WARNING: GRAPHIC CONTENT
Some property managers will never have to experience the smell of death when walking into a property that they are managing. Many will never see a fully equipped drug lab set up. Many will never experience a threatening client over the phone or in person, or feel unsafe when visiting a property with a client. Would you know what to do if any of this happened to you? Jess Kindt shares her personal story.
DURING MY 12 years in property, 10 in property management, I have been one of the unfortunate few who have experienced all of the above scenarios.
In 2004, as a young property manager, I experienced my very first tenant-suicide. The experience is yet to leave me and I believe it never will. But over the next nine to 10 years of managing properties and rental departments, I was the first at the scene of a further five suicides of tenants in properties under management.
In between these terrible events, I have had my life threatened, my car trashed, been verbally abused to the point of being fearful for my safety, exposed to drug users’ paraphernalia and live lab set-ups, had tenants on the phone for hours threatening to end their life, and many other very upsetting and challenging circumstances – none of which I thought I would be exposed to as a residential property manager.
I found there was very little information available to help and guide me through overcoming each of these events. It was almost impossible to find black and white processes to follow and very little in the way of residential legislative support.
The most memorable case I experienced was that of a tenant-suicide in inner-city Brisbane. After trying to contact the tenant numerous times to discuss his rent arrears, and checking in with neighbours who had not seen him, I assumed he had abandoned the property. I proceeded with issuing an abandonment notice, along with an entry notice, ready to visit the property to investigate.
When walking up to the front door, I smelt a very distinctive odour coming from the ground floor flat. Having experienced previous abandonments in my career, I assumed the smell was from rotting food left in the property – after all, it was the peak of summer. I unlocked the front door, slowly pushed it open and took two steps inside. The smell was too much to bear and my eyes began watering. I looked down at my shoes which were squelching in the carpet and saw the tenant, lifeless on the floor and covered in blood, with a plastic bag taped over his head and large gashes to both wrists.
I ran out of the flat, crying hysterically. The neighbours came out and phoned the police.
I remember overhearing one of the officers say that it had looked like my tenant had been deceased for two to three weeks, but I don’t recall much else. After being questioned, I was told to leave my shoes (due to standing in bodily fluid) and hand the property keys to the police, who would contact me once the crime scene was released. I was basically told to head back to my agency to carry on with my working day as normal.
Eventually the police established the death was a suicide and I duly collected the keys. When I returned to the property I expected everything to be back to normal, but I was wrong. I walked into the very same crime scene I had witnessed only days before, minus the body of my tenant. The smell, the mess, everything was the same. I had no idea what to do next. I assumed there was some sort of process I had to follow in removing the tenants’ belongings and cleaning up the property, but I really had no idea where to start or who to turn to. Even though I had unfortunately found deceased tenants before, the process had always been handled by a more senior member of staff.
I went back to the office feeling very overwhelmed and rang the police who were present at the scene on the day of discovery. I asked what the standard process was to clean up after something like this occurs. They provided me with a name and number for a death trauma cleaner who was well known in the Brisbane area. I had never heard of this type of specialist cleaner before.
After a short phone call, I met with the trauma cleaner at the property. I was absolutely shocked at the process she explained to me – along with the cost of doing it! The property had a concrete floor, besser block walls and was approximately 50m2 in size, so very small. Bodily fluid had somehow reached from the front to the very back of the flat. I was advised that, in order for the property to be safe and free of bio-hazardous waste, all carpets, furnishings, curtains, blinds, belongings of the tenant, and pretty much any fixture or fitting outside of the kitchen cupboard and bench would need to be removed and disposed of. The concrete floor and walls would then be resealed and repainted.
The death trauma cleaner quoted $6,500 to conduct the job. I nearly fell over! As the police were unable to locate a next of kin for the tenant, we dropped any salvageable photos and documents of the tenant’s into the Office of the Public Trustee. The property owner then paid for the death trauma cleaner and associated work, with some of it being covered by their insurance. At the request of the owner, the property was then blessed by a local priest and placed back on the rental market. I never re-visited it again.
I have often looked back on my experiences and wondered why we, as an industry, don’t provide more training in relation to these kinds of scenarios. This thought has plagued me for years. I have a huge desire to expose staff to the unspoken factors of property management – including the potential safety risks. Recent statistics on suicide, domestic violence and drug use are alarming and most people do not consider that these often take place within a rental property.
A recent study showed that last year alone, 323 people were victims of assaults, rapes and murders whilst working in real estate in the US. Since 2006, violent crimes against real estate professionals have increased by 300 per cent worldwide. In Australia, sexual assault and related offences are increasing each year by 20 per cent. The Courier Mail recently reported domestic violence rates are soaring in Queensland, with police recording a 30 per cent jump to 72,516 disturbances last year. Domestic and family violent deaths also spiked in the same period, with 29 murders compared to 16 the previous year.
So what do you do and who do you call if a similar scenario occurs in your property management business?
Based on my experience, my suggestions are as follows:
- A property manager can always ask police to conduct a ‘welfare check’ on any tenant at any time. If you suspect a tenant may have passed away or you fear for their general welfare, this is a great way of seeking assistance without physically exposing yourself to an undesirable situation.
- If something just doesn’t feel right, never visit a property alone or avoid the property and/or client altogether. Always follow your instincts as more often than not they are spot on.
- If you happen to visit a property and see very large blowflies on the inside of the windows or doors, possibly with a bad smell, never enter and call police immediately.
- If you do walk into a property and find a deceased person, leave immediately with as little disturbance as possible to the scene to avoid interfering with any police investigation.
- If the police are unable to locate and/or contact a next of kin for a deceased tenant and have given the all-clear for possessions to be removed by a death trauma cleaner (if applicable), personal documents (such as money, passports, birth certificates, photographs) must be given to the Office of the Public Trustee within seven days of the end of the tenancy. Refer to your Residential Tenancy Authority for time frames and processes relating to ending a tenancy due to death of a tenant.
- Google organisations in your local area that provide rehoming services, mental health assistance, emergency relief and support for domestic abuse victims, so that you can offer contact details to any client ever in need.
- Visit your local police station to obtain emergency contact numbers for services and police hotlines, including Crime Stoppers.
- Reports to police of suspected illegal activity can always remain anonymous if you so wish. No permission from your property owner is needed to report this activity anonymously to the police. You would, however, seek their permission if issuing a notice to remedy breach to your tenants for this type of behaviour.
- If you ever have threats made against you, always record and report the situation to your business owner and the local police.
- Create a code word in your office that can be texted or phoned in at any time, alerting staff that you are in danger. Ensure any new employee is made aware of this code word and knows what to do to help.
- Download the Daniel Morcombe ‘Help Me’ app on your iPhone or tablet or similar. This allows staff to send for help via text message with accompanied location via GPS tracking built into the app.
- There are many (free) self-defence workshops available in most major cities. I recently had Brisbane Martial Arts visit our team to conduct a two-hour self-defence workshop. We all loved it. It was fun, educational and it taught us skills to apply not only in our line of work but also our daily lives.
We are all one team, as property managers within this industry. Together we should always be aware of not only our own personal safety but that of our employees and colleagues. I have recently carried out extensive training with our teams on all of the above and will continue to keep this topic at the front of their minds.
It’s always a great idea to train staff on the uncommon to ensure we are ready for anything when looking after people and property. It would be great to see other business owners, corporate teams and team leaders do the same.