The Smart Money: Access Control's Role in Multi-Family Housing

Sept. 7, 2023
While adoption is still in the early phases, many major builders are incorporating high-tech access solutions

This article originally appeared in the September 2023 issue of Security Business magazine. When sharing, don’t forget to mention Security Business magazine on LinkedIn and @SecBusinessMag on Twitter.

Access control is employed in various ways and forms in multi-family housing. While various types of gates and intercom solutions have been in use for decades, new technology solutions featured in hotels and single-family housing are now making their way into apartment complexes and condominiums. Physical keys are increasingly being replaced by electronic systems, many of which are internet-connected and app-controlled.

Adoption of smart gates and access control is still in its early days. According to Parks Associates consumer surveys of U.S. internet households, 17% of overall residents in multi-dwelling units (MDUs) report living in a gated community, and 11% report living in a building with smart locks or access control systems.

The technologies and specific methods used for access control vary greatly, which can significantly impact technology requirements and deployment outcomes. Many existing solutions rely on key fobs or keycodes for accessing the exterior of a community or public areas. Residents can use the fob or code to open the gate or main entrance, and some solutions offer a callbox where visitors can request entrance. For decades, wired intercoms have been used with callboxes that connect an external box to a box within the resident's unit or the leasing office.

This trend is expected to change as the business case for deploying access control technology continues to evolve. With new technological developments, access control solutions offer increased practical use cases, lower deployment costs and complexity, and higher ROI.

Penetration Rates on the Rise

Penetration of app or web-based access control is set to grow, particularly in gated communities. Only 19% of those living in a gated community report using an internet-based solution to control the gate, compared to 38% of those living in access-controlled spaces. Adoption of these solutions tend to be higher among residents of condominiums compared to apartments, and somewhat higher in high- or mid-rise communities compared to lower rises.

Historically, access control solutions have been thought of as a premium amenity for luxury communities. This is still true, particularly in the apartment market. Parks Associates consumer surveys reveal that access control technology is more commonly adopted in communities that charge higher monthly rents compared to those with lower rents. Adoption is lower in communities charging average or below average rent, with a wider gap between any access control solution and adoption of app-based solutions.

Access control solutions have been updated for the mobile phone and smartphone era, incorporating internet-connected technology and mobile apps. These modern solutions can call a resident's cellphone or a number monitored by property staff. As telephone companies phase out copper-based phone lines, these systems are transitioning to direct communication over the internet.

Access control solutions for other areas of the property are also evolving. While many communities still use physical keys and mechanical locks, more are recognizing the operational benefits of using RFID and/or smart lock solutions.

RFID technology has made its way into multi-family housing from the hotel industry, where visitors are provided keycards that allow them into their hotel room and into permitted areas. Back-end systems control the cardholder’s access into different areas and property staff are able to easily onboard and offboard individuals as they cycle into and out of the community. Smart locks work similarly but require additional infrastructure, such as networking equipment and power sources, and offer a wider range of software-enabled use cases.

Benefits for Users and Property Managers

Access control and smart gate technologies increase convenience for residents, security for communities, improve operational efficiencies, and introduce cost savings, while enabling new use cases for residents and staff.

Residents keep the ability to enter or leave the property using their cellphone or fob, even if one is left behind, which leads to a reduced likelihood of being locked out of an apartment and easy access without needing an in-person visit from staff. Meanwhile, staff find it easier to grant or revoke property access for authorized visitors and can allow temporary access to third-party workers, such as dog walkers or home cleaners, without providing a key.

In a recent study of property owners and managers, Parks Associates tested the primary functions of smart door locks for operations, finding that a majority of respondents found appealing use-cases. Property owners and managers were interested in minimizing key replacement costs, tracking those who entered and left the property, and remotely enabling third parties to enter and leave the property in a secure way.

Positive Impact on Package Delivery

Access control and smart gating solutions also solve a key pain point in package and mail delivery. Multiple delivery drivers may need daily access to the property, and without a streamlined solution for secure access, many communities resort to writing down gate codes on callboxes or waving drivers through without confirming their identities.

Communities with tighter security may risk having deliveries or appointments missed, which can introduce new problems and potentially upset residents.

Multi-family properties face challenges in managing packages once they are delivered, with package theft being an ongoing problem. A common solution for communities is to accept package delivery at a main office or other area and inform residents that their packages are available for pickup; however, securing packages and releasing them to residents can prove challenging as it requires staff to take on additional low-value tasks and introduces liability if an individual takes a package that is not theirs.

Access Control Technologies in Action

Major players in the MDU market have begun deploying access control across their footprints, prioritizing new builds and new construction, but also for upgrades and retrofits. Here are a few examples:

Brookfield Properties makes heavy use of access control, investing in a software-driven approach with distributed credentialing that enables users to grant access to delivery persons, maintenance crews or cleaners – and revoking that access at a later time.

Some AvalonBay communities have deployed smart entry locks as a resident amenity to support connected lifestyles, as an operational tool to save costs, and to enable new use-cases such as self-service touring.

GreyStar is deploying and managing access control, unit entry, and smart gating solutions for many sites. The company reports lowered costs through eliminating or reducing the need for key management, lower liability by removing master keys, and improved efficiency with maintenance operations.

Kristen Hanich is Research Director for Parks Associates. For more information, visit Some of the statistics reported in this article come from a Parks Associates whitepaper created in partnership with residential access control provider Nimbio.