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"Renters by choice" influence multi-family rental design

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"Renters by choice" influence multi-family rental design

Young adults have traditionally fueled most of the demand for rental housing. There are still plenty of young renters in the marketplace, but renters by choice, who are generally older, are changing things up in the multi-family sector.

By Susan Bady, Contributing Editor June 5, 2011
rental housing, apartment design trends, apartment design, rental housing design
This article first appeared in the PB May 2011 issue of Pro Builder.

Young adults have traditionally fueled most of the demand for rental housing. There are still plenty of young renters in the marketplace, but renters by choice, who are generally older, are changing things up in the multi-family sector. 

“We’re designing more diversity into the product,” says architect Tom Barton, principal of BartonPartners, Norristown, Pa. “Before, you might have had 50 percent one-bedroom units and 50 percent two-bedroom units, ranging from 800 to 1,200 square feet. Now we’re offering efficiencies that are as small as 400 square feet, as well as units as large as 2,000 square feet.”

For one community in the Philadelphia suburbs, BartonPartners was asked by the developer to replace several garden-apartment buildings with four-story elevator buildings in order to attract empty nesters. “We also introduced a small number of two-bedroom-plus-den units for empty nesters,” Barton says. “And instead of a stand-alone clubhouse, we moved the amenities into the first floor of one of the elevator buildings.”

Charles Elliott, head of the multi-family division of Dewey Commercial Investors in Philadelphia, says there has been a transition from “people who didn’t even think they wanted to rent but are now renting.” Elliott identifies three primary renter profiles: young adults, both singles and couples, who will probably stay in the apartment for three to four years; 30- and 40-somethings with busy lifestyles, such as doctors, small-business owners, and salespeople; and active adults who have sold their homes or are renting them out.

“They probably have kids in the area, so they don’t want to leave it yet,” Elliott says. “They’re looking for a lifestyle that doesn’t take a lot of work, because they’re so focused on their careers or social lives.”

A Change of Plans

In some cases, Barton sees a trend toward smaller units. “It depends whether the location is urban or suburban, but we are seeing a 5-10 percent reduction in square footage,” he says.

The challenge with smaller apartments is to make them efficient while maintaining livability, Barton says. Rooms need to be large enough for full-size furniture. Kitchens and baths must meet accessibility requirements while maximizing every inch of space. Linear kitchens make more sense than L-shaped or galley kitchens, particularly for younger renters, because they take up less square footage.

Abitare at Voorhees Town Center in Voorhees, N.J., exemplifies this new approach to rental housing design. Kitchens and bathrooms are key selling features, so BartonPartners made sure the kitchens were generously sized with full-scale (rather than apartment-size) appliances.

Dewey Commercial, the developer of the Voorhees Town Center project, offers a broad package of floor plans and amenities to cater to different demographics. Younger renters, who are typically price-sensitive, tend to focus on efficiencies and one-bedroom units. “But they want their apartments to be fully wired with Category 5 cable or set up for wireless,” says Elliott. “They also want more flexibility in the floor plan. For instance, every kitchen has a breakfast bar as well as a small eating area nearby, but more than likely they’ll use the eating area as a home office.”

Renters by choice are more concerned about amenities in the apartments and common areas. Singles and couples in their 30s and 40s gravitate to larger apartments, anywhere from a one-bedroom-plus-den to a three-bedroom. Elliott comments, “I see a lot more demand for three-bedroom units today than I’ve seen in the last 10 years.”

Active adults want the biggest units because they usually have a lot of furniture. They also look for “the kind of features they’ve been used to — nicer kitchens, more cabinetry, large closets.”

High-end finishes such as granite countertops in the kitchens and full appliance packages, including full-size washers and dryers, appeal to renters by choice. Places to congregate around the building, both indoors and outdoors, are also important — think Wii rooms, theaters, fire pits, and swimming pools. Elliott observes, “You don’t see people in the pool, just around the pool.”

Dewey plans to build a total of 317 apartments at Abitare. Of the 200 completed so far, 160 are leased.

Plugging the Housing Gap

The imbalance between jobs and housing in Santa Monica, Calif., has created an opportunity for multi-family developers such as NMS Properties. NMS made a name for itself with luxury apartments on the west side of Los Angeles, and is heavily invested in the redevelopment of downtown Santa Monica.

“The city is just underserved,” says Jim Andersen, chief operating officer for NMS. “It’s unable to house all the folks that come here on a daily basis to work. Santa Monica has a vibrant creative-media employment base and a vibrant retail base, which tend to cycle through an awful lot of young workers.”

The company’s latest project in Santa Monica is Luxe@1548, a six-story building with 50 apartments over street-level commercial space. It took just three months to lease every unit. Such is the level of pent-up demand for rental housing, Andersen says. Some empty nesters reside at Luxe@1548, but most are young professionals.

“We tried to accomplish three things with this project,” he says. “First, we emphasized air and light and space. Second, we wanted to convey the experience of high finish and high style from the moment you enter the building. We want the renter to understand that we’ve taken as much care in the process of designing these units as they would. The third objective was to add to the streetscape of Santa Monica, which is known for its bold architecture.”

Wade Killefer, principal of Killefer Flammang Architects (KFA) in Santa Monica, says the city’s design review committee required a “very strongly composed” front elevation. KFA broke the buildings up vertically into three towers. Recesses between the towers denote the main entry at ground level — one for residents, the other for commercial tenants. Large patio doors and windows suffuse the apartments with natural light.

New Vitality for an Old Neighborhood

The redevelopment agency in Oakland, Calif., once considered building a baseball stadium on a brownfield site in the city’s Uptown district. But Forest City Residential Development and McLarand Vasquez Emsiek (MVE) & Partners, Irvine, Calif., convinced them the site was viable for housing.

MVE & Partners broke down the project into three buildings, each with a different design theme. There are a total of 665 rental apartments, all of which are occupied.
Taking cues from Portland, Ore.’s Pearl District, the architectural heritage of Seattle, and Oakland’s old masonry and brick structures, the mid-rise buildings maintain the scale of the neighborhood, says architect Ernie Vasquez. “Oakland has some rich buildings with great cornices. You couldn’t do that today because of the cost, but we abstracted those elements by using metal fascias, over-exaggerated similar to the way they were done in the early 1900s. It gave us texture on the façade.”

Each building has two interior courtyards with outdoor grilling and seating areas, lush landscaping, and water features. Other amenities include an art gallery, community room, fitness center, game room, poker room, theater, pool, and spa.

Because Forest City wanted to attract a broad range of renters from young professionals to active adults, there are “somewhere in the area of 25 to 30” different floor plans, ranging from studios to two-bedroom-plus-den units, says Vasquez. Twenty-five percent of the units are designated as affordable. The community also includes retail space and a public park, and is located within walking distance of mass transit.

“The Uptown will contribute to the revival and long-term stability of the area, including the burgeoning entertainment district,” says Kevin Ratner, president of Forest City Residential West in Los Angeles. It’s also Oakland’s first LEED Silver-certified multi-family project, and that’s another important part of the package for renters nowadays.
“They really pay attention to utility costs and whether the project is meeting LEED standards and sustainable goals,” says Vasquez. Dewey Commercial focused on walkability and green space at Voorhees Town Center. “We’re actually looking at going to solar for all of our common areas,” says Elliott.

NMS Properties’ Andersen believes the choice to rent instead of own is strongly tied to quality-of-life issues.

“Renters of all ages are recognizing that owning a home has its place and is very positive,” says NMS Properties’ Andersen. “Yet I think they also recognize, especially after the last burst of the housing bubble, that a home is not a big piggybank or a hot stock that’s going to go up in double-digit fashion. It’s more about lifestyle, convenience, and the services that surround where you live.”


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