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Taking back the property: front-line dispatches from the drug wars.

Many property managers today find themselves swept up in a war they did not ask for and are not sure how to wage. On one side are the crime kingpins, narcotics pushers, and street runners selling heroin, hallucinogens, amphetamines, marijuana, and perhaps the most addictive substance ever known-crack cocaine. On the other side are federal, state, and local law enforcement officials, often pitifully outnumbered and frequently out-spent.

Caught in the middle are innocent residents, blameless property owners, and beleaguered property managers whose buildings have been appropriated as command posts from which drug dealers supervise the manufacture and sale of drugs.

How can property managers recognize the early signs of drug infestation? What can they do to prevent their properties from being overrun? Perhaps most importantly, once a property has been invaded, how can it be cleaned out and restored to health?

While many management companies are effectively combatting the drug menace, NHP Property Management, Inc. has taken on the commendable task of establishing a Drug Task Force to evaluate, monitor, and eventually eliminate drug problems on all of its 394 low- and middle-income properties. The company's systematic approach provides a model for conquering the drug problems that threaten so many properties.

Creating the Task Force

The NHP Drug Task Force had its beginnings in 1988. "We had many successes at our properties in combatting drugs before 1988," said Steve Ellefson, NHP Property Management vice president and director of the Task Force, "but in the late 1980s, drug abuse was reaching epidemic proportions nationwide, and more seemed to be needed."

The group includes representatives from each of NHP's three regions, plus members of the firm's Human Resources Department, legal counsel, and insurance advisors. The company committed between 150,000 and $200,000 to the initial implementation of the program.

The new program was designed both to eliminate current problems and to incorporate preventive measures against future abuse. The Task Force also outlined techniques for coping with specific, recurring situations.

Rating the properties

To help NHP assess the problem of drug abuse at its properties, managers at each location were asked to complete a detailed questionnaire designed to rank the degree of drug abuse and drug trafficking. Each property is rated on a scale of one to five; a one" rating indicates a property with no apparent signs of drug problems, and a "five" has heavy drug abuse/drug trafficking.

The questionnaire enumerates signals of possible drug involvement among residents and employees and asks managers for their comments and suggestions on fighting drugs at all NHP properties.

One section of the document lists danger signals which could indicate drug-related crime problems. These include:

* Has there been an increase in crime on the property?

* If so, can you attribute any of it directly or indirectly to drugs?

* Have any tenants come to you with information concerning drugs or crime?

* Have you heard rumors of drug trafficking on the property?

* Have any arrests been made on drug charges?

* Has tenant turnover increased?

* Have there been tenant complaints about drug trafficking or an increase in crime or vandalism?

* Have you noticed more loiterers on the property?

* Have you noticed an increase in unauthorized persons or vehicles on the property?

As a criterion for evaluating the depth of the drug problem at a property, managers and employees are asked to rate the frequency of each occurrence on a scale of one to five.

Another element in NHP's evaluation process is an information packet provided to their property managers, which is designed to help raise the awareness of supervisory employees as to drug usage and to highlight actual or potential problems at the properties.

The document lists four drug categories, including cocaine, marijuana, hallucinogens, and heroin, along with the street names for each, and describes their physical symptoms and the paraphernalia associated with usage, such as glass vials or pipes, syringes, rolling papers, blotter squares and burnt spoons. Learning what to look for helps managers assess the condition of the property more accurately.

Among common warning signs are:

* Quantities of burnt matches; crack requires very high temperatures before it begins to smoke and generally does not stay lit once it has ignited.

* Glass straws roughly three to four inches long, often with a small piece of steel wool near one end, in which crack is smoked.

* Aluminum beer or soft-drink containers, flattened and punctured, with several small holes on the flat side into which crack is inserted; smokers apply matches to those holes, then inhale crack smoke from the pop-top hole on the can lid.

* Very small (often one-inch square) ziplock bags or small glass vials in which crack is often sold. The color of the vial stopper or symbols on the bags indicate which manufacturer produced the drug.

* Squares of aluminum foil in which crack is sometimes wrapped.

* Baking-soda boxes and metal tea strainers used in the manufacture of crack.

Managers are asked to look for such warning signals both at the property and among property employees. The company has found that at least one staff member was involved in drug use or sale at most properties where drugs were a problem. As a result, a commitment to a drug-free workplace program, including counseling and treatment options for the employees with substance abuse problems, also became part of the Task Force goals.

Formulating a plan

Once an evaluation is received, each property is rated. While properties rated "four" or "five" were given initial priority in the program, all properties were monitored.

"Certainly, we work hard to turn our fours or fives;' said Ellefson, "but it is just as important that our twos and threes do not become fours and fives."

The shift from no-problem to out-of-control may take only a few months. Thus, managers are encouraged to remain alert for changes at the property and to take steps before drug abuse becomes severe.

It is also much more cost effective to remedy problems at an early stage. NHP estimates that the difference between the cost to rehabilitate a three-and four-rated property is probably 150,000, while as much as $500,000 could be spent to turn around a five-rated property.

A three-pronged approach

Once priorities have been set, NHP focuses its control efforts on three major areas-physical improvements, security, and tenant control.

The physical surroundings of the building can make it a more or less desirable location for drug pushers and users. Speaking before the National Leased Housing Association, NHP Property Management Executive Vice President Charles Wilkins described the kind of property favored by drug traffickers for their command post.

The ideal property, said Wilkins, is usually convenient to one or more busy streets, with good drive-through access for customers, plenty of look-out stations, several escape routes, minimal lighting, piles of litter into which drugs can be thrown in an emergency, and a minimal presence of police.

If a property fits any of these physical attributes, Wilkins suggested that specific physical modifications be made:

* Increase exterior lighting; use efficient fixtures with vandal-proof covers, mounted well above the ground.

* Eliminate escape routes for vehicles, using card-access gates and blocking off unnecessary entrances, particularly at night.

* Eliminate escape routes for foot traffic by installing fencing and other barriers. Local fire-code officials may permit rear breezeway entrances to be blocked off.

* Eliminate look-out posts. Second-and third-floor common hallway windows are favorite spots; replace windows with siding or brick. Remove berms and small hills.

* Secure all laundry rooms, basements, and storage rooms after business hours; use metal doors and jambs, heavy-duty hinges, and good locks.

* Make sure litter is picked up regularly, several times a day if necessary.

Increasing security is also essential as a deterrent to drug trafficking. Fences and access cards are essential, but just as important is expanding a property's security force, especially during the early stages of a turnaround.

Ellefson states that in rapidly deteriorating properties, NHP generally hires a force of off-duty police officers to patrol the property. For example, at a recent turnaround at a Section-236 property with 140 units on 12 acres, NHP ran three shifts a day, with three officers on each shift, for two months. The expense of this security force alone was $75,000. To underwrite the costs, NHP received permission from HUD to increase rents.

Ellefson further noted that even when this property had been stabilized, efforts could not be relaxed. "We still have off-duty police officers on patrol," said, "but now they work only a fraction of the hours. We scatter their hours so that no one knows exactly when patrols are around."

A second area of concentration is improving the resident profile of the property. NHP begins by enlisting the cooperation of current residents. You see;' states Ellefson, "the vast majority of people do not use drugs, do not like people who do, and are willing to help' Once these residents are convinced that management is committed to improving the property, they will usually assist by alerting management of drug-related incidents.

Another element in altering the residential makeup of the property is a more careful screening process for new tenants. Most managers check the lease applicant's credit history and background (including an assessment by a previous landlord); if doubt remains about the applicant, a criminal check and a home visit may prove helpful.

Eviction is the third component in NHP's turnaround efforts. However, Wilkins contended that much of the industry's efforts have mistakenly been directed toward eviction. He warned managers not to rely on eviction as their primary drug-prevention technique.

"First, many drug dealers are not parties to the lease;' warned Wilkins. "In effect, they sublease the apartment or are merely guests, and standard eviction procedures are not designed to handle such situations'

Wilkins also cited legal barriers to eviction. "Many local judges refuse to authorize eviction without a drug-related conviction. However, we hope that HUD's initiatives will convince them that lesser standards of proof are acceptable for eviction proceedings."

A related problem, he continued, is that many local court systems will not evict an entire household because of the involvement of one member in drug trafficking. "Our experience is that the entire household must go in order to stop the problem," Wilkins said.

At the same time, eviction does play a part in turnaround. To be successful, eviction proceedings should center on clear violations of lease provisions, not just drug-related activities. According to Wilkins, violations such as noise levels, defacing property, unauthorized tenants, and non-payment of rent are often committed by drug abusers. Each of these is grounds for eviction. The need for follow-through Once a property is declared stable, NHP continues its efforts with sound management and ongoing vigilance. "Even if a property is right in the middle of a drug-infested neighborhood," said Steve Ellefsen, "good management will improve your chances. If you are working with a good tenant profile and checking tenants before taking them in, performing good maintenance, and showing pride in your work, the drug problem may come into your property but it will not stay.

"Our experience at NHP has proved that there is a way to cope with drug abuse at properties;' continued Ellefson. It does not work in every case, but it does in most.

"To do it successfully, you need full support from the owners, plus strong management. You also need the cooperation of local officials and perhaps a regulatory agency, along with community leaders, and most importantly the residents "

David Low, president of NHP Property Management and chairperson of the Task Force, offers these final words of counsel: "Take the whole issue of drugs seriously. Drug abuse directly affects the bottom line of any property management firm, including the value of the property, the cost of upkeep, and the overall quality of the housing environment that owners can provide.

"Both HUD and the private sector must spend more time and resources to help make affordable housing drug free."

Adding Up the Numbers

Many firms have long been concerned by increases in drug use by employees, particularly among younger workers. Statistics from the National Institute on Drug Abuse show that:

* An estimated 10 percent of Americans over the age of 12 use marijuana. Marijuana is used at least once a month by nearly one in four male employees ages 18 through 24 years, and by more than one in five men ages 25 through 34 years.

* At least one in eleven of this group uses cocaine a minimum of once a month, 5.2 million Americans are heroin addicts.

* 14 out of every 100 employees abuse drugs on the job.

* 44 percent of that group deal drugs to other employees.

* One out of every four users steals from his or her company to support addiction.

* Approximately 50 percent of all post-accident urine drug-screen samples are positive.

Substance abuse represents a major drain on the American economy, Total illegal drug sales in the U.S. in 1988 were estimated at $150 billion, roughly equal to the amount spent on new single-family housing construction. Consider also that:

* Substance abuse in the workplace now costs employers 1 to 3 percent of their annual payroll.

* Between one-fifth and one-quarter of all employee health care expenditures go toward payments for substance abuse and psychiatric care.

* The cost of providing substance abuse and mental health benefits in 1988 averaged more than $307 per employee, up f rom $163 per employee during the previous year.

* Substance abuse and psychiatric treatment costs now account for $38 billion-or 7 percent-of the nation's annual health care expenditures.
COPYRIGHT 1990 National Association of Realtors
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
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Author:Rategan, Cathie
Publication:Journal of Property Management
Date:May 1, 1990
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