and on Sifton’s YouTube channel. Dean Holmes, Senior Vice President of Residential Operations with Quadreal, stated that the company has increased its usage of electronic rent collection, which has resulted in a higher percentage of tenants paying their rent on time. Their system also sends push notifications to tenants about what is going on in their building. On the management side, Quadreal is scanning cheques for deposit rather than taking them to the bank. Also, just before the pandemic struck, Quadreal had ordered electronic parcel lockers that enable tenants to manage their own deliveries without needing staff involvement.
Gender equity and diversity All the panelists were pleased that CFAA raised the issue of gender equity and diversity, and that it was receiving more regular attention. They stated that women are generally well represented within their organizations and across the rental housing industry. McIlvenny suggested that there is room to improve, particularly in elevating women to senior levels, ensuring equal work for equal pay, and providing transparency in pay structure. Buckle added that more work needs to be done to get women involved in the trades. She stated that Killam is working with the YWCA, with support from federal grants, to help create courses to train women in various trades and to educate male supervisors in issues that can arise. McIlvenny suggested getting feedback from employees to help refine business practices. She noted that the pandemic has disrupted workplaces and people’s lives. In the economy as a whole, the pandemic has eroded gender equality, as women have lost a higher percentage of jobs than men. However, McIlvenny believes there is an opportunity to reimagine the workplace and strengthen gender diversity and equity.
Rising insurance rates The roundtable wrapped up with a discussion of sharply increasing insurance rates. The panelists noted they’ve been seeing doubledigit percentage increases in new and renewing insurance rates. In some cases, insurance
companies were not willing to provide coverage for new properties being brought into rental providers’ portfolios. Buckle described a number of strategies for mitigating increases in insurance rates. She suggested creating a risk management and prevention program to reduce insurance risks in rental properties. This includes following up on events to prevent future occurrences, such as putting guards around building sprinklers to prevent them from being struck when items are carried through hallways or garbage rooms. Building owners should work with insurance providers to determine where savings can be found, such as increasing deductibles where it makes sense. Buckle also recommended being proactive in conversations with insurance providers to explain why you are a good risk. She noted that Killam’s buildings have high participation rates for tenant insurance, which means the tenants’ insurer (rather than the building owner’s insurer) pays for suite fires and other tenant-caused incidents, which are the bulk of claims. Killam inspects all units every six months, so they can identify and address plumbing issues, fire hazards, and other insurance risks. CFAA will be posting Killam’s detailed list of insurance tips. Access to the recordings of the roundtable, and CFAA’s other recent education panels, is available at www.CFAA-FCAPI.org.
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RHB, RHB Magazine, Pandemic, COVID-19