Going Inside Turn
We visit two properties for an up-close look at the blood, sweat and tears of turn.
August 13. Move-in day — the last day of turn — at Spring Place Apartments in Greensboro, North Carolina. Property Manager Eric Sylvestri is up at 6 a.m. to cook breakfast for his staff of 11 full-timers and five community assistants.
They'll need their strength to make it through the busiest day of the year for the Peak Campus team who manages Spring Place, which serves students at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro as well as a handful of other local colleges and universities. Four hundred students are moving in this school year, and before 2 p.m. rolls around on this one day alone, 250 of those 400 have arrived, had their paperwork processed and are settled in to their new apartments.
There's a steady swell of students pouring into the clubhouse all day. The staff works hard cheerily greeting newcomers, fielding maintenance calls over walkie talkies and directing residents and parents, all while keeping an eye on the flow to ensure the line out front in the heat is never more than five deep. In spite of the heightened demands, there's a camaraderie and kinship among student housing professionals this time of year.
"I've been here for three years, which is the age of the property, so this is my third turn," Sylvestri says. Spring Place is managed by Peak Campus Management and is owned by Blue Vista. "It may not seem like a long time, but one year in student housing is like 10 years in conventional. It's not even comparable."
Ask anyone privy to the uniqueness of this frantic season called turn, and they will be quick to point out what makes student housing different from conventional multifamily — student housing managers move in more residents in a single day than most conventional projects in or out in an entire year. And move-in day is pivotal for creating good first impressions that lead to renewals at the end of the year.
The sweat that goes into turning student apartments is barely noticeable to the residents moving into Spring Place. There's a festive feeling about move-in day, with enough perks and goodies to take the sting out of this life transition, which is what this experience will be for most of the young residents carrying boxes in from the parking lot.
A Papa John's pizza truck hands out boxes of pizza slices, and cold drinks are offered to everyone waiting in the check-in line outside the front office on the hot August day.
Inside, a popcorn machine and cupcakes await. There are balloons and signs guiding students through the appropriate lines and tables set up throughout the clubhouse, which is buzzing with "Shark Week" programs running on the large TV over the pool tables. There will be plenty of diversions to keep residents busy when they're not studying, and all the amenities are clean and ready to go.
Outside the clubhouse is a resort-style pool with a poolside theater, a fitness center, tanning bed, basketball and volleyball courts.
"This turn is going better than it's ever gone in the three years I've been here," says Jamison Williams, assistant property manager. "The residents and parents all seem happy."
The day is running smoothly and is full of hospitality, hugs and smiling faces, but it's not without its tensions. A distraught mother bursts through the office door, complaining of unwashed dishes left in the sink and clothes on the floor of the common area in her daughter's new apartment, which she is sharing with three other students attending nearby UNC-G.
"Mom, I promise you we'll take care of her," Sylvestri says. "We'll do the dishes and straighten up so she can move into a clean apartment."
Calmed by the assurance, the mother leaves. "I know that look," Sylvestri says when she's gone. "I've seen it before. We try to create an open and inviting atmosphere. I will hug the students' moms. Shake hands with the dads. I tell them, 'I know you're losing your baby.'
"That all sounds good, but I'm only as good as my word. So now it's time for me to make sure that mess is actually cleaned up. Nothing is perfect. It's how you handle your issues that counts."
This is a philosophy that gets everyone through turn unscathed. Sylvestri says the motto his team follows during turn is "adversity leads to excellence," which is painted in colorful letters on a glass door of one of the staff offices.
One of the biggest challenges can be roommate matching. It's a low-tech process that involves organizing scraps of paper. Future residents fill out forms about living and studying habits. Then, the staff does a lot of listening and talking with parents and students to problem-solve on both sides.
One of the four-bedroom apartments at Spring Place is particularly problematic. Two bedrooms are on the inside, but the two that are on the outside are more desirable.
"Everybody wants an outside bedroom," Sylvestri says. "But if the student gets that end room, and the roommate match is off, it won't work. I'd rather they be in a room they don't like and love their roommate than be in an outside room with the wrong match."
The biggest compatibility issues, Sylvestri says, are smoking, pets and gender. The matching process is only one way that Peak communicates with new residents. If a lease is signed in January, the management team has a minimum of five points of contact to meet before move-in. These could be in the form of emails, phone calls, or even an old fashioned postal letter.
"We want to make sure they know we haven't forgotten about them," Sylvestri says.
Turn can mean different things at different properties. To some, it refers to move-in day only. To others, it lasts for weeks or even months.
At Spring Place, turn begins in March when vendor selection gets going.
Finding the best vendors is a trial and error process. "I like to use local people and local companies," Sylvestri says. "One lesson learned is that I now have three sets of cleaners. I had a tough time when I only had one set. They had too much to do. So this year, I wanted to have more people doing less work."
Flats at Mallard Creek
To the Ambling Management team in charge of the 385-bed Flats at Mallard Creek in Charlotte, about 500 yards from the UNC-Charlotte campus, turn lasts the first 18 days of August.
Move-out day is July 31. After lunch that day, turn begins. It ends when students move in August 18.
This year, 280 students moved out on July 31. There was a 35 percent retention rate.
The two biggest challenges for the Ambling staff are keeping track of the renewals who remain for the 18-day turn and managing the vendors.
In-the-trenches teamwork is necessary for efficiency, and combat metaphors are not uncommon when talking about turn. For 18 days, the staff break room at Mallard Creek is transformed into what everyone calls "The War Room," command central for strategizing all that must be done in a few short weeks.
Poster boards cover the walls, breaking down each unit — by bedroom — into five color-coded sub-categories. A red check in the first column means the room has been painted. A blue check in the second column means it's been cleaned. An orange check indicates that maintenance has been through to check the sinks, toilets and appliances.
The last vendor to move through the units, the carpet cleaners, are in the second to last column in green. And blue initials in the last column mean a property manager has been through the unit for the final inspection. Renewals have a yellow line all the way through their row.
Last year, the renewals weren't on the charts, which created problems. Residents who are renewing are not to be disturbed, even if they are living in an apartment where the three other bedrooms are being turned.
For students who remain through turn, the common areas can look as though no one is living in the unit, and the times of day staff can enter a unit that is partially occupied are much more restricted than they would be for an empty apartment.
"Not disturbing students who are still living everyday life is a challenge," says Logan Hodge, who has traveled from one of Ambling's satellite offices for the past two years to help oversee turn at the Flats at Mallard Creek. "While we're losing our minds crunching numbers and assuring a new class of 300 students that they'll have a place to live, they're just going about their daily routines. Turn to them isn't anything but the first 18 days of August."
The round-the-clock push of turn has to be amended for occupied units. Staff can't enter before 10 a.m. or after 7 p.m. Which is problematic since the staff need to enter the units multiple times and for many different reasons.
"The most important thing about turn is that old saying: inspect what you expect," says Property Manager Vinita Pritchard. "We have to go in and literally inspect everything. And that's a lot because we have painters, cleaners, carpet cleaners, and maintenance. If you don't go in after they've finished, you'll have surprises on move in day. You also want to check for billing. If you're being billed for 200 rooms, you want to make sure everything you agreed upon was actually done."
To Hodge, the visual layout of the posters in the War Room is the best way to stay organized.
"It's like a giant puzzle you have to work through," he says. "A lot of times you get vendors that don't understand the time constraints of turn. We have two and a half weeks to get the entire property done. I give all my vendors a deadline of two days earlier than move-in. This is because I don't want them to depend on having that full amount of time. A lot of them underestimate how difficult this is."
Hodge's presence is even more necessary this summer: Vestcor is developing a nearby sister site to the Flats at Mallard Creek. So while the staff is turning at one site, they're also focusing on leasing up and preparing for move-in at another. The Flats at Campus Pointe is 180 beds, and construction was nearly complete by August. The furniture was being moved into the new property by then, while 10 students were allowed to move in early to a few of the finished units.
It's been a challenge keeping an eye on both sites, and the summer schedule for the staff feels a little like having two full-time jobs. Last summer, Mallard Creek was leased up, so the focus was only on turn. This year, in addition to turn, leasing is going on at two properties. But with the help of a newly hired leasing manager, there were only four bed spaces available between the two properties by late August.
In order to accommodate maintenance requests from residents who stay, keeping the pool clean and the grounds manicured, the maintenance staff has been working around the clock. Vendors show up early in the morning, asking questions of any staff members they can find.
"There's so many of them and so few of us," Hodge says. "So we keep it down to an assembly line. I try to schedule the painters at 8:30 a.m., cleaners at 8:45 a.m., so I can get them a list of things to do. And then the carpet cleaners usually show up on the tail end because they're following in the footsteps of everyone else."
Hodge says there haven't been any horror stories this turn, just "a lot of late nights."
"We're working seven days a week. There's no schedule. We just work until we're done. And we all have our days when we just need to get out of the office. The staff is supportive and my co-workers can tell when I need a break. They'll tell me to just take the rest of the day off. It's like a family.
"It's tough to explain turn to some people," he adds. "In a lot of cases, it's more work in two weeks than we'd normally do in two months. It's a really big deal for us at move-in day to look back and just take in everything we've done."
— Lynn Peisner