Lessons Learned in 2011

Live near where you work.
Buildings may account for 39% of greenhouse gas emissions but your daily commute may account for another 30%. People often think of their housing and car expenses as separate entities but they’re not. Your commute requires car payments, maintenance, gas and insurance. However, if you live close enough to work that you can walk, bike or take public transportation, you’re more likely to spend your hard earned dollars locally and that’s good for the neighborhood. In fact, according to Susan Piedmont-Palladino, ditching the car could leave you with an extra eight grand every year to spend.

Oil Is Old Technology
We don’t just need to burn less fossil fuels, we need to stop burning fossil fuels altogether. That means we must use less energy in all its various forms, electricity included, and we must produce the energy we use from renewable sources. Wherever you are or whatever you are doing, you are using energy, most likely from the grid, and it’s dirty. Maybe not all of it but even here in sustainable Santa Monica, 40% of our electricity comes from coal. This would be depressing to me except for the fact that, as a building owner, I know I can be part of the solution by contributing clean, renewable energy to the grid via solar and that is exactly what we are planning for 2012.

Collaborative Consumption Is Here to Stay
The planet’s resources simply cannot provide every thing for every body on the planet, so collaborative consumption is a necessity in order to conserve resources. And that’s okay because the internet now allows to create geographic databases and social networks that enable users to share their wealth, so to speak. Whether its sharing your ladder via Neighbor Goods or renting out your car via Getaround, these networks make it possible for us to consume less and, I believe, place a greater emphasis on well made or as Saul Griffith calls them “heirloom goods”.

Be Prepared for Rain
If you live in a drought prone area, you better be prepared to capture, conserve or infiltrate any rain that falls on your property. Flood prone or heavily paved over areas need to become better infiltrators, meaning property owners need to do a better job of making sure the rain that falls on their property goes into the ground and not down the sewer or into the streets where it contributes to the problem. If greywater use is not legal in your area, it’s time to get those codes changed. Water is the new oil, cheap now but prices are rising and availability is diminishing.

What have you learned from 2011 and how are you planning to implement changes in 2012?

Other Articles of Interest:

Opportunities Abound for Sustainable Operations

A New Kind of Give & Take for Property Management

Does Your Association Have a Sustainability Committee?

Everything Old Is New Again

Handkerchiefs are not just for dress up

Recently, the batteries ran out on one of our wall clocks and I started to wonder if we shouldn’t think about investing in a couple of wind up clocks!  If we wound up the clocks, we could stop using batteries altogether and wouldn’t that be better for the environment?  In that spirit, here are few of my favorite old time substitutions:

Cloth napkins are not just for the dinner table anymore.  We also use them to cover foods in the microwave, darker colors are better for this purpose.  They do need to be laundered but they’ve never added so much to the pile that I had to wash an extra load.

Handkerchiefs are not just gentlemanly.  They, like napkins, are also more sustainable than paper products (tissues) and can be tossed into the laundry without causing the basket to overflow.

Rags can be used for cleaning instead of paper towels or (breathe deeply, ladies) toilet paper.  As a graduate of Outward Bound, I know full well how to manage my personal hygiene on the trail and now the time has come to bring those wilderness principles into the home.

Picnic and party supplies such as paper plates and plastic cups and utensils may seem easy but they take their toll on the environment and landfills.  If you’re having a party, ask friends if they have extra dishes and silverware they are willing to donate for the evening’s festivities.  Dining poolside or alfresco and worried about breakage or weight?  Consider borrowing or buying lightweight re-usable melanine or plastic serving pieces.

Other articles of interest:

Gifts That Help Reduce Reuse & Recycle

Residential Energy Management Systems

Borrowing Your Residents’ Green Brains

Working, Clean and Green

The maintenance challenges of property management are multiple and further complicated by today’s economics.  Few budgets currently have a line item for ‘window replacement’, so managers need to make the most of the tools they have.

As a first step, windows should open, close and lock with minimal physical effort.  Poorly performing windows will also aggravate residents a lot more than they will bother their property managers.  A cloudy or dirty window, however, can be just as annoying as one that doesn’t open or close properly. Unlike a leaking roof, windows are not generally an emergency repair which is why these simple requests often remain near the bottom of a property manager’s To-Do list.  All building products age and need to be repaired, restored or replaced, but even something as seemingly minor as too much paint will restrict proper window function. A good habit for managers to develop at turnover time is window checks and repairs.

Complications that occur because of weather, a particular property’s siting or pollution affect the integrity of organic housing materials.  Windows without regularly scheduled maintenance also can develop problems. Whether a property manager is in a locale like Southern California where it only rains a few months of the year, or in a northern climate requiring storm windows, urban properties can also need extra care. Grime and pollution from multiple sources affect not only the exterior of the window but filter into apartment interiors too.  

Because of load-bearing concerns, high-rise residential properties have more stringent building code requirements for window quality, but that doesn’t protect these buildings from developing glass problems if proper maintenance is neglected. In many urban locations managers schedule more frequent window-cleaning because of concern about the greater exposure to vehicle exhaust, grit and industrial pollution. 

Although windows are mainly glass, they are complete mechanical systems.  Screen washing, track cleaning, frame and window sill cleaning should all be included in any maintenance order. 

Removing residue without toxic chemicals can be challenging, but there are many environmentally sound products available today.  Here is an inexpensive window cleaning formula that will eliminate the grime buildup problem when used regularly:

Combine 1/4 cup vinegar, 1/2 teaspoon liquid soap or detergent, and 2 cups of water in a spray bottle. Shake to blend and then spray on your windows allowing to set for a minute or two.

For those who prefer a commercial cleaner, try Seventh Generation’s Glass & Surface Cleaner.  Seventh Generation’s advertising stresses that its non-toxic product will not harm “those little ones who might press their faces or hands against the glass”.  Also a good green product will not emit any harsh fumes and should be safe to use on glass, mirrors, stainless steel and most other surfaces. If it is not, read the label again as it may not be as green as you thought!

Caring for windows properly means removing grime before it can pit or affect the integrity of the window glass.  Glass is hard and one of the most stable architectural materials, but it can disintegrate over time if exposed to the wrong chemicals and humidity. Many people mistakenly believe that all older windows should be replaced, but glass manufactured during and after the 19th century has an extensive life.  In fact, the Brooklyn Planning Department advises residents that wooden windows can be very energy efficient if properly maintained or restored and suggests that replacement should be a last resort.

Windows are meant to last as long (or longer) than the original structure and will with proper maintenance. Before making the decision to replace windows, it is wise to contact a professional window restorer.  Replacing the glass in an older, good quality wooden window with a double or triple thermal pane actually makes that window highly energy efficient. Restoration also saves the embedded energy that would have been necessary to replace the entire window assembly.

Even if prospective residents do not consciously react to window status, clean windows are a critical part of curb appeal. Grimy, clouded window panes can undermine an apartment building’s first, second and third impression. Certainly keeping a building as clean as possible not only impresses prospective tenants but pleases the existing ones.  Well-maintained walkways, hallways and grounds all speak volumes about the quality of management, but there is nothing like sparkling windows to broadcast, ”This is a really great building”.

Emergency Preparedness Checklist

Active Volcano, Mt. Saint Helens, Washington State

No one wants to focus on all the horrible things that can happen to us, which is probably why we neglect efforts at disaster preparedness. Unfortunately, as Japan’s triple disaster vividly illustrates, the worst possible scenarios can and do happen. Coal mining, oil well exploration, deep water drilling, nuclear reactor operation and aggressive urbanization and development of critically sensitive eco-systems also contribute to a planet that has its own brand of geological and weather volatility. 

As scientists admit these events are a partial consequence of our actions, they also suggest we brace ourselves for more. In fact, 2010 was a record year. The Université Catholique de Louvain in Brussels recently completed a study that determined 296,800 people died last year during natural disasters. That number included 50,000 Russians who succumbed during a summer heat wave and 222,000 Haitians who perished in the January 2010 earthquake.  The human cost was completely horrific, although none of the economic losses have exceeded those of Katrina, Rita and Wilma, the 2005 hurricanes.

New Orleans 9th Ward homes a block behind the collapsed canal

It would be nice if we could breathe a sigh of relief and be thankful 2005 and 2010 are over, but Margareta Wahlstrom, the U.N. special envoy for disasters, warns that these types of weather events are expected to accelerate. The World Meteorological Organization(WMO) also agrees. The WMO has indicated our most recent extreme and volatile weather patterns are caused by La Nina and El Nino weather conditions. The WMO predicts these patterns will continue for the next 25 years.  Meteorologists and other climate scientists blame unplanned urbanization, environmental degradation and climate change as big contributors to these problems as well. Simply translated, humans are making big weather even messier. 

A toppled Tsunami warning sign

We may be unable to predict or prevent disasters, but property managers are in a unique position to reduce potential suffering. Being prepared to help residents survive until rescuers and emergency response teams can reach them will reduce the impact of these disasters. Some residents may have supplies, but properly storing essentials on-site can improve resident safety, comfort and outcomes. 

The Property Manager’s Emergency Checklist: 

√ Potable Water is the biggest need people have during emergencies and disasters. As the average person needs at least a gallon a day, storing three days worth of water for every resident is the ideal. Although cisterns and hot water heaters can be sources, in the event of a quake or flood, these may become compromised.  We are big fans of general recycling, but skip the plastic milk containers. They are not designed for water storage and eventually leak making plastic water bottles the best choice. Even if there are water sources like rain, creeks, rivers, etc., use these natural waters with caution as they can become contaminated during a natural or man-made disaster. 

√ Sterilization  Broken sewer lines or flood waters mixed with untreated sewage will contain bacteria and parasites. Small children or those with compromised immune systems are most at risk if they drink contaminated water. Chlorine drops can be used in non-chlorinated drinking water – and if left for 24 hours the chlorine evaporates – but this method is not always sufficient. Boiling water is the quickest and best technique to assure harmful bacteria are destroyed.
  
√ Cooking Sources Access to a camp stove is helpful as long as gas lines are turned off in the immediate area. The same concern should be used with regard to outdoor barbecues or open fires. That said, keeping a few small camp stoves and sufficient fuel for shared use could make a big difference to residents.
  
√ Radios and Batteries  Crank operated or battery-operated radios may be the only source of outside communication if the electricity blows, satellite connections are lost and mobile phones lose service. Wireless devices will not help, obviously, so having that old-style radio is a lifesaver. Of course, car radios can also work, but they will run down the vehicle’s battery in the process.
  
√ Land Lines are connected separately from the electrical grid, so it is wise to have at least one in the office. That way it is possible to have telephone service even when the grid fails.
  
√ Flashlights, Batteries and Glow Sticks are critical and much safer than candles mainly because of the potential fire and gas hazards. Also, candle life is so short – given the bright lighting to which we are accustomed – that candles alone are impractical. Children are also safer without a live flame.
  
√ Food Supplies stored for emergencies should be dried or canned and accompanied by a couple of manual can openers. Canned prepared foods like tuna fish and soups along with dried foods like rice, legumes and pasta are all good survival choices.
 
√ Pet food is also a critical part of any food storage effort.
 
√ First Aid Kits are notoriously under-equipped, so give yours extra thought. A bunch of different sized Band-Aids may seem like enough, but consider stocking a couple pairs of scissors, a knife, sterile needles and surgical thread, plenty of large sterile gauze pads and dressings, tweezers for removing splinters, a tourniquet, antibacterial soap, sterilization solutions like hydrogen peroxide and iodine, ipecac to induce vomiting in case of accidental poisoning, over-the-counter medicines like aspirin and Tylenol, et cetera. 

 
 √ Emergency Gas and Water Shut Off Tool  This incredibly helpful tool is sold at most hardware stores and is used specifically for shutting off gas lines and water mains. The manager can also use the tool as a pick to remove meter covers. As most but not all water systems are standardized, it is important to verify the correct size needed. Your local utility company should be happy to guide you on which tool to buy.
 
 

Emergency Gas and Water Shut Off Tool

√ General Tools and Supplies for the types of weather events and disasters in your area will differ. Gold Mylar blankets, for instance, are highly visible in a snowy area. Here are some general suggestions: 

  • Gold/silver reversible Mylar emergency blankets
  • A master pass key to all apartments
  • A diagram of the building for rescuers
  • A small supply of essentials like toilet paper, baby formula, diapers
  • A shovel, ax, hammer, wrench, nails, tarps, rope, rope ladder and other tools
  • A gas generator and stored gas (replace gas on schedule as it degrades over time)
  • Gas for your vehicles for emergency use
  • Cash in small denominations

There is no better way to protect and serve your residents than by being able to deliver critical help during an emergency. It may take some extra effort and expense, but there is no downside to being prepared. 

 

Green Education for Real Estate Appraisers

Fuel Cell Arrival at 360 State Street, New Haven, CT. Courtesy: Bozzutto

The Appraisal Institute (AI), an organization that provides educational opportunities for both commercial and residential appraisers, has taken the bold step of trying to educate the public.  

It is a wise public relations move intended to elevate the appraiser’s role in sales and financing transactions with the hope that it will replace the lay person’s impression of appraisers as ’delay-makers’ or ’deal-killers’. Taken at face value, the AI’s advice to buyers could be expected to accelerate if not improve the appraisal result as well as a buyer’s experience and level of satisfaction. The expanded two page pdf document is here, but we offer the following as the essence of the advice: 

  • Understand the role of appraisals.
  • Make sure the lender hires a qualified appraiser (such as a designated SRA, SRPA or MAI member of the Appraisal Institute).
  • Accompany the appraiser during the inspection of the property if possible.
  • Request a copy of the appraisal report from the lender.
  • Examine the appraisal report and ask questions.
  • Appeal the appraisal if appropriate.
  • Ask the lender to order a second appraisal by a qualified and designated appraiser.
  • File legitimate complaints with appropriate state board or professional appraisal organizations.

AI’s president, Joseph C. Magdziarz, goes even further by acknowledging both borrower angst and pain by proclaiming, 

“Too many consumers in this struggling real estate market face problems with appraisals when attempting to buy or sell a home. But rather than passively endure delays in closing a sale, homeowners and buyers can take proactive steps to avoid pitfalls.” 

It all sounds great, Joe, but over the last few years the Appraisal Institute – and many others lobbying on the industry’s behalf - have made it impossible (and in some cases illegal) for buyers or loan officers to have any contact with the appraiser.  In fact, in some states like Washington, a third party loan originator must use an intermediary to even schedule an appraisal. Unfortunately, the problem this is intended to solve – undue pressure on appraisers to come in at sales price – creates additional problems.  The best appraisers are lumped in with the average and incompetent, and the trust relationship so important in any real estate transaction can be further eroded. Using a random appraiser - who may or may not have experience in a particular community – is risky, particularly with such a volatile marketplace. 

AI’s remedy of asking a lender for a second appraisal -  lenders often require second or review appraisals anyway – borders on naiveté. The expense of that second appraisal almost certainly will be borne by the borrower. The first appraisal will be provided to the second appraiser, and few will substantially counter the first appraiser’s original conclusions. In residential commercial real estate transactions the cost of a second appraisal could range in the thousands of dollars. In the current real estate market appraisers are also tending toward the low end of the market as a precaution and to hedge their liability. Candidly, this defeats the whole purpose of an appraisal which is technically to determine the value of a particular property on a specific date in the appraiser’s opinion. There is always a market range, but coasting down to the low sales averages is just as inaccurate as only picking the top sales. In addition, if an appraiser does stick his or her neck out, their entire valuation may be discarded. There are addenda and predictions in most appraisals on which way the financial and economic wind is blowing, but  an appraiser is not a prophesier. With so many appraisers lingering on the bottom numbers for safety, even if there is a measurable rise in the amounts offered by buyers, these sales will rarely complete at those numbers. This further undermines one of the oldest appraisal rules determining market value: willing seller/willing buyer. 

We do applaud the AI for these newest courses for AI members and making them available as well to others in the real estate and lending industries. The courses below comprise the Valuation of Sustainable Buildings’ Professional Development Program currently, but additional courses are being developed and will be added to the program.  

Courses intended for appraisers wishing to receive an official designation as Certified Residential Green Appraisers are also offered by other entities like the Earth Advantage Institute (EAI), a Portland area building-rating non-profit.  EAI’s excellent course was developed by Taylor Watkins, one of the first appraisers with practical green appraising experience in the northwest. The course is sponsored by Earth Advantage and has been co-sponsored by the State of Washington several times in the past year. 

Of course, sustainable design and construction practices within building science include great complexity. The speed at which new green materials, construction methods and building systems are being developed further complicates the educational process. Although the percentage of sustainably built construction has increased dramatically over the last three years, the majority of our existing building stock - somewhere between 95% to 97% – remains incredibly energy-inefficient. This creates problems for appraisals of sustainable projects mainly because there are few comparable sales against which to develop a value range for the greener projects. An unfortunate result is that a building with a conventional HVAC system – no matter how energy inefficient - is often considered comparable to buildings with superior HVAC systems. If the cost factor of both systems was equivalent, it would be a mute point, but they are not. 

This sort of specific knowledge is valuable for appraisers – and buyers – but the reality is that the market has yet to value sustainability features for their worth over the lifespan of a building. This is where education can make a big difference in appraisals, but real estate lending underwriters and HUD need to cooperate and change regulations to acknowledge and address these issues. Presently many underwriters will not allow appraisers to add value for the increased efficiency of a green building or the anticipated future utility savings when the benefits inure to the occupants. In a perfect appraisal world, these savings would be used to offset the cost of the often large-ticket green systems and improvements. It would also establish that rents that included lower-cost utilities (or the lower utilities cost paid directly by residents) would allow for higher rental amounts. 

The current policy discourages innovation. For instance, an appraisal of a building with alternative energy production resources – like rooftop photovoltaics or a fuel cell that require a major investment – under current regulations and practices are technically over-improved.   This means that the appraiser must consider the extra cost of the building ‘out of the market’ and the value of those improvements is subtracted from the total cost/sales price or even shown as a negative.  The result is that the cost to add or build these alternative HVAC systems will not be financed by a conventioanl lender beyond the cost for a non-sustainable system.

Suddenly the down payment need jumps from 10% to 30% or 40%, which has the obvious chilling effect on the buyer, builder or owner’s desire for that improvement. Grants, incentives and tax rebates have been filling this lending gap, but what really needs to change are the appraisal rules. That can only be accomplished with education of the public and the cooperation of Washington, D.C., lenders and industry players like the Appraisal Institute and the U.S. Department of Energy. 

Of course, the magic of the real estate market is that none of us can predict anything with 100% accuracy.  However, like appraisers, some of us can use common sense and be pretty good guessers. Appraisal rules need to reflect the realities of the market as well as provide a correct valuation of the more costly but sustainable improvements needed to improve our quality of life.  If we want to encourage cleaner and more energy-efficient HVAC alternatives within our old and new building stock, we need to give a fair and realistic value to these improvements. 

Other Articles of Interest: 

Living the Platinum Dream: 360 State Street 

Green Appraisals: An Art Form, Part I 

Green Appraisals: An Art Form, Part II 

  

  

Cross Selling and Techie Behaviors at What Psychic Cost?

As paperless operations trump conventional ones we are big on-line fans, but property managers need to put some thought into how best to use the industry’s newest tools. Yesterday’s managers had it a lot easier as their roles were very defined.  They were not expected to manage all aspects of the property from systems maintenance to marketing. For instance, when they generated good publicity, everybody was grateful as this was not an assigned responsibility. 

Conversely, today’s professionals are expected to be fully versed in marketing, promotion and media management while they cross-sell everybody including their grandmother. 

This potential power-of-persuasion hype can also garner unrealistic expectations by owners. We all recognize there is a limit to what managers can accomplish with a social media fan page and an on-line leasing button. However, as these sites have millions of members we gave gigantic expectations, even if we are not sure exactly for whom they have value. Hopefully we can agree that it takes truly effective promotion and marketing to create a lasting impact. Professional marketing also requires real skills and expert planning for any reliable result. In addition, with exponential growth on-line and planned distraction incorporated on many sites, it is almost a miracle when prospective residents land anywhere near your site.  A property’s reputation has also become as critical to healthy operations as the use of green products, sustainable materials and chemical-free landscaping. One bed bug posting and it can take years to recover.

The old way of marketing was time-intensive and required lots of face-to-face and voice-to-voice contact. Publicity and promotion were tools used to get the phone to ring because that gave the salesman an opportunity to sell.  Today’s marketers are also dealing with a much more callous public often sporting at least one jaundiced eye. People no longer naively respond to the Madison Avenue siren call. Combined with the dip in consumerism, this seems to have created marketing hysteria.  Any casual contact is now considered a new opportunity to sell something else. This boiler room mentality is not only tiresome, but it seems to grind up everybody on both sides of the equation. And in many cases, such as tenant retention, it is an inappropriate tactic.

On the other hand, the cover article for the National Apartment Association’s UNITS Magazine this month read, “Texting Residents Gets a Thumbs Up”. This was the opinion of the managers who were trying to reach Generation Y-ers for overdue rent. Of course, the way many of us keep our phones out in front of us, text messages can be inadvertently read by others. Frankly, I cringed over imagining sending or getting that message. Certainly, a text message can be a last resort for some managers, but it seems to me more like a violation of privacy. Then again, my children might feel differently as they respond to text messages long before emails or phone calls.

When trying to lease apartments or improve our multifamily communities’, what if a portion of the energy focused on exploiting the seemingly boundless opportunities of social media, tech and cross-selling were redirected? The same time could be invested in a more practical marketing plan with targeted results. It is flattering to have a bunch of on-line friends and supporters, of course, but property managers don’t see that kind of activity on their pages. People are sick of the pushing employees are required to foist on them whether they are prospects or existing customers. If a busy property manager sees no value in these promotions or sites, he or she will also act accordingly. A poorly delivered robotic offer of services or badly maintained fan or website make a bad first and last impression. Here are a few examples of cross-selling and other less-than-respectful on-line practices within my recent experience:

Tenant: “No matter how many times I diplomatically said I already had phone, cable and internet service, my manager kept insisting I should bundle everything through him. I was so annoyed I forgot to give him the rent check, so I waited until after hours and slipped it under the door.”

Bank employee: “Every conversation I have with a customer has to include cross-selling. I can’t hand a person a dollar without pressing them to sign up for another visa card or something else they clearly don’t want. I hate it but I do it because I can’t afford to lose my job and my manager is watching me.”

Business Associate: “My friend and I told the waiter we were ready to order, but he avoided eye contact and barged ahead offering us additional appetizers, side orders, expensive ‘one time a year’ lobsterfest specials and a plethora of fattening desserts. After waiting for a table for 45 minutes, we were short on time, extremely hungry and both felt like slapping him by the time he finished. We’ll eat someplace else next time.”

This Writer: “While doing research on the company, I signed up for a coupon site.  The next morning I got an email from my daughter with a mysterious link.  Sure it was a joke, I clicked and discovered I could make $17,000 a month working from home. Of course, I immediately tried to put everything into spam. Before my system complied, however, the auto-response asked if I wanted to unsubscribe from Groupon which was the coupon site. Obviously, their system had hacked my address book.”

My point is that spamming your prospects, tricking them into links or using them to pump up your visitor numbers - whether you do it with annoying face-to-face encounters or on-line - is just plain stupid. The mistrust around Internet advertising – particularly the undocumentable pay-per-clicks route – will certainly continue, but customers wise up quickly. If you use these tactics on your website or fan pages you will find your site abandoned rather quickly. 

A social media presence may have become the way to manage free publicity, but frankly, superficial connections – no matter how deep we would like to think they are – are just that.  Of course, whether we approve or disapprove of social media no longer matters. These entities are as embedded in our culture as cell phones, which is why it is important to remember that it is a mistake to turn a fan page into a slick advertisement or the equivalent of a robo-call. Here are a few tips to maximize good publicity and maintain a healthy off and on-line media presence:

  1. Write press releases for the local daily/weekly newspapers, neighborhood newsletters and blogsites when something great or newsworthy happens like you saved an urban chicken, added solar roof panels or instituted allergen-free management practices for a tenant.
  2. Keep a maximum ‘two clicks’ policy for practical website navigation.
  3. Eliminate ’mysterious’ links intended to lure prospects for the infamous cross-sale maneuver.
  4. Don’t email or text without resident permission.
  5. Prominently post important info like up-coming maintenance schedules but keep the fluff (like the dog biscuit recipe) way down on the newsletter.
  6. Provide attractive property info on the website, but don’t  slow site navigation with gigabytes of graphics.
  7. Tell the truth and nothing but the truth and do not exaggerate!
  8. Offer local vendors and retailers’ coupons - they are always a hit - but remove them by the expiration date.
  9. Present useful information on your site and in your emails like local cultural events,  new neighborhood services and local school news.
  10. Offer website hot-buttons with options for paying rent on-line, ordering repairs and referring friends.
  11. Post staff bios with photos, who has responsibility for what, emergency telephone numbers and business hours.
  12. Highlight your management’s community involvement in your e-newsletters and on your social sites.

An attractive website or Fan page is important, but the driving principle should always be to make these sites informational and useful. On the cross-selling?  If it’s mandatory, keep track of the contacts and results – good and bad – and try to refine it. If it isn’t, use restraint. If your communications are frequent and meaningful to residents, simple reminders of available services with plenty of hot links will suffice.

Leases, Crime Prevention and Eviction

Property managers are on the front lines of social problems because they work with entire communities.  People are generally wonderful, of course, but a few seem to make a habit of spoiling it for the rest of us. What has this got to do with sustainability and green property management? Actually, quite a lot. Criminal activity is often the first sign that a multifamily property is beginning a decline. A few criminal incidents and residents and management can become discouraged or distracted. The resources that could be directed toward more sustainable property management by necessity are re-focused into security and related issues. 

Safety in our homes should be something we can all agree creates a healthier, better community, but reducing a criminal element while respecting the privacy laws of residents can be a challenge.  The success of efforts to keep gangs, drugs and crime out of multifamily housing  can benefit from state-of-the-art professional help.

Although criminals can be violent in their own homes, they are less likely to risk the chance of getting caught by committing certain other types of felonies on home ground. For instance, those stealing personal property would be disinclined to steal a neighbor’s mountain bike or lawn mower for their personal use as the property could be identified. It is difficult for property managers with suspicions to identify criminals with absolute certainty. This has kept ’transient’ criminal activity under their usual radar and left them with few tools to ban or evict residents who intentionally or inadvertently assist criminal behavior.

The International Crime Free Association (ICFA) intends to change this. The organization offers its police department members a comprehensive program developed  to train local property managers in basic crime prevention. The program uses the managers to assist the police department with resident education and performs property inspections. The training also provides best grounds and maintenance procedures and outlines lease addendums that can speed legitimate evictions. Managers are also given access to certain types of police data and other tools intended to discourage criminal opportunity within their multifamily communities.

The newest ICFA member in the U.S. will be the Orlando, Florida Police Department (OFPD). The OFPD announced that the program will make it easier for landlords to evict problem tenants and their visitors who commit crimes. There are three aspects to the educational program, which the organization claims has reduced police calls in some complexes by 70%. Certification in the program requires:

I. Property managers receive training through the police department which includes:

  • Crime Prevention Theory
  • CPTED Theory (Physical Security)
  • Benefits of Resident Screening
  • Lease Agreements and Eviction Issues
  • Crime Free Lease Addendum
  • Key Control and Master Key Use
  • On-Going Security Management Monitoring and Responding to Criminal Activity
  • Gangs, Drugs Activity, and Crime Prevention
  • Legal Warnings, Notices & Evictions
  • Working Smarter With the Police
  • Fire and Life Safety Training
  • Community Awareness

To prevent the  ”Wild Bill Mentality”, the property manager is required to undergo training before the police department commits to any further program involvement. After the crime prevention and awareness training, property managers receive certification as an instructor and a 100 page manual with additional reference handouts for residents.

The sample lease addendum the ICFA provides is intended to create a legal agreement between the tenant and the landlord that allows for eviction if there are any criminal activities by the tenant or guests. Before use the addendum should be reviewed by an attorney as state rules vary somewhat, but the general theory of using a legal contract to forbid illegal activity is valid.  These agreements have been in many lease contracts with regard to other forbidden uses – like manufacturing illegal substances or having five dogs – but this particular lease addendum specifically outlines the eviction consequence.  

If tenants, or their friends and family, commit crimes that become part of the police department’s record, the lease agreement triggers the eviction process.  Of course, managers can use discretion, but at least they have a legal tool. In some cases where there is a continuing problem the resident has been intimidated by the criminal or the resident is colluding with the criminal.

II. After the property manager is certified as an instructor, the police department will perform a property survey to ensure:

  • Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design Survey (CPTED)
  • Minimum door, window, and lock standards compliance inspection
  • Minimum exterior lighting standards evaluation
  • Key Control procedures evaluation
  • Landscape maintenance standards compliance

Each property is unique, but correcting lighting, pruning shrubs and reinforcing doors and windows can eliminate many problems.  Creating open, visible entryways and the use of occupancy sensors to fully light alleys and parking areas are just a few areas that can be inexpensively and quickly improved.

III. The final step in the ICFA program involves an educational program provided to the residents in community awareness. Led by the manager and the police department, residents are taught how to prevent crime and given practical information. There are many groups like Neighborhood Watch that are citizen-run and effective, but  property managers can have unique authority and additional credibility with their residents.  This authority is reinforced by residents awareness that their manager has sanctioned access  to police department information.

Certainly peaceful enjoyment of one’s home is an ideal, but the cooperation of committed property managers, police and residents can help protect our communities. Beyond personal satisfaction, the payback is more than a safer community. Other positive outcomes will include lower maintenance costs, higher occupancy rates and better tenant retention.

The Committed Green Renter

Prospective renters may have less bargaining power than they did a year ago, but a smart property manager will always recognize and cater to reasonable requests from a well-qualified prospect or existing tenant. Renters can and should broach the subject of green living with property managers and communicate which improvements matter to them.

A more sustainable lifestyle requires a thoughtful approach overall.  Space requirements, location and means can present challenges, but renters should keep the basics in mind.

  • A reasonably-sized apartment will be one that meets but does not exceed space needs. 
  • Rarely used rooms still need heat and cooling and waste energy.

For instance, homes with added value are:

  • Within walking distance of a workplace
  • An apartment close to public transit – generally considered 1/4 mile
  • Sited in a walkable neighborhood with easy access to shops, schools and services

Greater density streamlines delivery of services and lowers transport expenses, which helps make multifamiling living one of the most sustainable lifestyles. Individual buildings have different properties, however, so taking a more systematic approach to comparing rentals is wise.

Some states now require owners to disclose utility expenses to prospective tenants, but even if they do not, many property managers are happy to provide additional information. Here are a few ideas:

  1. Verify utility expenses when possible even if they are included in the rent – as when utility costs rise, rents will rise proportionately.
  2. Check the unit for drafts and holes or gaps around windows and doors – and ask for caulking and weatherizing when required.
  3. Particularly in an older building it can be more expensive to condition the air, so if you love that ’40’s look identify the heating system and check for good cross-ventilization.
  4. Check the source of heat and cooling and ask about the age of the system.
  5. Inquire about the age of appliances and whether they have EnergyStar certification – older equipment is generally less efficient.
  6. Check the hot water heater for age and leaks.

Although renters may have less control over the building envelope, they can request many things that can lower utility costs and their property manager’s expenses such as:

  1. Access to on-line rent payment and paperless communication 
  2. A programmable thermostat for the heating or cooling system
  3. Insulation around the hot water heater
  4. Low flow showerheads and faucet aerators
  5. Full recycling options
  6. Resetting of the temperature to 120 degrees Farenheit on the hot water heater

The greenest apartment may offer far more sustainable living overall, but residents can improve any home’s performance. Here are a few ideas:

  1. During the winter, open south-facing drapes and blinds to allow passive solar heating.
  2. Take shorter showers, run the dishwasher only with full loads and turn off the water while brushing teeth, hand-washing dishes, etc.
  3. Do not block cooling and heating vents so conditioned air can flow easily.
  4. Turn the thermostat up or down a few degrees and wear appropriate clothing.
  5. Remember to use ‘natural’ ventilation by opening doors and windows when weather allows.
  6. Use environmentally friendly cleaning products, detergents and pest control methods.
  7. Avoid the disposable mentality by reusing, repairing and recycling
  8. Dispose of used CFLs and hazardous waste at designated recyling and disposal centers.

Living more sustainably works best when it is a collaborative process embraced by the entire community. For more tips and suggestions on living a more sustainable lifestyle, check out the Environmental Protection Agency’s website.

Who Pays When Tech and Infrastructure Tank?

 

Multnomah Falls, Oregon Courtesy of Salvador Madrigal

 

Public water utility managers have mostly been thrilled with the latest technology for water meter reading. It can allow dramatic reductions in staff hours and reduce billing and collection costs, but some utilities are experiencing major system flaws. Atlanta, Georgia, is one of those cities.  

Atlanta’s water bills and meter reading issues have increased dissatisfaction among Atlantans, many of whom already resented paying for upgrades neglected by previous generations.  For decades the city allowed the disintegration of the water and sewer systems in Atlanta and some city leaders – notably Mayor Bill Campbell later sentenced to prison for tax evasion -  even paid Federal fines in lieu of making the legally mandated repairs or following environmental protection requirements.  

That all changed when Mayor Shirley Franklin took over in 2001 and began to address the water and sewer problems. The years of neglect were costly, however, and Atlanta now pays more for sewer and water fees than any other city in the country.  Specifically, Atlanta’s city dwellers pay 98 percent more than in Nashville, 144 percent more than in San Antonio and 108 percent more than in New York.   

Mayor Shirley Franklin

 

Some of the differential in water bills can be attributed to a series of fee increases that began to be scheduled as far back as 2004. The administrators who originally hoped that they could be gradually instituted without too much consumer resistance have also watched population growth in Atlanta put additional pressure on water usage without new water sources.  As the cost of water everywhere is also increasing, this would not be particularly noteworthy except for one thing.  Many Atlantans’ water bills have risen exponentially without any identifiable changes in customer usage. For over a year customers have complained that average bills of $100 a month leaped to hundreds of dollars. In some extreme cases, the increases have been thousands. There have also been constant complaints about the difficulty of getting these billing errors corrected.  

Certainly there can be many reasonable explanations for an escalation in water bills.  Undiagnosed leaks or the change in water use experienced when filling a swimming pool are examples, but most over-billed customers in Atlanta have not been in these categories.  Bill disputes can be filed on-line with the Atlanta Department of  Watershed Management (ADWN), and their website states a meter verification will be scheduled within 2 days. The ADWN’s website also suggests a hands-on process for customers that promises to help identify plumbing leaks. Here are the instructions:   

Make sure all the water is off in your home (no washing machine or dishwashers running). Go out to your water meter in the ground, remove the lid and see if the dial is moving. If the dial moves at all, and you are sure no water on your property is on, then there is a leak somewhere in your plumbing between where it starts at the meter and your home. If you have a crawl space, be sure to check there also.  

Jim Beard, the deputy commissioner and chief financial officer of Atlanta’s Department of  Watershed Management (ADWM) since September 2010, believes they have now diagnosed at least one problem.  It appears that up to 25% of the new meters – or about 30,000 – could have had their antennas installed incorrectly. His office denies, however, that the antenna installation is responsible for the water billing problems. He was quoted by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution as follows:  

“This is not an operational issue affecting the functionality of the meter. What it does is affect the meter reading process. This is not a billing issue.”   

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution further reported that the problem water-meter antennas had been installed upside down. Beard stated that the backwards antenna installation reduced the reading range from 2 miles away to a need to stand over the meter. However, as a main purpose of installing the new meters was to increase efficiency and lower operating costs, customers are not particularly happy with this disclosure either. Neither was City Councilwoman Natalyn Archibong, chair of the city utilities’ committee, who sees a direct correlation between the billing problem and the faulty antenna performance. According to the Atlanta Journal Constitution, she stated:  

“I am not persuaded [the antennas do not cause faulty readings]. In my mind the number of complaints and the need to correct the antenna problem is related to the bills. I would be surprised if they were not related.”  

Other accusations are still flying about including one by Deputy Commissioner Beard. He stated publicly that somebody in the Department of Watershed Management knew about the improper antenna installation and actually allowed the installation contractor to use short-cuts. This is sure to fuel the on-going debate about whether control and maintenance of the new system – with costs estimated at $4.1 billion when it is finished - and maintenance costs estimated in the millions annually should be returned to city employees.  

Whether the backward antenna installations are corrected or not, Atlanta residents who paid $50 a month for water in 2009 can expect to be pay $153 a month by the end of 2012 even when their bill is correct.  Atlanta is currently in the news with regard to its attempt to re-build its water and sewer infrastructure because it leads in monthly costs, but it will not be alone. There are many other cities and counties using antiquated water and sewer pipes and putting water quality and their citizens’ health at risk. As much as some of us  resist the concept of taxes, it is time to accept that infrastructure does not last forever. It may also be time to take our technological upgrades and their installation more seriously so that we don’t end up spending taxpayers’ or customers’ hard earned dollars with rate increases forced by sloppy supervision and mismanagement.  

 

Mayor Kasim Reed

 

The newest Atlanta Mayor, Kasim Reed, has been in office a little over a year. He seems to be making good on many of  his campaign promises with regard to crime and has increased police presence throughout the city. According to a recent news report by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution (AJC), however, residents are still experiencing high water rates. The article  gave one more example of why Atlanta’s Department of Watershed Management needs to get on the ball:  

“John Mangham, who is a CPA and also runs a property management company, said that he has watched his water bill climb steadily. In 2008, his average bill was $45 a month. In 2009 it was $104. In 2010, it jumped to $164.  

So naturally, 2011 started out with a boom when he received a $1,835 bill for January for his 1,700-square-foot home in Peachtree Hills.”  

Whatever direction Mr. Mangham’s water meter antenna is currently pointing, we assume the billing problem has been resolved after so much publicity.  Others, however, may not be as lucky.  If you would like to share a billing problem you’ve had with a utility, please send us an email or post a comment below.

Who’s the Greenest of Them All? The Andrew

Photo courtesy of The Andrew

 

New York State has a new ‘greenest’ multifamily building, but don’t bother to go to the USGBC website for details.  The Andrew, located in Rego Park, Queens, is a 50-unit rental building developed by the Bluestone Organization (BO). A decision was made by the developers to skip the USGBC loop and seek certification solely from the New York States Energy Research Development Agency (NYSERDA).  

Reasons given for the snub ranged from the expense involved to dissatisfaction with the growing perception that LEED certified buildings do not always perform as certified after the ribbon cutting. Although the developer had sought other LEED certifications on prior projects, it may also be that NYSERDA’s high standards are so well-respected a second certification was unnecessary.   

In the USGBC LEED program’s defense, on-going operations will always be the responsibility of the owner/operator.  If management elects not to follow the systems’ maintenance recommendations,  even the best design and construction practices can become irrelevant. Certainly we can acknowledge that the USGBC birthed the modern green certification movement and deserves the bulk of the credit for pushing these sustainable values into the mainstream. 

On the other hand, critics hold the U.S. Green Building Council has relied heavily on outside experts and volunteers and may lack sufficient safeguards in its process. To some this may seem like blasphemy until one learns why the Andrew multifamiily project set a new bar.  A recent post in yournabe.com quoted NYSERDA’s Luke Falk as stating: 

“This building [the Andrew] is about 25 times more efficient than code.” 

To evaluate this jaw-dropper, it is important to consider that ‘code’ building is actually the lowest legal standard of construction. In fact, some local building codes have only been in effect since the late 1960’s. Their purpose was to set the lowest building  standard at which an occupant could expect reasonable health and safety. In essence, ’code’ means that under normal circumstances the walls and the roof won’t collapse or the air quality won’t injure those occupying the structure. Earthquake, ventilation and flood standards are still in the process of being developed and incorporated into many local building codes, particularly with regard to remodeling existing construction.   

The reason all this matters is that standard building code is what we use to compare new building performance.  Because of the perceived benefit to the public, multifamily buildings are in a different category from single-family housing and subject to greater building department scrutiny, particularly in major cities. 

According to Bluestone Organization, after a year of operation, the Andrew’s average annual heating costs per unit were below $200.  Specializing in the multifamily Affordable Housing category, developer Lou Bluestone has been incorporating green features into his buildings for over 11 years.  He focuses on the core and the shell and ventilation that preserves and enhances indoor environmental quality. One innovation is that each apartment is air sealed and ventilated separately rather than through a central building ventilation system. 

Bluestone is adventurous in design and has been willing to experiment and the innovation is paying off.  A sampling of construction materials and feature choices in this project are: 

  • 5 kw micro-cogeneration units for heating hot water and common area electricity 
  • Low and no-VOC materials for better indoor air quality
  • Panelized wall systems and prefabricated bathroom modules (to speed construction)
  • Insulated concrete forms (ICF) to construct the wall systems (super insulated walls with almost no thermal breaks)

ICF construction is generally used in smaller complexes under three stories, but engineers credit the use with creating most of the building’s high efficiency. Other Bluestone projects incorporate green roofs and landscaped play areas with the latest slated for a 10,000 sq.ft. rooftop greenhouse. It will be used for growing hydroponically produced fruits and vegetables as an urban farm. 

As New York City has the most concentrated building density of any U.S. City, it is not surprising that it created its own green building certification program. NYSERDA co-partners with Steven Winter Associates, a top green engineering consulting firm which maintains a pristine reputation in the field.  The agency manages the review program and Steven Winter monitors compliance, which combined provide a strong check and balance process that appears to attract sustainable developers. 

There are currently ten multi-family buildings in the 4-year-old program, but the Andrew is by far the most energy efficient per the certification’s results. Forty of these units are categorized as affordable housing in Queens, New York and residents must qualify based on income. Households earning up to 80 percent of the area median income ($61,440 for a family of four in 2010) can rent a studio for $1275, a one-bedroom for $1525 and a two bedroom for $1995. Ten units are reserved at market rate for families earning more than 130 percent of the area median income, which was $99,840 in 2010. The property is located at 65-54 Austin Street in the Rego Park neighborhood of Queens, New York City, New York. 

New York City’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) also has new procedures for developers with regard to HPD funds and green affordable  housing and guarantees. Beginning in 2011, any HPD-related projects will have to be certified by Enterprise Green Communities through its on-line site. HPD and the Community Preservation Corporation (CPC) also jointly launched NYC Green House, an online resource guide for multifamily property owners that assists those interested in going green.  HPD Commissioner Rafael E. Cestero stated: 

“Our data proves that rising utility costs contribute heavily to the rise in the cost of living and renting in New York City. This new educational program will help building owners identify the measures they can take to ensure their buildings operate more efficiently, keeping costs down, reducing their overhead and keeping their buildings more affordable for the people that live in them. And by going greener and following the simple advice we have put up on the website and in the collateral educational material, owners will also be helping the environment.” 

Although apartment building stagnated temporarily during the financial crisis, large owner/developers are back in. Bloomberg BusinessWeek recently reported that: 

“Starts on multifamily homes, including townhouses and apartments, jumped 78 percent in January from the previous month to an annual pace of 183,000, the highest since February 2009, the Commerce Department said Feb. 16. Work on single-family houses decreased 1 percent.” 

As multifamily has continued to out perform most other aspects of the economy with capitalization rates ranging from 4 to 5 percent for Class A buildings, the biggest investors are again choosing construction over the purchase of existing buildings. As building purchase prices will reflect the improved profitability, concerns over the risks of development and lease-up are diminished. Another appealing benefit of new construction is the ability to reduce and even eliminate utility costs with innovative green construction techniques like those employed at New Haven’s 360 State Street. Developer Bruce Becker installed a 400 kW fuel cell in his mixed use development that produces all the energy needed for 500 units in its residential tower. 

It is likely there will be many new buildings started in the hottest markets, which include Washington, D.C., San Francisco, Los Angeles and most recently Seattle. With the increasing demand for rental housing and multifamily operations again enjoying profitability, concerns about over-building are not likely to cloud sector attitudes for at least five to seven years. 

Articles of Interest: 

UTC’s Fuel Cell Miracle Breakthrough 

Living the Platinum Dream: 360 State Street 

Investing in Green Property Improvements