Problem-Solving Strategies for Property Managers

May 12, 2020

Property managers are coming up with new, creative ways to help commercial tenants in the COVID-19 era. Some are allowing move-out inspections via video conferencing while others are helping tenants to ramp back up as business starts to reopen, according to Angela Aeschliman, CPM, senior vice president of property and asset management with the Missner Group in Chicago. She presented during the Property Management Forum as part of the virtual 2020 REALTORS® Legislative Meetings on Monday.

Safety and risk management were key themes among the panelists who spoke. “As we’re starting to see businesses looking to come back in some form, tenants are communicating with landlords and property managers on what their expectations are and how they’re planning to operate in the new landscape with social distancing,” said Charlie Lee, associate counsel for the National Association of REALTORS®.

Lee advised practitioners to review existing commercial leases and what they’re obligated to provide tenants. Property managers who use a uniform template for leases can come up with a plan for making adjustments that apply to as many tenants as possible, Lee said. Some tenants may be looking for rent abatement or deferment, so it’s wise to have lease agreements reviewed by an attorney before having discussions with the tenants, he added.

Aeschliman, president of the Chicago chapter of the Institute of Real Estate Management, stressed the importance of asking questions about the tenants’ situations if they’re unable to pay rent. “Just because the lease calls out that the rent is due on the first [of the month] does not mean the tenant doesn’t have the right to request special arrangements in this environment,” she said. Speaking with tenants over the phone often works better than communicating via email, she stressed. Some tenants may have applied for relief and simply need a delay in payment date. Once you know what the tenant is doing to address the situation, you can communicate that to the building owner, she said.

As businesses begin to slowly reopen their doors to employees and the public, another way property managers can help is through maintenance and updates that mitigate risk, said Aeschliman. Some building owners are looking at installing touchless entries, card readers at elevators or doors, and increased janitorial services, she said. “When you communicate with your buildings and tenants, tell them what you are doing differently to minimize risks to both them and the building,” said Aeschliman.

Lee suggested assisting tenants with marketing. If it’s a restaurant, for instance, property managers could help find ways to let the public know the tenant’s business is open for takeout. It may be another year or more before restaurants can get back to serving customers without taking precautions to mitigate COVID-19. Many will have to limit the number of people who can dine in, Lee said. Unfortunately, the takeout model won’t work for all restaurants. If the business is forced to close permanently and end its lease early, it’s in everyone’s best interests to come up with a solution that works for both sides, he said.

Amy Hedgecock, a property manager with Fowler & Fowler, REALTORS®, in High Point, N.C., said an issue she’s seeing is deferred maintenance in occupied buildings. Her company has only been handling emergency maintenance requests. “Some of my vendors closer to retirement age don’t want to go out to occupied units,” she said.

Property managers have to make such decisions on delaying repairs a case-by-case basis, Lee said. It depends on what the tenants are asking for and whether it’s reasonable, considering the pandemic. If the issue is causing distress for the tenants or impacting their business, property managers should do what they can to have the repairs done safely. “We’re in an unprecedented time. There are no textbook answers for this,” he said.