By Joe Bousquin (MultiFamilyExecutive.com Article) — In January, Realtor David Stokoe, 40, the father of four, went to an apartment he owned in Salt Lake City to reportedly try to evict the tenants. He never returned. According to local news station KSL, police found Stokoe’s body the next day, in a crawlspace in the apartment. He had been shot three times in the back.
Police soon after arrested Manuel Velasquez, 31 and Jessica Reese, 38, as well as Diana Hernandez, 30. They charged Velasquez with Stokoe’s murder, and Reese and Hernandez, who reportedly helped Velasquez clean up the apartment and hide the body after the shooting, with obstruction of justice.
Co-workers at Sandy, Utah–based Ranlife Real Estate told KSL that Stokoe had initially been sympathetic to the tenants’ inability to pay rent and was trying to give them time to come up with the money. But when no money came, Stokoe went to talk to them about moving out.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 10 real estate and leasing professionals were murdered at work in 2017, the latest period for which data is available. That is down from the 20 real estate workers murdered on the job in 2016, and 11 in 2015.
“It happens more often than most people realize, or know about,” says private security consultant Matthew D. Seifer, founder of Hauppauge, N.Y.–based Radius Investigations, noting that real estate and leasing pros are “open to attack simply by the nature of the profession, going out into the field and meeting with people who they do not know for the first time in an unfamiliar setting.”
Of course, not every breach of safety in this line of work ends so brutally, but problems with crime and security are widespread. A recent poll of real estate and construction professionals for our sister publication, BUILDER, found that 42% of respondents have been the victim of a crime or felt threatened while at work. These instances highlight the importance for employers in the industry to ensure their staff members are aware of risks and educated on safety practices.
According to the 2018 Member Safety Report from the National Association of Realtors (NAR), respondents cited certain environments where they recall feeling physically threatened or scared on the job. “Common situations that caused fear for agents were open houses, vacant homes, and model homes,” says Jessica Lautz, vice president for research at NAR. Other fear-inducing circumstances reported include buyers who refuse to meet in public places, and properties that are unlocked, unsecure, or in remote areas.
Property managers and leasing staff are exposed to many of the same risks reported by Realtors—they show units to total strangers; spend much of their time alone in leasing offices and units; and deliver eviction notices to inhabitants who could be volatile.
Industry professionals often don’t like to talk about property or leasing office security because they think it will scare away customers and potential employees, says Robert Siciliano, CEO of Boston-based security firm Safr.me, which offers real estate safety education training. “Unless something happens locally, it’s just not top of mind. They figure the chances of it happening are slim, so why bring it up? But that’s not being responsible, or ethical.”
While firms may not want to address the issue directly, there is evidence that many companies take steps to ensure employee safety. In fact, 62% of respondents to the Branded Research poll of industry pros said sales agents at their companies are required to attend safety training. And the National Apartment Association (NAA), which tends to center on site-level issues at apartment communities, teaches general safety protocol to its credential holders and conference attendees, such as keeping phones with them, letting someone else know their location, and asking for ID prior to giving apartment tours.
Christa Amidon, a former model home sales agent for several large builders who now works as a recruiter for Berkley, Mich.–based construction placement firm the Birmingham Group, reports that while working as a consultant to sell homes for D.R. Horton, the company coordinated hands-on safety training for sales agents. “We actually had an entire sales meeting where they brought in experts and taught us a self-defense class,” she recalls.
Not addressing the risks to these employees could be a ticking time-bomb for the industry, says Rachel Walla, owner of Portland, Ore.–based workplace safety and OSHA compliance firm SnapFox Safety, noting that such incidents could leave companies open for liability. “Employee security and workplace violence is more of a hot topic now than ever,” she says. “At the very minimum, employees should receive some training on how to handle situations that could get dangerous.”
When it comes to safety, what are some of the policies and efforts currently in play? One that’s becoming more common in multifamily properties and model homes is the use of wireless security cameras, especially as the cost of the technology has come down.
That’s the route Marshall Gobuty, president of Sarasota, Fla.–based Pearl Homes, decided to go in his models and sales offices. “Not only does it help with security, but it’s actually helped in scenarios where customers may have buyer’s remorse and claim a sales agent pressured them into doing something they didn’t want to do,” Gobuty says.
Siciliano says cameras—and signs that let people know they’re there—are a big deterrent for people with nefarious motives. “When people see signs that say a property is under video surveillance, anybody who has bad intentions now knows the likelihood of them getting caught is exponentially increased if they decide to commit a crime,” he says.
And yet, Amidon says she experienced pushback while working at one Detroit-area builder when a sales manager advocated for signage noting the presence of video surveillance. “The thought was, what if a young family comes in with their children, and sees a sign that says they’re being watched?” Amidon says. “They might think it’s an indication it’s not a good place to live.”
Property managers, leasing offices, and any sales-oriented organizations need to balance those needs. But from the perspective of workplace safety experts, the answer is clear: “Employers are accountable for mitigating these types of risks to employees,” says Phil La Duke, a Detroit-based workplace safety consultant and author of The Lone Gunman: Rewriting the Book On Workplace Violence Prevention. “They need to make it clear that safety always comes before sales.”
Pros also recommend buddying up since a leading risk factor for employees who are victims of workplace violence is working alone. But Amidon says in her experience, both employers and sales agents sometimes have mixed feelings when it comes to pairing up with others. “As sales have slowed, companies don’t always want to pay to have two people do the job of one,” she says. “Agents sometimes resist it, too, because they have to split the commission.”
One area where multifamily differs from single-family sales is the typical requirement for prospective buyers to provide a form of identification. The NAA notes that asking a prospect for ID is a standard procedure in the apartment industry before giving a tour; it’s not always the case at a model home.
“Builders have the ability to make the biggest change in the market, if they would just require prospects at model homes to show IDs,” says Jen Stanbrough, a former new-home sales agent and current Realtor in West Des Moines, Iowa. “So many times there’s pushback on that, but if builders all banded together and required it, it would just become a part of the culture that’s accepted.” For Stanbrough, the issue of safety in the sales office is personal. Her friend, Ashley Okland, was shot twice and killed while working in a model home for now-defunct builder Rottlund Homes in 2011.
“Whoever did it took advantage of the fact she was sitting alone in a model home at an open house,” Stanbrough says, noting that builders and developers put a lot of money into their projects and “their other biggest asset should be the people working to sell them.”
Other safety measures and best practices experts recommend include providing employees with “panic buttons” that can be programmed to call 911, and always letting someone else know when an employee takes someone on a tour. Pre-agreed upon code words or phrases can also be established to signal to co-workers when someone feels uncomfortable.
“If [an employee] feels they’re at risk, they have a procedure in place where they say they’re going to a designated address that doesn’t actually exist, and that tells the other person something’s up, and they should come to meet them,” Howell says.
Experts also advocate the use of smartphone apps that can be programed to share geo-locations with co-workers or family. The most popular, according to NAR’s safety survey, are Apple iOS Find My iPhone, GPS Phone Track for Android, HomeSnap Pro, Life360, and SentrySmart. Trust Stamp, an app that NAR has invested in that is free to its members, also uses AI and public data to rank the trustworthiness of new contacts. “We are seeing around 47% of our members are using these different tools,” says NAR’s Lautz.
Additional steps include policies of not giving tours after dark; changing business hours seasonally; driving in separate cars for tours; not cornering yourself in a room; and locking the sales center door after sunset. NAR’s safety survey also found that 40% of men and 45% of women carry a self-defense weapon, such as a firearm or pepper spray, to protect themselves.
Amidon says she always held firm to one personal safety requirement in her job: “One of my rules was that I always wanted blinds in the sales office so that people couldn’t just look in and see inside after dark,” she says.
For Gobuty, who has someone stop by the company’s sales center at the end of the day to walk agents working alone to their cars, it’s simply a matter of peace of mind. “I’d rather lose the sale than lose one of my employees,” he says.