Overcoming Drug Problems in Multifamily Housing
French, Glenn L., Journal of Property Management
For fiscal year 1992, President Bush has asked Congress to appropriate $11.7 billion for the "War on Drugs." Yet, despite massive spending at federal, state, and local levels, drug problems persist relatively unabated. It is clear that no immediate solution is at hand. While the debate continues on long-term answers, the potential for human tragedy and business failure mandates that initiatives be taken.
Today's real estate managers hold a unique position in the war on drugs. A combination of social, legal, and business considerations necessitate that they assume a position of leadership with this national problem.
THE ESSENCE OF THE PROBLEM
Successful housing communities consistently must attract prospects who pay rent on time, do not damage the property, and do not unduly disturb their neighbors.
The use and sale of illegal drugs at a property deters good prospects from applying. If drug problems are not effectively addressed, these prospective renters will look elsewhere for housing, good tenants may leave, and one of the characteristics of distressed housing will emerge. However eliminating drugs at a property is not easy. Property managers must have a plan.
REQUIREMENTS OF A DRUG PREVENTION PLAN
A sound drug prevention plan should establish written policies on illegal drug activity on a property and indicate clear penalties for violations. In addition, a prevention program must provide the procedures for enforcing these policies. Policies should be applied to both tenants and employees.
Management should establish what activities are considered in violation of the policy and what penalties are provided (e.g., denial of occupancy, termination or suspension of employment). If an employer provides counseling for employees with substance abuse problems, this should be addressed.
A drug policy also should assert specifically that employees at the site level are not expected to discharge any responsibility that normally falls within the purview of established law enforcement. This language could also prove important should an employee be injured while acting without the consent or direction of management.
In developing a policy ensure that:
* Each prospect or current resident is required to meet the same standard.
* New and existing employees make a commitment to eradicate drugs, both personally and among residents.
* All of the site managers and leasing agents receive specific training on spotting violations and enforcing policies.
* Tenants are convinced all rules and regulations will be enforced.
Because all properties depend on "good tenants," the plan's preparation should begin with an objective review of the company's tenant selection criteria. Procedures such as police checks and home visits may or may not prove feasible. If implemented, it is important that policies of this nature should be established on a city or state jurisdictional basis and not project by project.
Legal counsel should be consulted to ensure compliance with all applicable laws and regulations. Treating tenants differently on the basis of property location or tenant profile may be challenged as discriminatory.
An anti-drug program plan cannot abridge any civil rights or fair housing laws. Discriminatory conduct, regardless of how noble the intent, may lead to legal actions. The Fair Housing Amendments Act of 1988 allows managers to ask all applicants "whether or not (they) have been convicted of the illegal manufacture or distribution of controlled substances." As long as all applicants are asked about prior drug convictions and all those convicted are denied housing, managers may be able to strengthen their anti-drug programs by excluding some undesirable tenants.
Before a new resident executes a lease, management's policy regarding drug violations should be clearly explained, both orally and in writing. If a property already is experiencing problems, this interview, while acknowledging existing conditions, must clearly establish new parameters for occupancy. This is an important task, and the site personnel assigned this responsibility should be thoroughly trained.
Management must require that all employees support efforts to prevent or eradicate drug use on the property and in the workplace. This must be established as a condition of employment, before the commitment to hire is made.
Two specific areas should be covered in the pre-employment interview: the penalty provided for employees found using drugs and the expectation that employees will advise management of apartments where drug usage/sales have been observed. These areas should be handled professionally and without equivocation.
Reaching a similar understanding with existing employees may be more difficult. Despite warnings to the contrary, these employees may have forged relationships with certain residents, including those involved with using or selling drugs. While they may be opposed to drug use, they do not want to be perceived as an "informant." But allowing employees to possess critical information about a property's operation that is not available to management compromises control. Management must be assertive in correcting this condition.
One way to involve existing employees is to invite representatives of the police department to give a formal training program in drug awareness. Officers in the community relations department are often sensitive to the inherent conflicts that arise in employee relations and can depersonalize the situation. After this training, it should be easier to establish an understanding with these employees as to what is expected of them.
As site managers and leasing agents are usually the first employees encountered by the public when seeking a rental unit, they also must be thoroughly trained in their responsibilities relating to the company's drug policy. Prospects may become apprehensive if these employees do not present the management's plan effectively and in a professional manner.
The importance of stringently and consistently enforcing lease provisions and rules of conduct regarding tenant activities cannot be overemphasized. If management has been lax in enforcing rules and regulations in the past, written notices (flyers or newsletters) can clearly delineate all policies and penalties for future violations. Any oral or written statements made to achieve this end should be carefully worded to avoid any admission of culpability for previous periods.
Having site managers or other managerial personnel visit all new residents shortly after they assume occupancy is sound business. While the visit's primary purpose is to establish good relations, post-occupancy visits also provide the opportunity to take notice of conditions in the apartment. This follow-up visit can utilize any formal training in drug abuse detection that has been provided.
It also is essential that management inspect all units systematically. Once each calendar quarter is optimal. Inspecting only during lease renewals, annual recertification, or requests for maintenance may allow a situation to go undetected for too long. While residents may initially take issue with this policy, most tenants will accommodate the inconvenience.
If drugs have gained a foothold at the property, more dramatic actions may be need. Aggressive drug eradication policies need the support of many residents. When management and residents are presented as a unified force, they often enjoy successes which neither would achieve acting alone. If problems already exist, management must make a determined effort to establish working relationships with those residents who are committed to improving conditions.
But tenant involvement without sufficient structure can be counterproductive. Management/resident meetings, therefore, are very important.
The foundation for any good meeting is planning, and those convened specifically to address drug problems must be carefully organized. Residents may believe that management does not truly understand or care about them. This emotionally charged conviction often produces adversity that undermines efforts to conduct a productive meeting.
Meetings should have written agendas and should allow for an informal question and answer period to provide a forum for everyone. During this period, the manager's ability to listen and empathize can provide a basis for reducing ill feelings. It also may create an environment for receiving confidential information in the future.
Property managers must learn who can best provide effective assistance. In properties having no management presence after business hours, it is necessary for the manager to establish and maintain relationships with key tenants. These individuals can provide important information about the property, such as "visitors" who have moved into the property, and people who are actually involved in drugs.
Compiling information that can be used by law enforcement officials should be a primary focus for a drug eradication plan. Astute managers can establish very effective intelligence networks to determine who is involved in the sale of drugs on their properties.
Residents often will give information to the manager that they would not share with the police. When properly organized, these residents can produce results. Management also may establish "hot lines" to complement, not to replace, calling the police.
Most people are terribly frightened by the violence associated with illegal drug activity, and many fear retaliation if they dare to oppose drug dealers. According to many law enforcement officials, however, the violence associated with the drug business is generally restricted to those involved.
Nevertheless, this fear is a primary concern that cannot be ignored. To counter this reaction, property managers should obtain statistics from local law enforcement officials to support the contention that getting involved is not as dangerous as widely believed.
SECURING THE PREMISES
Owners are traditionally responsible for providing security for residents. Over the past two decades, this obligation has increased dramatically, and the drug problem has given it even greater prominence. While this burden may appear unfair, officials readily admit that the police, acting alone, cannot achieve consistent success.
The property's location may be the major factor in determining whether severe drug activity occurs. While the location of a property cannot be changed, access to it can be restricted.
A detailed physical inspection should be conducted to identify features that render a property susceptible to drug activity. Asking the police department to assist in the inspection often encourages their involvement afterwards.
Physical improvements should be planned based on this inspection. A fence can immediately curtail abuses due to unlimited access to an apartment community. In certain instances, schedules for improvements can be modified to give priority to buildings, hallways, courtyards, or other common areas whose residents have assisted management in purging undesirable tenants. Although this approach may produce some increased cost due to work scheduling, it may provide an important incentive.
If a particular area of a property has been the center for illegal drug activity, lighting can change the environment. Using high-intensity quartz halogen light fixtures and bulbs (available for $20-$30) can have an immediate impact. These fixtures install quickly, will operate on regular current, and can replace existing floodlights.
Installing new security doors and locks in public hallways also has an immediate benefit. Locks for which only management can provide replacement keys are effective in restricting access.
A guard service may provide very satisfactory results when used in conjunction with other security measures. However, the quality of guard services varies widely. Guards should be given clear directions and their performance monitored to ensure that each shift operates within set guidelines. Contract terms should allow for immediate termination of the service without penalty for unsatisfactory performance.
In certain circumstances, utilizing citizen patrols such as those provided by the Nation of Islam or the Guardian Angels may produce acceptable results as an alternative or supplement to paid guards. (See accompanying story.)
Registering tenant automobiles and issuing assigned parking spaces provides a basis for monitoring visits to the property. These measures are more effective if a security service is employed to monitor parking.
Where entrances can be controlled, photo-identification cards for residents also serve to restrict the public access. These cards can be issued when the leases are signed.
Asking all guests to produce photo identification and register can further reduce visits by undesirable people. In extreme cases, residents have been required to personally appear at entrances to register their guests.
The use of surveillance cameras will immediately deter the entry of certain undesirable people to a property.
Using still cameras with telephoto lenses to record drug transactions has also proven effective in investigations. Ideally, the police should perform this type of surveillance.
Residents must understand that management will earnestly pursue their eviction if they are arrested for a drug-related crime. When such a policy is established and becomes the norm, it convinces all residents that management is diligent and consistent in its attempts to eradicate illegal drug activity.
At the same time, when lease clauses citing prohibitions against illegal acts are introduced in civil court to repossess a unit, they often prove ineffective because only criminal courts decide questions of illegality. Thus, defendants often successfully argue that the clauses deny them right of due process.
Reinforcing this situation is the fact that local legislatures often pass laws requiring a conviction to prove any allegation of illegal activity in civil court. With convictions often taking months, drug activity usually continues.
Therefore, depending on adjudicated criminal activity to serve as the basis for repossession often fails to produce a timely resolution of a property's drug problems. A variety of lease clauses are now being tested in an effort to strengthen the owner's legal position in drug cases. Clauses that make it a violation merely to have non-prescribed controlled substances in the unit may prove effective.
Efforts must be made to shift the focus from proving that an illegal activity has taken place to whether a substance prohibited by a lease was present in the apartment. Such a strategy equates the violation with other common prohibitions, e.g., those used to ban pets.
A record of an arrest which indicates that a prohibited controlled substance found in the unit was confiscated as evidence may satisfy a landlord-tenant court's requirement for a preponderance of evidence and discount, to some degree, the illegality issue. An effective procedure involves regularly perusing the "arrest books" that are available for public scrutiny at local precincts. HUD's Drug-Free Addendum does not effectively address this predicament.
Presently, many managers attempt to introduce evidence such as logs of a resident's calls, police records of repeated complaints, documentation of police raids, unregistered guns, and confiscated drugs to show that the leaseholder has violated clauses prohibiting disturbing neighbors, excessive noise, or detrimental actions of visitors.
Local laws on trespassing should be reviewed as a way to remove non-resident drug dealers. Depending on the law, it may be necessary to post signs, give oral warnings in the presence of an officer or serve written notices. Such actions usually must be carefully coordinated with the police and may necessitate the active participation of a management representative.
Visiting other properties and discussing problems with peers may give managers insights from the successes and failures of others. Housing authorities that have been especially innovative in devising approaches to the problem may also offer assistance. Consultants should also be considered.
There is no one answer to preventing drug activity at a multifamily apartment community. Rather, success depends on a combination of efforts. Management must establish the understanding, sometimes against seemingly impossible odds, that drug activity is not allowed. Essential to establishing such an understanding is winning the trust of tenants.
Obviously, no manager controls all circumstances at properties. Drug-related incidents can and do occur. Nevertheless, the property manager or the site manager who has anticipated the possibility and planned a course of action will find these situations far easier to address.
Glenn L. French, CPM(R), is director of training with MBG Management, Inc. in Raleigh, N.C. He is president of the North Carolina Housing Council for Drug Prevention, which has conducted successful seminars on drug prevention throughout that state, and is a HUD-approved consultant on drug elimination strategies.
Mr. French is the author of IREM's one-day seminar "Tackling Drug Problems in MultiFamily Housing," which is offered through local chapters. He is a member of IREM's national faculty, is a former president of the Boston Metropolitan Chapter and was that chapter's "Manager of the Year" in 1978.…
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Publication information: Article title: Overcoming Drug Problems in Multifamily Housing. Contributors: French, Glenn L. - Author. Magazine title: Journal of Property Management. Volume: 57. Issue: 4 Publication date: July/August 1992. Page number: 42+. © 1999 National Association of Realtors. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.
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