Tragedy Highlights Risks In Property Management

I enjoy writing about the Property Management industry. It is an industry that I am extremely passionate about. Words normally come easy to me but the tragic circumstances around the shooting and killing of Property Managers Wendy and Natanya Campbell by tenant Quinn Patterson, left me feeling numb and struggling to find words.

A man has lost a wife and daughter, a community is in shock and our industry is struggling to understand how such a terrible incident could have happened.
However, as awful as the news was, I have to admit I was not entirely surprised.
Three years ago, we witnessed the cowardly murder of two WINZ employees by Russell John Tully at a WINZ Office in Ashburton. At the time, there was an outcry regarding the risks that WINZ employees faced on a daily basis when dealing with the public. As such, many WINZ offices now have security guards in place.
Following the call for greater security of WINZ staff, a call which I fully support, I couldn't help but feel that Property Managers across the country were exposed to the same risks. This lead me to write an article for the REINZ Magazine that was published in the Spring of 2014. I have attached the article below. The article was written not just for Property Managers, but for business owners who'd focus more on sales and may not fully appreciate the risky situations that Property Managers all over the country could find themselves in.

The article I wrote for REINZ in Spring 2014 following the Ashburton WINZ shooting

At the time, I was Chair of the REINZ Sector Group and the Department Manager for Property Brokers, a large provincial real estate company. I was based in their Head Office in Palmerston North and was responsible for over 30 Property Managers who worked across much of provincial New Zealand.
Throughout the region, many of the properties were in low income small regional towns with many of the tenants having poor credit or tenant history. You may wonder why high risk tenants were placed into properties, but you have to understand that on numerous occasions you had to select what you believed to be the best applicant from a far from perfect selection of applicants.

Listen to David Faulkner being interviewed on Radio New Zealand

Property Managers would be well aware of the pressures put on them by landlords to find a tenant to cover the mortgage as quickly as possible. If no quality applicants came through, you would leave it to the Property Manager to make the judgement call. It was either that or risk losing the management.
The Property Managers did it tough and found themselves dealing with all types of situations. I myself as a Property Manager have been abused and threatened, not just tenants, but also by landlords who often take out their frustrations on a Property Manager, even if the Property Manager had done nothing wrong. Social problems such as drug and alcohol abuse, damage to property and verbal abuse would be issues that our team encountered on a regular basis.
On multiple occasions I would be concerned for the wellbeing and safety of the team who sometimes had to be protected from themselves. They were so committed to doing what they believed was right, they would put themselves in harms way, often without even realising it.

Whilst running the team, we introduced numerous policies that would help protect Property Managers such as stopping them from doing evictions, sharing calendars so we knew where they were and installing alarms at reception.

Could this tragedy have been prevented?

We will be asking this question for some time no doubt. What, if anything, could have been done to prevent this?
There will be many questions that will be asked about how the tenant, Quinn Patterson, was able to acquire such an array of firearms, especially as he had a criminal record for a violent assault. The fallout of this is not something that I will go into though no doubt one could argue that Worksafe may have grounds to investigate Trade Me, the source of many of Patterson's transactions.
Although I am acutely aware of the sensitivity of this question, my belief is that we have to ask it and cannot put it down to just being at the wrong place at the wrong time.
I speculate somewhat when I write this and I could be wrong, but I cannot help but think that the Property Managers knew Mr Patterson was a risk. Why else would you send two Property Managers to a job with a contractor?
No doubt the Police will turn their investigation to communication between the Property Managers and tenant and some of the questions may well be answered. However the reason I write this article is to ensure that Property Managers can identify and minimise the risks that come with the job. As such, through my experience as a Property Manager all the way through to being a Trainer and Consultant, I have compiled a list of things that every Property Manager needs to consider to help keep them safe.

Twelve tips to help keep you safe

1. Listen to your gut

This is the most basic of human instinct that nature gave us hundreds of thousands of years ago to warn us of impending danger whether it be from rival tribes or Saber Tooth Tigers. Like when selecting a tenant, if it doesn't feel right, you're probably right. If you arrive at a property and something makes you feel uncomfortable, leave immediately and do not second guess yourself.

2. Ensure your colleagues know where you are

As obvious as this may sound, I still see Property Managers leaving the office without anyone knowing where they are going. Colleagues need to know when you are leaving the office and where you are going. All appointments should be in a shared electronic calendar that can be accessed by key people. Each morning, your team should have a quick 5 minute catch up so everybody knows what everyone else is doing that day. Key people in your team need to know exactly where you are going and at what time.

3. Don't do viewings after dusk<.h3>
I strongly believe that no viewings should be done after 6pm or when it goes dark. There is simply no way your team can know if you are in trouble and by which time it would be far too late. Use online booking facilities such as Viewing Tracker and Inspect Real Estate to their full potential so you have a record of who attended the viewing. Have open home registers at viewings.

4. Have a back up emergency plan

Between your team, come up with a plan that you can use if your safety is compromised. It could be an Emergency App on your smartphone that will connect you to the office. Consider having GPS in the cars or use Apps such as Find a Friend. Some offices will have a code word they will use when they contact an office. It may not be ideal, but having some back up emergency plan is better than nothing and may save your life.

5. Never do an eviction on your own

Gone are the days when the battle axe Property Manager will head up to the property with eviction notice in hand and a determined attitude to get the tenant out. I myself, once evicted an ex-prisoner who was the member of a gang for non payment of rent. I remember being petrified knocking on the door and vowed never to do that again. Use the bailiff for all evictions and if the poor landlord has to wait a few days for a bailiff to be available then tough. Safety comes first, that is non negotiable.

6. Have a Photo I.D. Badge on you

This is as much for the tenant as it is for you. The only company I have seen who carry an I.D. Badge on them with a photo of the Property Manager on it is Feron Property Management in New Plymouth. A simple idea that gives the tenant an assurance of who you are and gives you a far more professional appearance that will earn respect.

7. Make it easy to leave

It didn't matter what neighbourhood I was doing an inspection in, I got into the habit of parking my Property Management car in a way that I could easily access it and drive off. Do not park facing a dead end of a cul-de-sac and never park up a driveway if possible. If you do park up someones drive, reverse up it so you can easily drive off.

8. Have alarms on you

This may sound a little dramatic and you will probably never need it but it makes sense to have one, even if you are a male. On one occasion, I remember a young female Property Manager in Whanganui entering a house to do a routine inspection. Unknown to her, the tenant, a Doctor, had sublet the property. The individual living in the property had no idea that this young Property Manager was in the house and was in the bathroom when she entered. When the man confronted the poor Property Manager, she was subjected to a tirade of abuse and the only exit was to walk past the man who continued to shout and scream at her. She was understandably shaken and we sent her home as she was too distressed to continue working.

9. Learn to read the situation

Reading the media, by all accounts Quinn Patterson was in financial trouble. He may well have been facing eviction and the people threatening this became his number one enemy. Often we have to give bad news in Property Management to both tenants and landlords. Sometimes, we may be the tipping point in a persons life and the breach notice that we send may just do this. I am a big believer in emotional intelligence which is the ability to be self aware of the impact you may have on other people. If you are awaiting a Tribunal hearing or waiting for a tenancy to end and you suspect there may be some animosity towards you or feel your presence may antagonise the situation, don't visit the property no matter what the circumstances. Wait for the tenancy to end. Also, learn to read your environment when turning up at the property. Are there dogs present and how dangerous are they? does everything look normal? can you access every room? How many tenants should there be? If you are new to the industry ensure you do your first few inspections with someone experienced who can teach you the tell tale signs that something may not be right. I would highly recommend getting someone like Phil Thompson of Protect Self Defence to do training with your team. He has spoken at REINZ conference in the past and is excellent.

10. Choose how you communicate carefully

As said before, we regularly have to give bad news to people in this job. Delivery of those words can be paramount to defusing difficult situations. Don't use words such as 'You haven't paid your rent'. Reword it with the phrase 'We haven't received your rent'. Be aware of your body language when confronting someone. Listen actively to whom your are confronting and use their name. Never raise your voice and smile using eye contact. As rents increase across most regions, the margins for families become tighter and tighter. This can lead to extra pressure and frustration. When there is money and property involved there is always the potential for emotions to take over. Always show empathy, especially when giving bad news and try to remove yourself from any emotion, focusing on the problem at hand and not the people. It is easier to deal with people if you understand the pressures they may be under.

11. Diarise all communication

This is commonsense and should be best practice in each office. However it doesn't always happen. Any aggressive or threatening behaviour must be recorded in a Health and Safety diary as well as your Property Management software. Regardless of whether it is a tenant or a landlord, your superior has to be notified and the situation has to be assessed and recorded. Doing this also gives any new members of staff prior warning before they confront a tenant or a landlord.

12. Trust is earned

This may sound somewhat cynical, but if we get into the habit of trusting people on their face value then we are asking for all types of problems. Ensure you use companies such as T.I.N.Z or Tenancy Practice Service for background checks. Double check references that tenants give you. Are they who they say they are? Can they afford the property? If more than 40% of their net income will go on rent they will likely struggle to make rent payments. Also, do not take on slumlords who we would class as D-grade clients. They add to stress and are seldom profitable. Do background checks on new landlords. Have they been in Tribunal? What do other companies say about their dealings? Have a suspicious mindset and again, listen to your gut, it seldom lets you down.

Real-iQ will be hosting a FREE WEBINAR in August around Property Management safety. A time and date has yet to be confirmed but we will be recording it and making it available to all. We will advertise this via LinkedIn, Facebook and through our company Newsletter. We also cover Property Management Safety extensively in our Induction Bootcamps that we host around the country.

We will not be able to remove the risk entirely from Property Management but more can and should be done. We can all take steps to ensure that we get home safely to our loved ones every day.
Look after yourself, look after each other and keep safe.