“You don’t know what you don’t know.” So Tim Kramer, CPM, ARM, sums up the challenge of configuring a safety and security system for your buildings. “You can’t assume because you’re not hearing anything from your residents that there’s no problem. If people don’t feel comfortable, they don’t feel comfortable.”
And it’s the comfort and protection of your residents or commercial tenants, as well as the protection of the asset itself, that must be uppermost in a property manager’s mind. The creation of a (literally) bullet-proof safety configuration must be done on a case-by-case basis.
“That’s why it’s incumbent upon us as property managers to not rely solely on what our neighbors are doing as far as safety and security go or to invest in the latest and greatest device,” says Kramer, who is vice president and director of management operations for Draper & Kramer, AMO, in Chicago. “You have to put in the time and effort to understand what your residents need.”
Which is why the apartment management firm conducts resident surveys after they take over an asset and periodically thereafter. “I would be very cautious about applying too many assumptions as to what does or doesn’t make my residents comfortable,” he says. Initial surveys are “a quick and easy way to find out what might have been lacking previously, to fill any gaps and, frankly, to score some quick points.” After that, the ongoing polls keep management and residents in sync while inviting engagement.
Folding in the tech factor
Increasing the options—and therefore the potential challenges—of providing a customized access configuration is the growing number of technical solutions on the market. These can range from relatively familiar applications such as keyless access systems (fobs and cards) and their later-generation development, phone-based access, up to biometrics (the measurement and analysis of unique physical and behavioral characteristics), robots and artificial intelligence (AI).
These too are a matter of comfort level and ROI as much as effective protection. And, as we will see, under the theme of “tenant experience,” there is still an argument to be made for relatively low-tech solutions.
So, not surprisingly, not all of these new technologies are making it to our doorsteps. Not yet, at least. For instance, “Biometrics such as eye- and voice-recognition aren’t totally here yet,” says Sean Miller, president of PointCentral, a subsidiary of Alarm.com. The firm is a provider of property automation solutions that, according to its website, help “residential property managers deploy IoT technology to more efficiently protect assets, reduce operational costs and provide an in-demand resident amenity all from their desktop or mobile device.” While there are specific applications where such cutting-edge technologies are making inroads, “they’re not overly common in general residential or commercial properties yet,” he says.
Big data and AI are starting to make their presence known, Miller explains. “A few years ago everyone thought big data was the next big thing,” he says, “and then they got their first data download and realized what they really want is actionable information.
“Increasingly, AI is helping managers make sense of the data so that they can monitor devices and notice when one starts misbehaving,” he continues. Not only do such predictive analytics save money and time, in so doing, “they allow the landlord to deliver better service. Today, it’s less about scrambling to respond quickly to a resident’s service request and more about how you can take care of problems before the resident is ever inconvenienced.”
Ted Low, senior vice president of business growth and development for Bethesda, Maryland-based Datawatch Systems, Inc., a provider of access control technologies, agrees that biometrics has its place but—at least in today’s applications—in more specific, high-security environments, such as in healthcare organizations and financial institutions.
And robots? Powered by AI, they “can come in different forms,” he says. “They can roll around on wheels or take the form of a lobby panel that looks more like a kiosk. But something like that rather than a smiling security officer could be a drawback in terms of occupant comfort levels.”
In addition to need, the issue is cost. “There are two costs to consider,” Low says. “First is the cost to purchase, which is the obvious cost, and then there’s the cost to own it, which can be less obvious. We put a life cycle of five years on traditional access-control systems, which is generally how long they last before they need to be upgraded. Then you’ll incur software upgrade and licensing costs. Ultimately, you have to look at the value technology brings to the building and the cost/benefit analysis set against the impact on tenant experience. If it checks all of the boxes from a property manager’s perspective, it’s probably a go.”
But the further out we crawl on the tech limb, the more adoption begins to wane. “There are some providers that are on the bleeding edge,” says Kelly Tang, CPM, president of IEC Property Services Corp. in Los Altos, California. “But adoption at that point is rather low. Ultimately, of course, the industry will get there, and we are becoming more high-tech in terms of security. But it is a matter of time and acceptance.”
Technology to fit the need
“A common misconception is that there’s one solution that fits all types of applications,” says Kramer, whose mid-states portfolio stretches from Illinois to Texas. “What works well in one property might not in another.” The age of the building, the nature of the tenant or resident and how big a staff there is all come into play.
They certainly do for Tang, who puts the lie to the belief that the only good security system is a high-tech one. “We’re probably considered relatively low-tech,” says the operator of garden-style apartments throughout California. “We operate in the value- add space, so our assets don’t come with all the bells and whistles of a Class A high-rise. Besides, the majority of our residents aren’t up to speed on those technologies yet.”
Tang, who like Kramer is an instructor for IREM courses, says prospects looking for a garden-style apartment know what they’re looking for. “It’s an interesting dynamic,” he says. “Probably every resident has an iPhone, and they’ll shop and bank online, but for some reason when it comes to rents and security issues, for instance, they become really low-tech.”
The expectations for security are a presupposition in IEC-type settings, which, beyond the presence of human security teams (no rolling robots here), involve a mix of descending gate arms or roller gates to limit vehicle access, and all-encompassing fences (“We try to make wrought iron look as nice as we can,” says Tang). Access codes are linked to the property management software system.
“Everyone has their own opinions of what that safety and security might be,” says Tang. “Our experience says that expectations are different in garden apartments. It’s a different audience.” He adds that differences in those expectations are not generational.
However, in the certification courses Kramer teaches, he emphasizes “understanding generational differences. The good news is that there are identifiable trends within the different generations that you can use to help shape policy, in this case [in the areas of] safety and security. The bad news is that those are generalities, and the only true way to understand what works is through those surveys.”
Like Kramer and Tang, Low is a big believer in security operations that reflect the nature and positioning of the property. “The value that any technology brings to the building has to be measured in terms of the positive impact on the tenant and the value vs. cost,” he says. The receptivity of tenants and residents to gee-whiz technologies is also a matter of exposure. For example, anyone of any age who has stayed in a hotel in the past 20 years probably knows how to work a card key.
“It always comes down to tenant experience,” Low says. “The main reason for a property manager’s existence is to manage the asset and create ROI. And you drive revenue primarily through managing costs and ensuring that experience.”
Choose your partner
Adoption also comes with trust. We’ve mentioned providers of systems. Actually, Miller prefers the term “partner. The first thing we ask owners and operators is what problem they want to solve and who the internal champion will be. You can’t look just at the hardware. Look at the partnership. You want to vet providers as you would any other service, because there’s a lot of money in proptech and a lot of startups. But developing new concepts isn’t cheap. So do your homework, because the best ROI is nothing if your provider goes belly-up.”
“When we’re vetting a security-system partner,” says Tang, “we want to know how the product will integrate with our existing property management software. How does this make safety and security more reliable and still easier—not just for us, but for our residents as well?” With that, he goes back to a primary theme: “After all, it’s all about their experience.”
And watch for those who promise the moon. As everyone we interviewed confirmed, regardless of your thirst for tech solutions, each building has its own unique fingerprint, “especially when we’re talking about something as important as security,” says Kramer. “Every property has different needs. I would be very cautious of anyone who claims to have the solution for all of your properties.”