The Value of Video Surveillance Systems Improving Resident Life and Building Operation

Overview

Early Monday morning, a resident enters the office of the apartment building manager. She has not slept much the night before. “Someone was at my front door at 3AM trying to get in.” She is frightened. “You’ve got to find out who it was or I’ll never be able to get to sleep tonight.” The manager says she will look into it. She knows that identifying the person involved is unlikely and will probably have maintenance install an additional lock and security chain to pacify the resident.

Later that day, a resident who lives above the building laundry room complains that someone is using the machines after midnight. “The building is so quiet at that hour, it’s as though the machines are in my bedroom.” The manager offers to install time clocks on the washer’s electrical circuit to prevent a reoccurrence while wondering how she will fit it into her already stretched budget.

As the office is closing for the day, an angry resident complains to the manager that someone has once again stolen a newspaper from in front of his apartment door. “Don’t you screen the tenants here?” he says in obvious frustration. The manager gives the resident a paper and promises to put a notice on the bulletin board reminding people that stealing a newspaper is a crime. The manager suspects the resident across the hall from the tenant is stealing the papers but has no way to prove it.

Twenty-five years ago, these scenarios would have been difficult, if not impossible to resolve in a meaningful way. Video surveillance systems in property management have changed that.  From our 40 years of operating multi-family apartment buildings, we offer the following.

A Brief History

Video surveillance or closed circuit television (CCTV) was invented in Germany in 1942. In the 1980s, it was popularized for businesses, like banks and department stores which are prone to theft. With constant development and particularly the miniaturization of components and computerization of video storage, it has become a widely available consumer product.

Our First Experience with CCTV 

The first surveillance system we had installed at a property under our managements was fitted at a residential apartment building in the late 1980s. The system cost $6,500 (~$11,000 today) and included four huge cameras, a large black-and-white computer monitor, a VCR recorder, and six commercial grade tapes for data storage.

The single monitor displayed four cameras simultaneously, resulting in limited image detail.

This first system was more of a calculated experiment than an integral component of building operations. As time went on however, industry recognized its value and learned how to maximize the benefits.

Personal Experience with Computer-based Equipment

In 1998 the board of a midrise apartment building asked our property management company, Management Enterprises Inc., to install surveillance cameras. After reviewing the then available equipment, we chose a computer-based system, with four small, lightweight cameras connected to a card in a desktop computer. The results were a quantum leap forward compared to the earlier systems. The high quality, color images were stored on a computer hard drive, which held about three months of video. Unlike the earlier VHS tape storage, the computer system stored full images from each camera providing high quality playback. The files were easily searchable and downloaded to a compact disc, allowing us to share the video when appropriate. Cost was one quarter that of the earlier system.

The owners of this building strictly enforced a rule that fined residents for moving in or out during evenings or weekends. The cameras provided proof of violations.

We also connected the entrance cameras to the cable TV system, allowing residents to see persons calling for admittance from the door entry system. With a high percentage of retired residents, we had at least a dozen security guards at any one time, who apparently spent much of their day watching the lobby cameras. The combination improved security immensely as well as the quality and level of building gossip.

Further truths were revealed outside this building when the cameras solved a long-standing mystery. This midrise building is part of a larger complex including one-story office buildings owned and occupied by business professionals. The dumpster that serves only the apartment building was stored outside and attracted a lot of mysterious trash overnight. Our cameras swiftly caught two individuals using dumpsters for non-regulation purposes. Perpetrators caught – mystery solved.

The board was so pleased with the result that we added a second board to the computer, bringing the cameras to a total of eight. For under $2,000 the building had a good system.

After 25 years of using video surveillance in the property management business, we offer eighth examples of how these systems can improve resident quality of life and help maximize efficiency.

1) Theft Detection

The first and most obvious: video surveillance assists in identifying the  perpetrators of building and tenant    property theft. Placing cameras at entrances and exits, including emergency exits, enables staff to see who is entering and leaving the building and what is being moved in and out.

An example of how video surveillance assists in solving thefts was demonstrated at a multi-unit residential property we operate

A resident leaving for vacation asked an acquaintance to restock his refrigerator with fresh food a few days before he returned. On the appropriate day, the friend showed up at the resident’s apartment with the groceries.  However, on his way out, he took a plasma television set from the apartment for his trouble. We reviewed the video records at the resident’s request upon his return and identified the perpetrator.

2) Reduce Vandalism

In 2011, our company modernized the system at our client’s senior, moderate income property midrise.  Compared to the earlier system, the new cameras produced color images, were less expensive and much smaller. Recording equipment was now a stand-alone Digital Video Recorder, which offered advantages over the computer-based system.  The software allowed for viewing on a remote computers and even from a cell phone. 

In 2011, we modernied he enhancements included multiple cameras in the lobby and common rooms, at each entrance, in the elevators and most importantly in public corridors on each floor. We cannot quantify the results, but both the staff and residents indicate feeling more secure, while vandalism and theft having been virtually eliminated.

The video is viewable on the manager’s and assistant manager’s computer. The imagess are sharp and clear and the storage capacity is six months. Output from each camera is stored in full screen size resulting in detailed recorded images.

The elevator cameras solved a problem that had plagued this building for over 25 years.

Shortly after opening this property in 1985, someone deliberately scratched the factory finish on the inside of the elevator door. The damage was extensive. We repaired the door and shortly thereafter, the doors were again scratched. We again painted, but damage occurred again. For years, we played this game with an unknown vandal despite our best efforts to catch him or her. This repair is not trivial—a major inconvenience, putting the elevator out of service for at least one day and night. The continued vandalism was disheartening. In the four years since the elevator cameras were put place, there has been no damage. Case closed.

3) Passive Benefits

Video can deter a crime even when a vandal won’t admit to it. A vandal, living in one of our buildings, was repeatedly affecting a community area. But that person would not admit to the deed.

In response we installed an additional camera in the room, and sure enough, early one morning we observed the perpetrator. Later that day, the manager called out the individual, but she denied it. The manager swung the computer monitor around and played the video. The individual’s response was, “I did not do that. It’s not me.” The activities, however, never happened again.

4) Deter Crime Before it Occurs

According to police and other security professionals we deal with in our property management work, a major benefit of surveillance systems is that it works as a crime deterrent. Thieves and vandals gravitate to the lowest hanging fruit. If your property uses video surveillance, a sign stating the presence of cameras may motivate such individuals to look for an easier target. Residents are more secure knowing that a crime deterrent system is in place. And the staff feels empowered with tools to better serve the residents. Many people who enter our field of property management do so because they derive personal fulfillment from assisting others. Video surveillance is another tool in their toolbox.

For that reason, when a system is installed, it should be widely publicized. Signs at each entrance should announce “Premises Under Video Surveillance” or something similar. If your grounds and parking lot are also under surveillance, exterior signs should be large and prominent. Check with your attorney for proper wording.

5) Confirm Suspicions

Prior to the advent of surveillance cameras, proving an individual not on the lease was living in an apartment was difficult. If you suspect you have unauthorized residents (which is a violation of HUD regulations in assisted properties), video can provide solid evidence supporting your position.

At a property our company operates, staff suspicions were aroused with a visitor consistently entered the building at a particular time most days. A review of the video confirmed the visits to be daily, entering mostly late in the evening and leaving early in the morning. The manager discussed the situation with the resident, who at first denied the visitor was living in the apartment.  However, when the manager pressed the issue, citing the daily arrival and departure times logged in the DVR, the resident admitted that the visitor was a close relative who had suffered financial reverses and had nowhere else to go. The manager was understanding but reminded the resident that an unauthorized person living in the apartment was a serious lease violation in a government-assisted building. The resident persisted and subsequently moved from the property, an unfortunate ending.

6) Monitor Suspicious Activity

Surveillance can uncover more serious activity. A resident alerted us to another tenant who had numerous visitors, each of whom only stayed in the apartment briefly. We confirmed this from the video archive, and indeed visitors were going to the resident’s apartment for a minute or two and then leaving, frequently carrying a parcel in or out.

Staff alerted the authorities who arrested the individual for receiving and selling stolen property. We terminated the lease and the resident vacated.

7) Create Video Policy Procedure

With a greater reliance on surveillance systems to prove lease violations or confirm criminal activity, our client’s attorney recommended drafting a “Video Policy and Procedure” that we offer publicly to anyone who requests it by email. We suggest, however, that the owners of each property – with the assistance of a competent attorney – create their own Policy and Procedure to reflect their property, as well as the local and state laws.

Some of the things we’ve learned about drafting a policy are:

  • Equipment is referred to as “surveillance” and not “security”
  • Staff does not continuously monitor the video
  • Staff reviews recorded video only in defined circumstances
  • Only the Building Manager or his or her assistant may review stored video
  • Video content is not discussed with residents or other staff
  • Residents may not view live or recorded video
  • Law enforcement personnel are provided with copies of recorded video on request
  • Video monitors are positioned in the office so as to not be visible to visitors

Each resident receives a copy of the policy, and each staff member agrees in writing to abide by the policy.

8) Appropriately Sourcing the System

Video equipment, once the purview of techies and geeks, can now be purchased from numerous mass marketers. Our company, however, uses a local dedicated supplier and installer in our client’s property since self designed or off-the-shelf systems do not always provide what our client needs. Moreover, the supplier Charles Krape of Wallco[1] added: “Even high quality equipment requires a competent installer. Even expensive equipment will not provide the quality picture you want if it’s improperly specified or incorrectly installed.”

Our installer, Mike Giannoni of Giannoni Electric[2] commented: “There are several critical issues in equipment selection and installation.”

  • Choosing the right location for cameras
  • Determining the video quality the owner needs at that location
  • Selecting the right camera for the location

“Customers sometimes purchase an off-the-shelf system and ask us to install it,” said Giannoni.   “Many times, these systems include cameras with an extremely wide-angle lens to cover a large area, giving the buyer the impression of a high quality system. In most cases however, the detail produced by wide angle lenses is insufficient and identification of individuals is difficult, rendering the system useless.”

Summary

Residential property managers are responsible for the enormous task of overseeing the activities of dozens, and in some properties hundreds, of families with diverse backgrounds, languages, customs and habits. Resolving tenant issues requires tact, diplomacy and the wisdom of job. Many contentious incidents occur after business hours and on weekends. Individuals contemplating illegal acts or simply flouting the rules know that apartment building staff is reduced during those times, making identification of those involved difficult.

With video surveillance, staff is aware of happenings at the property after business hours, residents get meaningful resolutions to their concerns and individuals bent on mischief or worse will look for an easier target.

  

Louis Danzico is president of Management Enterprises, Inc. Established in 1929, Management Enterprises, Inc. provides management, leasing, development and financing of multi-unit apartment and office buildings. Mr. Danzico is a Certified Property Manager, CPM, and a Pennsylvania Real Estate Broker. MEI actively manages property in northeast and central Pennsylvania. www.managemententerprises.com

 

 

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