While the promise of a truly paperless office is still many years away, affordable housing companies are getting one step closer through document management applications.

Document management software stores, tracks, and retrieves electronic documents and scans of paper documents, centralizing the many files that property management companies traditionally stuff into filing cabinets.

In the past, many companies struggled to find space for various Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) forms, income-certification documents, rental applications, and leases, to name a few. But now, some are beginning to scan all of those documents and organize them in a virtual filing cabinet.

The technology's adoption will be helped by the fact that more information is coming to property management companies in electronic format, such as credit card checks, background checks, and other screening services, as well as electronic statements from banks.

But at least half of the accompanying lease documentation is still in paper format. And at many companies, the same document is often copied multiple times, sometimes stored in different filing cabinets, leading to confusion over which is the original. Every major document management application has a scanner function, which allows users to scan documents and convert them into electronic files like PDFs. With document management software, whatever resides in your system is the final document.

Document management applications also can help with document retention policies. HUD has specific document-retention requirements for income-certification documents, many low-income housing tax credit documents need to be retained for a 15-year compliance period, and privacy laws govern how long personal information, such as credit and criminal checks, can be retained. Document-management applications allow the user to define the date a document is to be deleted after a compliance period.

Additionally, document management can cut down on the time and cost of the annual audits conducted by state or federal housing agencies. Instead of an on-site review that takes days, auditors can do their due diligence online, before visiting the property.

Most of the major property management software companies, like RealPage and Intuit, offer some form of document management within their software suite. And some, like Domin-8, offer document management solutions that are application-neutral, working with many software platforms.

OneSite capabilities

Document management applications also help ensure timely subsidy payments, especially for rural developments. More than 8 percent of rental subsidy payments from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Rural Housing Service (RHS) were inaccurate, sometimes resulting in underpayments to owners, primarily “due to incomplete paperwork,” according to a study of 2007 rental assistance payments conducted by RHS. The biggest culprits—such as undated certifications and missing income award letters—can be easily corrected with a document management application.

Since RealPage's document management system is integrated with its OneSite Leasing & Rents Affordable program, it has workflow management capabilities. If a tenant application is incomplete, the system will stop it from proceeding until all of the correct documentation is in place.

RealPage introduced a document management system in mid-2007 and has made some big upgrades this year.

In March, it added barcode scanning functionality to its document management system, allowing property managers to bulk-scan documents assigned to a specific tenant, which are automatically filed when scanned.

In the past, this was a two-step process: first scanning, then manually assigning the electronic document to a certain file. With barcode scanning, users assign barcodes to a certain resident or service provider and can then bulk-scan large amounts of paperwork into their system (as opposed to one piece of paper at a time); that paperwork is then automatically filed into the property management software.

i-Doc application-neutral

Domin-8's document management system, i-Doc, is application-neutral. Those using any of Domin-8's diverse software offerings, such as RentRight, Tenant Pro, and Spectra, can use i-Doc, but so can those using Yardi or RealPage. This neutrality is helpful when a thirdparty management company wants to share financial statements or marketing plans with owners. Nobody has to log into the accounting system or property management software to share these documents online.

Since it's not strictly tied to property management, i-Doc is also used for storing and sharing corporate or HR documents, such as timesheets and 401(k) plan forms. And i-Doc can be tweaked by Domin-8 to target the needs of developers, who may want to share insurance documents or site plans with development partners.

i-Doc was developed by TCG Technologies, which was acquired by Domin-8 in March 2007. The product has been on the market for more than three years.

Domin-8 does two major upgrades a year to i-Doc; in 2008, it added a search function that corrects typos. And Domin-8 has integrated other types of media into i-Doc. Its newest version allows users to run media files in i-Doc documents, such as training videos from YouTube.

The Puerto Rico Housing Authority is an i-Doc user, as is Capstone Management, which manages approximately 25,000 affordable housing units throughout the country.

On the horizon

Both Domin-8 and RealPage are developing retention-specific features, where users specify how long an electronic document should exist, for a rollout next year.

RealPage also expects to release an “audit cabinet” next year, which would allow auditors to review “read-only” files from anywhere, as opposed to having to do on-site inspections. Domin-8 offers this feature as part of i-Doc.

Document management technology is also a great disaster recovery tool, since all of the documents are hosted off-site by the software provider.

The technology is gaining traction among multifamily operators, but it's still in the somewhat early stages, says David Cardwell, vice president of technology for the National Multi Housing Council. “Property managers all recognize the need to manage their information and documentation much more efficiently,” he says.

As document management applications grow in sophistication, adoption should also continue to grow. The benefits for multifamily companies are obvious, but as with any technologyrelated shift, the biggest hurdle may just be in changing how they think about documents.