How the Property Management industry may have to adapt and change the way we operate in an environment with COVID

On the 17th of March 2020, I featured in an article published by the New Zealand Herald. I made the call in my monthly blog that all routine inspections of rental properties need to be postponed. As we watched from afar as the world was struggling to contain this outbreak, New Zealand was just at the cusp of starting to have to deal with the pandemic. The Government had just announced that anyone entering New Zealand had to self isolate on arrival and we had a total of just 8 cases in the country. However, watching events unfold around the world and especially after talking with family in the UK, I was convinced that New Zealand was going to face the same fate.

This is what prompted me to approach the New Zealand Herald. I felt that our industry could become a super spreader. Areas, such as South Auckland, were potentially at significant risk due to the demographics of the population and that many homes may have issues with overcrowding. I had worked out that Property Managers would be entering roughly 60,000 to 70,000 homes a month nationwide and due to the nature of the job, they could easily spread the virus throughout their communities in which they worked.

I was well used to people commenting on my articles and disagreeing with my views, but I was not prepared for the backlash I received from this article. I got hammered on social media. People emailed me and messaged me telling me to keep my mouth shut and others claimed I was creating panic and scaremongering. Exactly eight days later, the country entered into a lockdown and all the criticism I had received seemed to be forgotten about.

One of the main factors that most people were concerned about was the fact that by not doing property inspections, we were exposing our landlords to risk through failing to comply with landlord insurance policies. Most policies state that to be able to make a claim, you have to carry out 3 monthly inspections. My argument was based on two points, one being ethically responsible to our workers and the community and the other arguing that by carrying out routine inspections, we could breach aspects of the Health and Safety at Work Act by failing to take necessary steps to minimize risk. I also felt that any insurance company that failed to honour a claim due to a property not being inspected under such an environment would face intense criticism and common sense would prevail. In the end, common sense did prevail with the Insurance Council of New Zealand announcing a statement in June of 2020 that assured landlords and property managers that by not inspecting a property under relevant COVID Alert levels would not result in claims being declined.

Since the early days of the pandemic, so much has changed however now, there is a real sense of deja-vu. I am no scientist but I very much like to analyse data and I can see that elimination is simply not a long term solution. At some point in time, we have to open our borders. Even if we somehow do contain this outbreak, at some point we will all have to get used to living and working with COVID in our communities.

What will it mean for our workforce?

I am of the opinion that the only viable solution to overcome the issues that the country faces is to have as many people vaccinated as possible and then gradually open up the border. At some point in time, in a post MIQ world, COVID will enter the country. For those who choose not to have the vaccine, life could become more complex. There will be restrictions on what they can and cannot do and this will likely affect people’s employment. For example, I would have absolutely no issue if employers started to demand that people working with the public are fully vaccinated otherwise they cannot carry out their duties due to the risk they pose to their colleagues and to the public. Section 30 of the Health and Safety at Work Act refers to management of risk. This talks about eliminating risk where it is reasonably practicable to do so and if you cannot eliminate the risk then it should be minimized.

The question we need to ask ourselves is whether it is ethical for an unvaccinated property manager to walk into the 10 properties every week carrying out viewings, inspections and dealing with the public at large? I am of the view that a tenant could be well within their rights to ask for an assurance that the property manager scheduled to carry out the inspection or a maintenance contractor scheduled to carry out work be fully vaccinated. A tenant can make reasonable conditions to the property manager in regards to the right of the property manager to enter the property. Defining reasonable is never easy, but in this case, asking whether a stranger who is going to walk around the property, opening cupboards and touching surfaces is vaccinated is a reasonable request.

And then you have to think about the work colleagues. Would you feel comfortable sharing an office with someone who simply refuses to get vaccinated?

If a property manager simply refuses to get vaccinated, then, the employer has a tough decision to make. If I end the employment relationship due to the inability of the employee to carry out reasonable duties, am I breaching the Human Rights Act or does the wider safety of the team and the Health and Safety at Work Act overrule this. I will leave that argument to the lawyers but for my two cents worth, the safety of the team should always overrule the requirements of the individual.

What we are seeing in places such as the States are employers making strict demands on mandatory testing and mask wearing for employees who refuse to get the jab. In short, get the vaccine or get another job.

Change the rules – inspection rules outdated and no longer fit for purpose

Looking at how our industry operates, we must seriously consider whether doing three monthly inspections is a constructive and productive use of our time. Yes, properties do need inspections however, as we get used to living with COVID and as more and more people rent for longer periods of time, is it really necessary to inspect a property every three months? The stance that insurance companies take is that all tenancies are exactly the same. Clearly, they are not. With the use of technology and measuring how a property performs, surely we can develop a more tailored solution to landlord insurance instead of taking a ‘one size fits all’ approach. In a recent Real Landlord Insurance newsletter, they answer questions on how their landlord policy works. Their view is that ‘Inspections done remotely by video are not acceptable for insurance purposes. With a personal visit you use all of your senses, ie; sight, sound, smell and touch to determine the condition of the property’.

I see so many flaws with this approach. A routine inspection lasts roughly 20 minutes. If I do four inspections in a twelve month period, I am actually in the property for a little over an hour over the year. Last time I looked at the Residential Tenancies Act, it is the tenants responsibility to report damage as soon as possible. If a tenant fails to do this, then they should be taking on the liability. In regards to sight and sound, you’ll get this from a remote video inspection. Devices such as Tether have a role to play by identifying increases in moisture content and Co2 emissions.

Inspections should be less frequent but more in depth, focusing more on the performance of a property and improving its efficiency. More emphasis should be placed on the tenant in regards to reporting maintenance and using tools such as Tapi offer huge benefits to this.

Tenants will be living in the same rental properties for years and the three-monthly inspection should become a thing of the past.

Our property managers will become asset managers acting as consultants to landlords and provide a concierge service to their tenants. So much more can be done and should be done remotely. This does not mean that we spend the rest of our days in a bubble. It is about adapting to a world that has drastically changed in the last 18 months.

Keep safe, stay positive and look after each other.

David Faulkner

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