Some are strictly educational, while others are all business. Some offer exercise classes or after-school crafts; others promise wine cellars and cyber cafés. Despite the differences between these community centers and the multifamily properties they serve, one thing is the same: This newest evolution of the old clubhouse has become an essential part of apartment and condo projects, regardless of resident profile.

"Five years ago, we weren't doing really very much at all on community centers," says Percy Vaz, president of Amcal Multi-Housing in Los Angeles,where the firm builds both affordable rental apartments and market-rate for-sale condominiums. "Today, we do tenant surveys and needs assessments and, depending on the tenant population, offer a menu of services."

Whether it is affordable, senior, or market-rate multifamily housing, residents want a place to gather and connect with convenient services, and multifamily companies have obliged in new construction and renovations. Not only are community centers increasingly common in everything from suburban garden-style properties to infill projects, but they are getting larger, expanding from a 500-square-foot common area to a 5,000-square-foot complex of business and pleasure.

At Cityville Fitzhugh, a Dallas property designed by James, Harwick + Partners and owned by First Worthing, residents can relax in the lounge, which features a kitchen, television, and Internet access.
Larry Harwell/Carolina Photogroup At Cityville Fitzhugh, a Dallas property designed by James, Harwick + Partners and owned by First Worthing, residents can relax in the lounge, which features a kitchen, television, and Internet access.

Depending on the property, centers range from the standard pool and fitness center to a spot with specialized activities such as job training for low-income occupants to wine cellars and Internet cafés for market-rate condominiums. Though costly to build, the expanded centers can offset those expenses by incorporating outside retail and eateries and other offerings into the center. Such extras generate income for the center and draw non-residents to the property.

While the size of these new community centers depends on the size of the property itself (including the number of units, land acreage, and space available for common areas), multifamily developers and owners estimate most range from 1,500 square feet to 5,000 square feet. Though bigger community centers translate into fewer housing units in new projects, owners and developers maintain that these days, they simply can't afford to leave a community center out. Resident attraction and retention depends on the extra amenities.

"We have a fairly good idea of what the competition is and how we need to position the product on the market," says Brad Broyhill, executive director of multifamily investments for the Amstar Group in Denver. "We need to market more than the unit. For the initial lease and resident retention, the community centers are an integral part of the development."

Intangible Returns

Despite community centers' importance, Broyhill says industry leaders don't have a good take on the return on investment that a community center produces. "Everyone has done studies, but it is difficult to quantify if the basketball court translates into rent," he says. "Still, it is critical that you have the latest and greatest amenities, because it tends to be the final tool to get that tenant to rent."

It's frustrating, Broyhill says, because residents' surveys show they expect amenities such as a pool, business center, and entertaining area, but then they will rate a project's noise level as the most important factor as to whether they will live there.

In the affordable housing market, community centers not only attract tenants, but also help residents prosper, says Rebecca Clark, the executive director of Southern California Housing Development Corp., or SoCal Housing, located in Rancho Cucamonga, Calif. Clark, who has worked in affordable housing since 1988, says that community centers have recently become a critical tool in the affordable niche.

"If you look at the history of affordable housing, there is a larger emphasis in recent years of creating affordable housing where your residents have an opportunity to thrive and develop and access services [in community centers] that they might not otherwise know about," Clark says.

Expanded community centers not only help tenants, but they attract the municipalities and private groups that provide the money to subsidize affordable housing projects. "People have been more aware of what is required to effect long-term change," Clark says. "Funders want to know they are making a difference, and community center programs give outcome measurement accountability."