October 2, 2003

The surprising realities of apartment living

  • Multi-family projects have less impact than houses on infrastructure, traffic and schools
    Baylis Architects

    The National Multi-Housing Council, NMHC, in conjunction with the National Apartment Association, recently released its research and findings on many of the myths and stereotypes of apartment living.

    The realities may surprise you.

    Apartments are an important dwelling alternative. Why? Because apartments:

    • are more compact, less sprawling and conserve green space;

    • create pedestrian-friendly and vibrant 24-hour neighborhoods;

    • use municipal infrastructure more efficiently;

    • revitalize deteriorating neighborhoods;

    • reduce auto traffic and provide the critical mass of users required to make mass transit feasible;

    • place less burden on local schools, and;

    • improve economic prosperity by providing much-needed housing for the employees and customers local businesses need.

    Unfortunately, because of stereotypes, many activists and long-time residents oppose new apartment construction.

    To be serious about creating more successful communities, we will have to change our collective thinking about density and apartments. The first step is to throw out the stereotypes about housing preferences and eliminate the myths about apartments.

    Stereotype: The dream for homeownership is universal.

    Reality: Apartment living is gaining in popularity, particularly among higher-income households.

    The times are changing. Recent research by NMHC tells us that:

    • A surprising 40 percent of households living in an apartment do so by choice and not because of their financial situation. This is up significantly from 32 percent in 2000 and 28 percent in 1999.

    • For the past four years, households earning $50,000 or more have been the fastest-growing segment of the apartment market. They now total 3.6 million.

    This region’s population is more diverse than ever, and as it changes, so do its housing preferences. Nationally, millions of established and affluent households are now drawn to apartments for: superior locations near work/shop/play areas; the lack of homeowner chores; the freedom to respond to job changes and adjust their housing without financial penalty and risk; and access to new amenities and technologies.

    Census 2000 revealed some unexpected shifts in types and sizes of households, and the implications for housing are profound. Long-term demographic trends will lead to unusually strong apartment demand for at least the next 10 years, as the echo boomers (born 1977 to 1994) enter the household formation years and the leading edge baby boomers (born 1946 to 1964) consider downsizing their housing. The point: the fastest growing segment of the population — households without school age children — is the segment most likely to rent.

    Stereotype: Apartment residents do not pay for the services they use.

    Reality: Apartment residents pay property taxes via rent, and often at a higher rate.

    The truth is renters do pay property taxes — they just do so indirectly. Property owners pay the taxes and the cost is then included in the resident’s rent. Moreover, evidence from national surveys shows that apartments are usually taxed at a much higher tax rate (the effective tax rate of apartments is, on average, two times that of single-family houses).

    When you consider the fact that apartment residents have fewer school-age children and place less demand on area roads, it appears apartment residents are actually subsidizing their single-family neighbors and not vice versa.

    Additionally, new apartment development has an immediate and long-lasting effect on a community’s prosperity. According to NMHC, construction of 100 apartments usually results in 122 new jobs, $579,000 in local taxes and fees, and $5.2 million in local income generated by workers and businesses. The ongoing, annual effect of 100 new apartment households in the local economy is typically 46 local jobs, $308,000 in local taxes and fees, and $1.8 million in local wages and business receipts.

    Stereotype: Apartments disproportionately burden school systems.

    Reality: Single-family home owners have three times as many school-age children.

    NMHC tabulations of a 1999 American Housing Survey found there are 64 school-age children for every 100 new owner-occupied single-family houses, but just 21 children for every 100 new apartments, and only an average of 12 children for every 100 apartments in mid- and high-rise buildings.

    This finding shows that there is no empirical support for the all-too-common strategy of barring or limiting apartment construction to relieve pressure on local school systems.

    Stereotype: Apartments bring traffic congestion.

    Reality: Apartment residents own fewer cars and are more likely to use public transportation.

    NMHC found that apartment residents average one car per household, while owner-occupied houses average two vehicles. Also, apartment households generate 30 to 40 percent fewer vehicle trips than single-family units.

    Stereotype: Apartments bring down property values.

    Reality: Homes near apartments maintain their values.

    The Urban Land Institute reports that between 1987 and 1995, the average annual appreciation rate for single-family houses within 300 feet of an apartment building was 3.17 percent, compared to 3.19 percent for single-family houses not near an apartment property. That finding is corroborated by an NMHC analysis using more recent data.

    Even the presence of publicly-assisted housing does not adversely affect property values or community cohesion. Research in the Journal of the American Planning Association found that locating public housing units “in predominately white, middle-income neighborhoods had no discernible effects on surrounding property values. Additionally, a comparison of homeowners living near the public housing and those living elsewhere reported similar levels of satisfaction with their neighborhoods.”

    Stereotype: Apartments increase crime rates.

    Reality: Apartments help create safe and secure neighborhoods.

    Much of the belief that crime is higher in apartment communities is based on what could be called faulty logic that then leads to incorrect perceptions.

    NMHC research has found that police officers tend to think of apartment properties as a single “house.” But NMHC suggests that an apartment property with 250 units should be more accurately defined as 250 houses. A local police officer may mentally record every visit to an apartment community as happening at a single house, but to truly compare crime rates between apartments and single-family houses, the officer should have to count each household in the apartment community as the equivalent of a separate single-family house.

    Calculated this way, one will find that crime rates between the different housing types are comparable.

    Furthermore, many apartment residents say they choose apartment living specifically because they feel more secure there; they feel safer because there are so many people coming and going that it is more difficult for criminals to act without being discovered.

    Stereotype: Homeowners make better citizens.

    Reality: Homeownership is not required for good citizenship and strong neighborhoods.

    Advocates of homeownership often imply that apartment renters are less desirable residents. But the reality is that differences between owners and renters on “good citizenship” are small and often not statistically significant.

    Data from the University of Chicago’s General Social Survey between 1987 and 1996 indicate that, compared to house owners, apartment residents are more socially engaged, equally involved in community groups, and similarly attached to their communities and religious institutions. Apartment residents are also comparably interested in national affairs and active in local politics.

    Stereotype: Apartments increase local infrastructure costs.

    Reality: Apartment use municipal infrastructure more efficiently.

    The clustering of apartment homes makes them substantially less expensive to service. First, they generally concentrate growth in areas already well served by public facilities so they require fewer new infrastructure expenditures. Second, it costs less, on a per-household basis, to provide public services to apartments. They require fewer miles of roads, sewers and water lines. By contrast, new single-family developments require public services, utilities, and police and fire protection to be spread over a larger geographic area.

    Stereotype: Voters oppose higher density development.

    Reality: Consumer acceptance of higher density development is understated.

    Standard opinion surveys routinely claim voters/consumers simply do not want to live in higher density developments.

    Research by the University of North Carolina (UNC) refutes this and says consumers are actually quite open to such developments. The researchers found that standard opinion surveys typically understate consumer interest in higher-density areas. When consumers’ opinions are measured by “visual surveys” with pictures, they will typically prefer smaller lots, smaller homes, mixed housing types, open space, narrower streets with sidewalks, and commercial development within walking distance.

    The message according to the UNC researchers: Density is a complex concept, and is too subjective to be measured by traditional surveys. Therefore, local officials should not be discouraged from considering higher-density development because of standard opinion survey results. Done well, higher density development with a mix of housing types receives higher marks than much of today’s new single-family development.

    Positive impact

    Balancing the need to grow with a desire to maintain quality of life is the preeminent challenge facing our local policy makers, developers, designers, reviewers and voters. The key to succeeding is a willingness to change old ideas and add new solutions to the mix, including updating the typical myths about apartments.

    Apartments should be an integral part of neighborhoods. Their positive economic impact and their conservation of scarce fixed resources make them an important part of our available housing choices. And, today’s population is more open to apartment living than ever before.

    Apartments that fit their sites

    University Apartments

    University Apartments - Seattle
    Facing two streets and a major pedestrian alley, the 75-unit mixed-use building has facades with varied modulation, materials and base condition. The facades respond to different exposures, helping reduce the apparent mass of five residential levels over retail and two parking levels.

     Park Highland Apartments

    Park Highland Apartments - Bellevue
    This 250-unit affordable apartment complex also includes a senior center and day-care center. The residential buildings are nestled into the hillside, with playgrounds, walkways and recreational spaces. A community center with a plaza and barbecue is also available for residents.

    Borgata Apartments - Bellevue

    Borgata Apartments - Bellevue
    A contemporary European urban street facade helps integrate this mixed-use project with Bellevue’s Downtown Park and “Old Main” business district. The project consists of 71 luxury apartments over pedestrian-oriented retail, surrounding a landscaped entry courtyard, with subsurface parking for 108 vehicles.

    Tom Frye, AIA, is vice president at Baylis Architects. He has been with the firm 22 of his 33 years in the design field.

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