But for Zaugg, who is the manager of a 180-unit apartment building in Belltown, finding a tenant's corpse "blackened, with claws" is just part of the deal, and not necessarily the worst part.
Zaugg was among more than 1,500 real-estate industry types who went to the December 5 "Trends Rental Housing Management Conference and Trade Show" at Seattle's convention center. The conference is supposed to motivate apartment managers to keep doing their job. That is, doing the dirty work for their bosses--landlords.
While billed as a networking and professional-training opportunity, the show is more like a pep rally meant to help keep apartment managers from burning out. Apparently, this is necessary because apartment managers are very stressed-out people (at least, judging from the trade show's emphasis on motivation and from the number of managers who smoke). Their job sounds tough. According to apartment managers at the trade show, they constantly have to deal with whiny tenants who want their garbage disposals fixed... at 2:00 a.m. They also have to collect rent and evict people. These are serious burdens that can wear a person down. Landlords want to keep that from happening.
That's where the trade show comes in. The show is put on basically to keep people in Zaugg's line of work happy. It's funded by three organizations--the Washington Apartment Owners Association, the Institute of Real Estate Management, and the Master Builders Association of Tacoma/Pierce County--all of which obviously benefit from a stable rental-housing industry workforce. The landlords and the developers make their profits by heavily relying on a single cog in the machine: property managers.
The trade show clearly had a practical purpose for managers. For instance, there was a room full of appliances, plumbing parts, and phone service displays. There were also jokes meant specifically for managers (which tenants might find downright frightening), like people dressed in cow costumes soliciting attention to their eviction service. "We smoooooth 'em out. Or we mooooove 'em out," mooed the cow-clad folks. A guy from Bug Busters Pest Control Inc. was a highlight. "I'm there to draw the line between the bug world and our world," explained bug killer Steve Rogers.
However, while silly sales gimmicks in the exhibit room may have made the industry's hard edge seem more palatable, there was something serious going on. Down the hall from the exhibits, 50-minute motivational workshops were held throughout the day in several conference rooms. Some of the workshops were practical and gave managers information they should know. For instance, Apartment Association of Seattle & King County representatives taught a series of sessions about landlord-tenant laws for which managers could get professional credit. But other classes, like "Raising Rents without Raising Cain" and "Dealing with Difficult Residents," were scary programming sessions that cheered on the nasty elements of a property manager's job, like rent gouging and evicting tenants.
Meet Cathy Otterbine, the quintessential cheerleader for property managers. She gave the "raising rents" speech, telling audience members that it's not only their right to raise rents, it's their duty. "You're better" if you charge "at least 10 percent above market rate," she said, talking so fast her eyes were nearly popping out of her head. She seemed to be manipulating the managers in order to get them to exploit their tenants. For instance, she told them not to apologize for raising the rent. Instead, she counseled, they should tell tenants they're lucky the rent doesn't go up even more.
Otterbine wasn't the only one dishing trade "secrets." Alyce Cornyn-Selby told people how to deal with "difficult residents." Like Otterbine, Cornyn-Selby recommended playing with words. She pointed out that most of the time when tenants complain, they do it just to hear themselves. You can "disarm" them by giving the false impression that you care. "Tell them, 'I can see how that might upset a person,'" she advised.
Some apartment managers said they learned something from the speakers, like how to tack on an extra fee in someone's lease. But the trade show's main goal--to make apartment managers feel good while five tenants are spitting at them because the rent doubled--seemed pretty ambitious, and probably unattainable, given the thick anxiety that seems to go along with such a guilty job.
The motivation wasn't very effective for Belltown manager Zaugg, who's been through the motions before. "Last year it was the guy who had climbed Everest," he says. "I was going to slit my wrists."