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Is poor key control leaving your off-campus housing vulnerable?

Student housing isn’t just campus dorms and aging, cramped single-family houses for rent anymore. From purpose-built, student-focused rentals to amenity-packed, rent-by-the-bed apartments, college towns around the country have seen a boom of off-campus student housing properties in the last decade.

As the student housing market grows more and more competitive every year, it’s not enough to offer students a room at a reasonable rate. Your property has to appeal to students — and their parents — with your proximity to campus, amenities, provided furnishings, and community events.

You’ve likely already incentivized the leasing process with gift card giveaways and referral bonuses. However, while you scramble to offer students bigger and better perks than the property next door, it's easy to forget something that should be a cornerstone of every housing property: security.

Sure, you might have fob-controlled gates, lit parking lots, security cameras, or routine security patrols. But failing to properly secure, manage, and account for all your property’s keys can quickly turn into a nightmare scenario for you, your management company, and your property owner.

Let’s consider some questions you might ask yourself:

What could go wrong?

If you’re already using some sort of locking drawer or cabinet for keys and a logbook or spreadsheet for tracking access, you might be thinking to yourself, “We’ve never had a problem with keys before. What could go wrong?” Quite a bit, even with basic management practices in place.

Imagine you’re a property manager in the following scenario: You bring in an outside vendor for a routine test of fire alarms in every unit. You provide the vendor with master keys since they’ll have to enter every unit and inspect every room. The vendor’s employees perform the tests during normal working hours, when most of your residents are on campus attending classes.

Later that evening, several residents call the front office to complain that their rooms have been ransacked and valuables are missing. You assume the vendor’s employees are responsible, but it’s going to be impossible to figure out which individuals since so many were using master keys that day.

Meanwhile, frustrated and angry residents take their complaints to social media, and then the local news. You now face long-term damage to your property’s reputation as news reports pop up on search engine results for years to come. If this sounds far-fetched, consider that an off-campus housing property in Alabama experienced a similar scenario.

Where did you go wrong?

Having vendors in your units isn’t reckless behavior, but the issue boils down to accountability. Are you equipped to hold people — whether your own employees or third-party contractors — accountable for their access?

Your reaction to the above scenario might be to start figuring out ways to shed that negative reputation. Maybe you lower rental rates, spruce up units with a renovation, add amenities, or even change the property’s name. But if you don’t address the root of the problem — or better yet, take steps to prevent it from happening to begin with — the risk of somebody abusing their access will remain. You need to know exactly who has keys and when they took them, and your existing key control practices are probably inadequate.

How can you prevent key access abuse?

If you haven’t yet had problems like the scenario above, that doesn’t mean they won’t happen eventually. If you’ve already dealt with such an issue, then there’s still time to improve your processes and prevent it from happening again. You should consider using an electronic key control system that only allows authorized users to access keys and automatically tracks every transaction in the system.

In regards to holding employees and vendors accountable, consider how much better it would be to have exact information on every person who accessed a key. Your staff should know you can view such information, which keeps them honest and more likely to return keys to the system as promptly as possible. Such data also gives you a way to quickly investigate a problem should one arise.

Even if your property uses smart locks or fobs to enter units, you still need to secure, manage, and account for spare fobs or keys to doors that don’t use smart locks. These likely include individual room doors, staff offices, fire rooms, and maintenance storage spaces.

As you can see, the status quo of key control practices can land your property in a bad situation. Are you taking the necessary steps to prevent access abuse and hold employees accountable?

Read More About Student Housing Key Control