Metropolitan Associates is a residential real estate firm managing over 4,500 apartment homes in Southeast Wisconsin, USA. A LANSA user since 1992, Metropolitan has developed virtually all its systems in LANSA and recently rebuilt its 20-year old property management system with Visual LANSA. The new system offers far more functionality, integration with Microsoft Office and other Windows applications using Active-X, as well as a more attractive and productive GUI for the business users.
Jeff Dremel, VP technology at Metropolitan Associates, says, “In retrospect I’m very pleased we made the choice to go with LANSA way back in 1992. Overall IT expense is not in hardware or software, it is in people. Visual LANSA allows us to be much more productive. But you should not measure productivity in project development time only. We produced a far more functional and robust system. That is where the real gain is.”
We produced a far more functional and robust system, that is where the real gain is.
About 50 percent of Metropolitan Associates’ portfolio is subsidized housing for the disabled, elderly and other disadvantaged income groups. “Technology plays a huge role on that side of the business, because of the many government regulations and strict reporting requirements,” says Dremel. “The amount of information that we have to collect for the government is substantial.”
Each month Metropolitan has to transmit data to Wisconsin Housing Economic Development Authority that is responsible for administering subsidized housing contracts. For each household moving in, Metropolitan has to perform an elaborate certification process to determine their rental subsidy based on a plethora of ever-changing factors. This process is repeated annually or whenever the resident’s situation changes. Often the subsidy needs to be computed retroactively.”
Maintaining and enhancing Metropolitan’s existing RPG-based property management solution that had grown with Metropolitan from an IBM System 3, to System 34, to System 36 and then to an iSeries, was becoming increasingly difficult.
The original property management system and network infrastructure did not allow staff at the apartment communities to effectively use the system. “Our staff in the field, the apartment communities, could not perform essential tasks in a timely fashion. Move-ins, move-outs, leases, payments were all handled centrally at our home office,” says Dremel.
“All the action was out there, but transactions had to be processed at our central office. We had a substantial delay because things had to written down, papers faxed or couriered and data keyed-in. Accuracy was also a problem. I imagine we lost a fair amount of business over the years because the system was never up-to-date.”
“I wanted to push data entry out to the staff at the apartment communities where it belongs. I also wanted to take a fresh look at user interface, platforms, operating systems and tools.”
I wanted to push data entry out to the staff at the apartment communities where it belongs.
The subsidized housing requirements made it difficult to find a packaged solution and Dremel also found most packaged solutions were weak in repair, maintenance and purchasing. “Even if we included solutions on every single platform, we still couldn’t get what we wanted,” says Dremel.
So, Dremel decided to develop a new system with his own team. In 1992, Metropolitan had selected LANSA as its prime development tool. Dremel recalls, “We did our research and kept on hearing from companies that use LANSA how they became productive quickly and could deliver complex and large operational systems from the start.”
Metropolitan also implemented the General Ledger and Cash Management modules from Gemma’s ERP system, which are now modules in LANSA’s ERP Framework. Next Metropolitan developed several custom systems in LANSA including accounts payable and purchasing systems.
“All systems were green-screen until 2000, when along came the big choice of redeveloping the core property management system. ” I considered different user interfaces and took a hard look at platform options. We decided to stay on the iSeries for several reasons. At the top of the list were reliability and low cost of ownership.”
After some prototyping with various user interfaces Dremel concluded that Windows was the most intuitive and feature-rich user interface and decided to move his team forward from LANSA for iSeries to Visual LANSA. “LANSA has always worked well for us and Visual LANSA allowed us to take advantage of new technologies. LANSA’s component based approach to Object Oriented development, its high level business oriented development language and the Repository have much to offer. Furthermore we could leverage existing LANSA skills.”
Metropolitan’s first Visual LANSA project was a new prospects and applicants system. The prospect system stores details of people who are interested in renting and allows for property searches based on their preferences. It can produce a list of apartments with floor plans and an overview of amenities, and printout something for the prospect to take with them. The applicant system handles the entire application process, including filling out electronic application forms and the screening process.
The new prospect and applicant system was then integrated with the core property management system. “We knew we were going to totally revamp the old system, but at that stage we were still reliant on it for all financial transactions,” says Dremel.
“Having half the system in green-screen and half in Windows, our users were anxious to have us do the rest.” So, Metropolitan embarked on the second phase, replacing the core system modules that deal with government reporting and regulations, residents and financial transactions.”
“The bulk of the project was spent on making sure we had all the requirements covered. The programming itself represented a fraction of the time,” says Dremel.
LANSA always worked well for us and Visual LANSA allows us to take advantage of new technologies.
“Staff at the apartment communities can now take a prospective resident from the beginning to the end, including property search, application, certification, payment and the move-in with associated services. They can also do move-outs and on-site inspections. It is in real time and is very quick with our broadband WAN,” says Dremel.
“The timeliness and accuracy of the information has increased tremendously. Before field staff could not always take proper action, because they could not rely on the accuracy of the information.”
The solution includes an alert sub-system, to make sure the correct workflow is followed and to show overdue payments, evictions, late move-outs and other matters that need attention. “Alerts are a big hit with our users,” says Dremel. “The system is massive and the alerts make sure you can find your way to what must be dealt with.”
“We also have the ability to offer additional services, opening up an exiting new business area. For example, our residents can indicate which newspapers they want to have delivered and on which days of the week. We can integrate and communicate these services to third parties. We plan to extend our services to things like cable TV and broadband Internet.”
“All Visual LANSA applications run from integrated Citrix servers on our downtown iSeries, so we don’t install or maintain software on individual PCs. It is very easy for us to add another apartment community, all we do is get a few PCs, a Cisco Concentrator, broadband service, connect it up and they are plugged in.”
“The Windows user interface is far more productive and superior to green-screens. It is also easier to support the users, as we can take control of someone’s PC remotely if they have a problem or need training.”
“We make extensive use of Visual LANSA’s integration with ActiveX to talk to Microsoft Word and Microsoft Excel. We can produce professional looking graphical statements, letters and reports on very affordable laser printers. And programming the ActiveX stuff is easy.”
“I can now consider iSeries and Windows applications. The only caveat is we want the keep the data on the iSeries server, where we know it is safe. The integrity and security of our database are paramount. At the same time, LANSA’s ability to use ActiveX opens up hundreds of thousands of very affordable and very functional widgets and programs to pick from. For example, we integrated a free ActiveX component as part of Payflow Pro, a credit card processing package from Verisign. The cost to do this was less than $1,000 for all the software plus $80 per location for the card swiper.”
LANSA’s ability to use ActiveX opens up hundreds of thousands of very affordable programs.
“LANSA has insulated us from platform, operating system and upgrade headaches.”
“When I hire new people, they pick up LANSA very quickly. The LANSA learning curve can be a short as a month or two. Getting a new developer productive as fast as possible saves Metropolitan Associates a considerable amount of time and money.”
“All our systems are written in LANSA, except for Payroll. Maintaining and enhancing those systems is critical to our business. Some of upcoming projects include EFT, direct deposit, bar coding and scanning, inventory control and tracking, preventative maintenance and fixed asset depreciation. We are also looking at implementing a Wireless PDA work order system to replace the largely paper-based system used by our 30 maintenance technicians.”
“The beauty of LANSA is that we can pick and choose which platform, hardware and software delivers the most cost effective solution based on our requirements,” concludes Dremel.
The LANSA learning curve can be a short as a month or two.