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Borrower Perspectives: Mona and Ash Singh on coping with COVID

  • First National Financial LP

Fourteen years ago, Ash and Mona Singh bought their first 48-unit, multi-residential building in Mississauga as a way to invest and earn some residual income. That first passive investment transitioned fairly quickly to active investment. Under the banner of Equity Builders, the Singh’s have expanded their portfolio to more than 1000 units within the GTA and surrounding areas.

For Mona and Ash Singh and their team, 2020 started off with a focus on strategic priorities including culture reinforcement, tenant reform and partnership buyouts. Then Covid happened. Like every company in every industry, Equity Builders had to shift gears. Mona and Ash share their company’s experience coping with the crisis, how they maintained consistency in service delivery, what they see for the future, which innovations Equity Builders will maintain and why their relationship with First National only got stronger as a result of the crisis.

Q: Based on the nature of your business, what effects did you see as a result of Covid?
MS: Rent collection and a high vacancy rate were our biggest concerns. When we implemented our tenant reform plan at the start of 2020, we obviously didn’t know Covid was going to happen. Across our portfolio, we had approximately six per cent of our tenants scheduled to move out on March 31st.

AS: Based on our original plan, we were geared up for massive turnover on April 1. The pandemic caught us off guard. When we originally devised the strategy, we were aware that we would have significant vacancy, but the vacancy would coincide with the active spring market. It was a prudent decision with thoughtful timing. So we had vacancy coupled with the challenge of repositioning during a lockdown.  

Q: What strategies did you put in place?
MS: We had tenants that were supposed to move out, and tenants that were supposed to move in. But we were uncertain about whether movers would be operating. To relieve that worry for clients (and for us), we hired our own moving truck as a back up solution in case it was needed. We also implemented super-less, contactless showings. Prospective tenants received a code that rang directly to the Property Manager’s cell phone, so she could let them in for viewings. Prior to the government relief programs, we contacted the municipalities and got direction on what to do if tenants were unable to pay on April 1. We then sent out a communication to tenants to contact us if they foresaw issues in paying their April rents.

AS: Once the government programs kicked in, Mona’s team researched every detail. We compiled all of it – information, directions, contact numbers, dates, requirements – and provided a roadmap to tenants. We decided to support tenants by providing a $100 grocery gift certificate if they paid their rents by April 15. We also offered the option of a three-month freeze on rent increases. We knew how hard people were working to pay us on time, so we wanted to reciprocate. Tenants were incredibly appreciative of the gesture. By our original estimates, we anticipated 40% rent collection for April. That number ended up being 95%. May and June were also positive because people were receiving CERB. Besides the very few tenants that exploited the situation, our community really came together.

Q: How did service delivery change?
MS: We modified our service process eight months prior to Covid so we were well prepared to support tenants. Tenants have access to a 24-hour customer service hotline, staffed by a third-party contact centre. So when Covid hit, it was a really seamless transition for us to use the hotline 100% of the time. Many of our buildings don’t have supers anymore, and for the ones that do, we forwarded all calls to supers’ cellphones directly to the hotline. Tenants have been really happy with the responsiveness and quality of service. We have also switched completely to Docusign for leases and contactless showings.  

Q: What did you do operationally in your properties?
AS: Maintenance became emergency only. We deferred our tax and utility payments as per municipal mandates. And we reassured our staff that nobody would be losing his or her job. We have two offices. We closed one shifting to remote work, and kept one open, instituting all necessary Covid protocols and safety precautions.

Q: What is your outlook on the future?
MS: The true effect of the crisis will be apparent once the government programs cease. With the closure of the courts, there is going to be a backlog. So we will have to figure out what to do for people who find themselves unable to pay. Do you go through a court process? Can they find other work? Is there a grace period? Can you process an eviction if necessary?

Q: Are there any innovations that you will take forward in your business?
AS: Our customer service hotline and virtual processes will continue. We’ve centralized many processes and administration at head office, which has been incredibly efficient. Covid really spotlighted how important digital capabilities are in every business. This experience accelerated trends already happening. So we will focus effort and budget on ramping up those skills. Our team was always adaptable, but that was certainly put to the test, especially at the beginning as things changed almost hourly. For example, we had vacant units and had to mitigate possible supplier closings. Our team really stepped up, remaining strong, united and calm as we navigated a completely new and uncertain situation.

Q: Is there any experience from the past few months that really resonates with you?
MS: The appreciation from our tenants and supers has been very gratifying. They were grateful for how quickly we reacted to the situation. Our commitment to ongoing communication created a sense of calm in our buildings. I am personally very grateful for our resilience as a business and industry. We navigated significant change in a short period of time with minimal levels of stress.

AS: We have always been a culture-oriented company. But everyone really stepped up. Our team was put to the test, and each person delivered. I feel very fortunate and blessed because of that. We live by the value that you are only as good as your people. It is one thing to say that. But it was tested, and it stood up. Our entire team united and succeeded as a result.

Q: Did you receive any support from First National?
AS: Our relationship transitioned from business to friendship a long time ago. But every relationship gets tested when you face hurdles, and you learn how strong the relationship really is. It is how you deal with the curve balls that lead you forward. Dru and Jeremy reached out often, and ultimately trust us as prudent operators. They respect our leadership in the industry. Dru even asked if he could share Mona’s tenant and staff communication materials with other clients as a template. That showed real confidence in how we were handling the situation in our communities.

MS: Everyone was scared. When we estimated 40% rent collection for April, we were concerned about our ability to make mortgage payments. Dru and I touched base often to discuss the status of our rent collection. He was so calm, reasonable and encouraging. He assured us that as long as we were making our best efforts, we would work together to mitigate whatever situation arose. To me, that response and approach proved the trust and goodwill that we share as businesses and as people.