Last month, a few friends and I spent the weekend in LasVegas. While I was sunning alongside the massive beach-entry pool at the Mandalay Bay Resort, I struck up a conversation with our server, Greg, who was delivering us tall, chilled glasses of virgin Mojitos and fruity “Pomcandy” mixers.
“I’m an illusionist,” he told me.
“Awesome!” I replied. “I’ve only ever seen magicians like David Blaine perform—doing those large, elaborate hoaxes in front of big crowds. It’s pretty amazing.”
“David Blaine is NOT a magician,” Greg said firmly. “He’s an illusionist. They’re not the same thing.”
As it turns out, a magician performs his or her feats using supernatural powers, while an illusionist is an entertainer—someone who creates the illusion that he or she can perform magic. In other words, with an illusionist, nothing is ever as it seems.
Lately, I’ve been feeling that the multifamily industry has been looking at market data through the lens of illusion as well. Why? Because these days, everyone I talk to seems to want to emphasize that the “recovery” is here—pointing to several anomalies in recent reports, which seem to indicate that, for all intents and purposes, fundamentals are improving.
New York-based research firm Reis reported that effective rents nationwide moved up 0.3 percent in the first quarter of 2010—the first positive rent movement since the third quarter of 2008 when the credit markets imploded. In other words, property managers are finally feeling confident about pushing rents.
Meanwhile, vacancy rates in the first quarter hovered at 8 percent, with many major metros citing improvements. Take Chicago. The Windy City saw its downtown apartment occupancy levels rise to 93.6 percent in the first quarter of 2010, a 2.7 percentage point increase from a year earlier, according to a report released by Chicago-based consultancy Appraisal Research Counselors.
Add to all of this the fact that transaction activity has been ramping up nationally—with bidding on specific types of high-end assets becoming frenzied and REITs large and small closing on deals throughout the country (while simultaneously increasing their formal acquisitions guidance)—and you’ve got the trifecta. Rising rents. Declining vacancy levels. An increase in sales activity.
But is it all an illusion?
Ask apartment owners, and their ever-optimistic standard answer is a resounding no. Consumer confidence is up, some will say. Supply is so constrained that this positive momentum was inevitable, others say. And a handful are pointing to “unbundling”—the newly dubbed phenomenon of Echo Boomers deciding to move out of mom and dad’s basement or get rid of the annoying college roommates in favor of their own space after years of hunkering down in the financial security these less-than-ideal situations offered.
Here’s my problem. I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again. How can we buy into the illusion of a recovery when we have yet to see the increase in jobs that would support that recovery? The Fed has warned us for decades against getting caught up in the throes of a jobless economic upturn. And yet, here we are—not out of the woods, yet already planning our growth strategies through 2012.
Perhaps there is no illusion here, and there are truly greater forces at work. The skeptic in me finds that hard to believe. Whatever the truth, here’s what I do know: If we are able to pull off a recovery without the jobs to sustain it, that may just go down in the history books as the biggest magic trick of all time. Or illusion, depending on who you ask.