Cities With the Worst Rent

photo by Alex Lozupone

Realtor.com quoted me in Cities With the Worst Rent: Is This How Much You’re Coughing Up? It opens,

Sure, rents are too dang high just about everywhere, but people living in Los Angeles really have a right to complain: New analysis by Forbes has found that this city tops its list of the Worst Cities for Renters in 2018.

To arrive at these depressing results, researchers delved into rental data and found that people in L.A. pay an average of $2,172 per month.

Granted, other cities have higher rents—like second and third on this list, San Francisco (at $3,288) and New York ($3,493)—but Los Angeles was still deemed the worst when you consider how this number fits into the bigger picture.

For one, Los Angeles households generally earn less compared with these other cities, pulling in a median $63,600 per year. So residents here end up funneling a full 41% of their income toward rent (versus San Franciscans’ 35%).

Manhattanites, meanwhile, fork over 52% of their income toward rent, but the saving grace here is that rents haven’t risen much—just 0.4% since last year. In Los Angeles, in that same time period, rent has shot up 5.7%.

So is this just a case of landlords greedily squeezing tenants just because they can? On the contrary, most experts say that these cities just aren’t building enough new housing to keep up with population growth.

“It is fundamentally a problem of supply and demand,” says David Reiss, research director at the Center for Urban Business Entrepreneurship at Brooklyn Law School. “Certain urban centers like Los Angeles, San Francisco, and New York are magnets for people and businesses. At the same time, restrictive local land use regulations keep new housing construction at very low levels. Unless those constraints are loosened, hot cities will face housing shortages and high rents no matter what affordable housing programs and rent regulation regimes are implemented to help ameliorate the situation.”

Small Multifamilies and The Affordability Illusion

house-window-wooden-old

Fannie Mae’s September Multifamily Market Commentary repeats a common misunderstanding about small multifamily properties that is worth addressing. By way of background, it opens,

Multifamily rental units can be found in high-rise structures or in garden-style buildings, but there are a number of properties that house between just five and 50 housing units. These properties are usually identified as small multifamily and can be found in many different metros across the country. In many places, they can also be a key source of affordable rental units. (1)

While the data is not definitive, there appears to be somewhere between “296,000 and 360,000 small multifamily properties” with between 2.3 million and 4.4 million units of housing among them. (1) These units appear to be concentrated in about ten states that contain three quarters of the stock.  California and NY have the most small multifamilies by a wide margin and the cities with the most come as no surprise:  LA, NYC, SF-Oakland, Chicago and San Diego.

Here’s where I have issues with the analysis:

Fewer Small Multifamily Properties in the Pipeline

According to data from the Dodge Data & Analytics Construction Pipeline, the number of new multifamily projects being started has been declining since peaking in the second quarter of 2015, falling to 678 projects during the first quarter of 2016 . . . . The average number of units rose, however, to about 117 units per project.

Given the high land acquisition and construction costs in most metros, this trend of maximizing square footage in multifamily development, rehabilitation, and renovation should not be surprising. Unfortunately, it does have implications for the small multifamily segment, which in many places tends to offer more affordable rents when compared to newer properties.

An Uncertain Future for Small Multifamily

Over the next decade, the nation’s multifamily stock will likely see an influx of higher unit count properties. As older small multifamily rental properties age and/or fall into disrepair, they will likely be replaced with properties with more density per square foot. Developers will likely create more, but much smaller, units on the same size lot. As a result, these small multifamily properties may end up moving out of the 5-50 unit category and push up into the 50+ unit category, making preservation of the existing stock of small multifamily rental properties offering more affordable rents even more critical.(6)

The logic of this last sentence is faulty, but it is also oft-repeated by sophisticated housing market commentators. Small multifamilies are not cheap because they are small, they are cheap because they are old. Old housing is generally cheaper than new housing. So this notion that we should preserve old housing for its own sake is faulty. Generally, we would want to see an expansion in the supply of housing, so replacing an aging small building with a bigger new one would generally be a positive development. We also would like to see investments in upgrades to the housing stock, either through rehabilitation or replacement. Effectively, this Fannie Mae Commentary is saying that we should preserve very old small multifamilies instead of upgrading those properties. That is short-sighted because while it may keep particular units affordable, it will also tend to raise rents more generally (by restricting supply) and lowering the overall quality of the housing stock (by disincentivizing investment).

The Commentary acknowledges that “it seems that there are a variety of financing sources available in the financing of small multifamily rental properties, indicating there is sufficient and ongoing liquidity for this property type. ” (5) Perhaps it is best to treat small multifamilies just like the bigger ones and let the market determine the highest and best use of each parcel zoned for multifamily construction.

Walkers in the City

photo by Derrick Coetzee

The Center for Real Estate and Urban Analysis at The George Washington School of Business has released Foot Traffic Ahead: Ranking Walkable Urbanism in America’s Largest Metros for 2016. The Executive Summary opens,

The end of sprawl is in sight. The nation’s largest metropolitan areas are focusing on building walkable urban development.

For perhaps the first time in 60 years, walkable urban places (WalkUPs) in all 30 of the largest metros are gaining market share over their drivable sub-urban competition—and showing substantially higher rental premiums.

This research shows that metros with the highest levels of walkable urbanism are also the most educated and wealthy (as measured by GDP per capita)— and, surprisingly, the most socially equitable. (4)

This strikes me as a somewhat over-optimistic take on sprawl, but I certainly welcome the increase in walkable urban places over a broad swath of metropolitan areas. The report’s specific findings are that

There are 619 regionally significant, walkable urban places—referred to as WalkUPs—in the 30 largest U.S. metropolitan areas. These 30 metros represent 46 percent of the national population (145 million of the 314 million national population) and 54 percent of the national GDP.

The 30 metros are ranked on the current percentage of occupied walkable urban office, retail, and multi-family rental square feet in their WalkUPs, compared to the balance of occupied square footage in the metro area. The six metros with the most walkable urban space in WalkUPs are, in rank order, New York City, Washington, DC, Boston, Chicago, San Francisco, and Seattle.

Economic Performance: There are substantial and growing rental rate premiums for walkable urban office (90 percent), retail (71 percent), and rental multi-family (66 percent) over drivable sub-urban products. Combined, these three product types have a 74 percent rental premium over drivable sub-urban.

Walkable urban market share growth in office and multi-family rental has increased in all 30 of the largest metros between 2010-2015, while drivable sub-urban locations have lost market share. The market share growth for 27 of the 30 metros is two times their market share in 2010. This is of the same or greater magnitude as the market share gains of drivable sub-urban development during its boom years in the 1980s, but in the reverse direction.

Indicators of potential future WalkUP performance show that many of the metros ranked highest for current walkable urbanism are also found at the top of our Development Momentum Ranking—namely, the metros of New York City, Boston, Seattle, and Washington, DC. This indicates that these metros will continue to build on their already high WalkUP market shares and rent premiums.

There are also some surprising metros in this top tier of Development Momentum rankings, including Detroit, Phoenix, and Los Angeles.

The most walkable urban metro areas have a substantially greater educated workforce, as measured by college graduates over 25 years of age, and substantially higher GDP per capita. These relationships are correlations, and determining the causal relationships requires further research to prove.

Walkable urban development describes trends resulting from both revitalization of the central city and urbanization of the suburbs. For nearly all metros, the future urbanization of the suburbs holds the greatest opportunity; metro Washington, DC, serves as a model, splitting its WalkUPs relatively evenly between its central city (53 percent) and its suburbs (47 percent).

Social Equity Performance: The national concern about social equity has been exacerbated by the very rent premiums highlighted above, referred to as gentrification. Counter-intuitively, measurement of moderate-income household (80 percent of AMI) spending on housing and transportation, as well as access to employment, shows that the most walkable urban metros are also the most socially equitable. The reason for this is that low cost transportation costs and better access to employment offset the higher costs of housing. This finding underscores for the need for continued, and aggressive, development of attainable housing solutions. (4, footnote omitted)

There is a lot of import here. Is there more than a correlation between walkability and the educational level of the workforce and, if so, why? Why don’t more housing affordability studies take into account transportation costs when evaluating the affordability of a given community? What is the trend line of this new direction toward urbanism and how far can it go in the face of decades of investment in car-based communities? This annual study will help us answer those questions, over time.

SF’s Airbnboom

Brian Johnson & Dane Kantner

The Christian Science Monitor quoted me in San Francisco Votes Down Airbnb Limits: Can Competing Interests Be Balanced? It reads, in part,

A defeated ballot measure in San Francisco, which would have imposed further restrictions on users of Airbnb and similar websites, is a sign of how the issue of short-term housing rentals is vexing city governments in the United States and beyond.

From Fort Lauderdale, Fla., to Los Angeles, lawmakers and residents alike are struggling to balance the power of technological change with the many critics of the home-sharing industry: homeowners who complain about deterioration in the quality of life in residential neighborhoods, hotels that fret about lost revenues, and activists who say that short-term housing is stripping the marketplace of affordable long-term units.

Yet even some of the trend’s most ardent critics suggest that more restrictions are not necessarily the answer. Better enforcement of current laws would go a long way toward balancing the conflicting interests, they say.

*     *     *

On the other coast, just as many cities are struggling. New York City is still up in the air about how to handle the sharing economy, says Brooklyn Law School professor David Reiss, who has followed Airbnb’s evolution.

This week, Airbnb promised to provide detailed data to the New York City Council, he notes. “The company is doing this in part to fend off [legislation] that would severely limit their reach in NYC,” he says via e-mail. One piece of proposed legislation increases penalties for violations of existing laws, and another mandates that the city track illegal apartment conversions, according to Professor Reiss.

Still, the sharing economy is with us for the long term as consumers continue to vote with their wallets, he says. “The bottom line is that we are in a period of transition. And while it is unlikely that we will return to the pre-sharing economy, it is also unlikely that we will have a sharing economy that is driven just by market actors, without government regulation,” he adds.