Mike Werner has spent two decades admiring and restoring classic apartment buildings in the Hollywood Hills area of Los Angeles. The 58-year-old landlord sees himself as a preservationist first, and figures the best way to do that is to buy Art Deco and postwar multifamily buildings he loves—“I wouldn’t buy a place I wouldn’t live myself”—and keep them in good shape for his tenants. He sees his four buildings as ecosystems, very delicate ones.
Since coronavirus has radically shifted how tenants, owners, and visitors operate within these ecosystems, he’s been challenged to preserve them, and protect those who call them home. Operations costs, especially cleaning and other new maintenance issues, have risen, and management will only become more complicated during the summer months, as more businesses reopen and life as we’ve known it begins to take small steps back towards some kind of normalcy.
Much like reopening cities and states during the pandemic has proven more difficult than shutting down, the prospect of more movement, activity, and interaction within rental apartments offers increased challenges for landlords and property owners. After months of sheltering in place and restricted movement, maintenance concerns have started to become more serious. Reopening will inevitably lead to shut-in tenants enjoying more freedom of movement and potentially more guests, as well as more tenants feeling comfortable with the idea of moving in and out. Larger buildings will need to figure out how to manage shared amenities and common space, as demand for pools and greenspace especially will increase with warmer temperatures.
Health experts suggest landlords tackle the summer by building on the great work they’re done since the pandemic began, including following the latest CDC guidelines. That means stepping up communications with residents in regards to the challenges embedded in summer reopenings.
“We’ve been instructing members to increase their cleaning protocols,” says Dan Yukelson, executive director of the Apartment Association of Greater Los Angeles. “That means making sure signage is up, keeping social distance and making sure everyone is washing hands and wearing masks. If they have vacant units, show them with virtual tours.”
It’s important to recognize the risk factors, especially as we’ve become more knowledgeable about the coronavirus; research has shown that while surfaces, doorknobs, and railings can all transmit the novel coronavirus, infections mainly happen through respiratory means and droplets within enclosed spaces. If proper social distancing protocols are maintained, risk is relatively low within buildings. That means keeping common areas such as laundry rooms, games rooms, gyms, or the like from becoming crowded (many landlords have instituted sign-up sheets to cut down on unnecessary interactions). It’s also wise, if the building is large enough, to set up protocols around moving, such as limiting when movers can operate, and clearing hallways during those specified times.
There are also serious issues around maintenance, says Werner. After months of lockdown, he’s been unable to maintain his usually fastidious cycle of cleanings, repairs, and upgrades, exacerbating the challenges of summer reopenings. He’s stepped up cleaning in common areas, and even had three hand sanitizer stations he installed stolen. But he’s been unable to get into apartments and do regular inspections, since he wants to respect privacy and the desire to keep workers from entering apartments.
“We’re really into preventative maintenance, and do a soup-to-nuts inspection every year,” he says. “We’ve had to stop doing those. That means we’re not installing new air filters in the air conditioning units. I really see this as a way of improving the quality of life for my tenants. At a certain point, buildings are buildings, and they suffer without preventative maintenance.”
While it’s a challenge to get into tenant units, landlords can still keep in touch about repairs, and plan and budget for when it’s acceptable to do work. It’s recommended to at least keep in touch with tenants about needed repairs, and either keep a list of tasks to do once people feel more comfortable letting maintenance workers in their units, or work with tenants to figure out a safe way to do the job.
With summer weather and relaxed restrictions leading to more movement and socialization, property managers are also finding new summer reopening challenges around safe maintenance of shared space. Most landlords have cut access to amenities like pools, but even formerly closed spaces can cause issues. Werner has had tenants invite friends over to swim—already against building policy, doubly so now—and said this kind of behavior is indicative of how rules, and people’s views of risks, are quickly shifting.
“I immediately said, ‘listen, this isn’t very considerate of your neighbors, we’re all social distancing, so please, let’s all follow the recommendations of the county health department,’” he says. “The tenants apologized and it was all fine.”
While landlords navigate the tricky waters of summer reopenings, it’s important to understand and review privacy rights and set boundaries to mitigate challenges. Landlords aren’t liable for how, say, new roommates may decide to share space within their unit. But if potentially sick tenants are causing health risks, there are carve outs in evictions moratoriums if the issue gets serious (any landlord should consult with lawyers before taking such actions, according to experts at the California Apartment Association). In addition, it’s important to keep health and privacy laws in mind. Landlords have no legal responsibility to disclose if a tenant is sick; some management companies even argued that keeping health conditions private means other tenants are more likely to come forward, making sick residents more likely to feel comfortable self-quarantining and happy to take additional precautions or arrange for more cleanings. Midboro Management in New York City, for instance, has kept resident privacy top of mind, and has arranged for discreet trash pickup and hallway decontamination for any tenants who come forward with their diagnosis.
Set answers can sometimes be hard to come during a situation that is so fluid. Perhaps, like Werner says, the answer is in taking a holistic approach, and looking at all management decisions through the prism of health and safety.