If the difficulty in finding a seat around Manchester Grand Hyatt Hotel in San Diego is any indication of success, this year’s National Multifamily Housing Conference Annual Meeting should be a hit.
At yesterday’s kickoff Apartment Strategies Conference, more than 20 panelists in multiple sessions covered the industry’s hot-button issues for 2017, including debt, equity, construction, operations, and, of course, the political environment in Washington. While, overall, the tone remained optimistic, panelists identified a number of potential hurdles in the months, and years, ahead.
Here are three takeaways:
1. The Outlook Feels Less Certain
While most of the firm's markets were strong last year, Andrew Livingstone, executive managing director, property management, at Greystar, says the company began to see a shift in some parts of its portfolio in the second half of 2016. W In some markets, Greystar's value-add projects were on offense and helped claim more rent, but, in others, the story was different.
“In other markets, it felt like, in the second half, it was more defensive,” Livingstone says. “There are so many dynamics going on in these markets. In some markets, offering a month's free rent isn’t enough to get someone to commit [to signing a lease].”
Despite that softness and the slowdown in certain urban markets (more on that below), most panelists remained optimistic about the next couple of years. In fact, a few commented that the new Trump administration could provide a boost that could keep the cycle expanding.
“With the change in administration, the possibility of pro-growth fiscal policy is out there, which extends the cycle a few more years,” says Jeff Adler, vice president, Matrix, Yardi Systems.
But the biggest risks are the unknown, and this administration offers that, as well, Livingstone says. For instance, policies that restrict immigration could dampen demand in tech markets.
“Who knows how a lot of areas are impacted [by what happens in Washington]?” Livingstone says. “When you look at potential immigration policies, there could be issues in the tech sector and new tech markets, like Austin and Houston.”
If things do slow, expense management will become more of an issue. Wayne Comer, managing director of J.P. Morgan Asset Management, will first look to property taxes. “We’re very focused on taxes, because taxes are the biggest line item for these properties,” he says.
2. The Suburbs Are the New Urban Core
For J.P. Morgan, transit oriented development (TOD) has fallen right in the sweet spot of the firm’s apartment investment strategy. But as supply concerns have crept into more core markets, causing a slowdown in rent growth, the firm is starting to look at other areas.
“We’ll look at some of the more suburban-oriented markets because we feel there is more growth there, at least in the short term,” Comer says. “It’s a desire to find opportunities in places that we don’t normally look. But that doesn’t mean we’ll diverge from TOD.”
One of the companies that saw strong growth in the suburbs last year was Greystar. “In most [urban] markets, we saw decent rent growth, but it was about half of what we saw in suburban markets,” Livingstone says.
Jay Hiemenz, president and COO for Alliance Residential Co., has been pivoting the company’s starts to more suburban locations. “Despite what we hear from urban demographers, the suburbs haven’t died,” he says. “People just put off moving to the suburbs.”
Jay Parsons, vice president, MPF Research and YieldStar Investment Analytics at RealPage, thinks more firms should be looking outside the urban core for opportunities. “The CBD [central business district] has had less rent growth, and that will probably remain the same [compared with the suburbs],” he says.
In the CBD, while renters may pay more in rent, they’re also less likely to renew. “Transient urban renters don’t renew,” Parsons adds. “They deal-shop."
But one company that won’t be shifting strategy is Forest City Realty Trust, which has specialized in multibuilding, ambitious urban place-making projects. “We’re not overly concerned [about short-term weakness],” says Ron Ratner, executive vice president and chief development officer for the company.
3. People (and Operations) Are Starting to Matter More
If markets are slowing around the country, operations are starting to matter more.
“Some owners want to slash costs as fast as possible, including the on-site team,” Livingstone says. “We just focus on the on-site team and make sure they’re fired [up] about the task at hand.”
If these people aren’t on board and competitive, Livingstone says, there’s a danger in losing them to competitors with new lease-ups.
“One of the first things in a tougher market that we run into is a lot of turnover,” he says. "That starts to happen with a lot of new openings and new competitors.”
But there’s a broader focus on recruiting and training beyond just keeping a team in place in a competitive market. For instance, the number of boomers moving into apartments has changed the dynamic.
“We’re looking for people who understand the process of being a lot more patient and the types of decisions for these boomers moving into these communities,” Livingstone says.
When it’s time to sell a property, the on-site staff can have a huge impact, according to Comer. "When you’re selling apartments to people with a lot of income, they don’t expect to be dealing with the wrong kind of people,” he says. “If you have the wrong people on the property, you need to change them quickly.”
Waterton, which can use employees in both its apartment and hospitality platforms (for instance, its head of human resources and the people who run the recruiting department have hospitality backgrounds), sees people as the company's biggest challenge.
“The most challenging thing is finding and growing people throughout all parts of the organization,” says Mark Zettl, Waterton's COO.
Both Livingstone and Scott Wilder, executive vice president at Lincoln Property Co., say their firms have placed greater emphasis on recruiting college graduates and putting them on a management track.
“It wasn’t until we turned [to] the college recruiting process that we got serious about giving [new hires] a lifetime of opportunities to grow,” Livingstone says. “It’s not a one-year process. We’re looking farther down the road to see who develops.”