Everyone loves a good comeback. During the last few years of condo-driven multifamily mania, apartments were, let's face it, the long-lost relative that no one wanted to invite to the party. Now, rentals seem to be the one sweet spot in an otherwise bitter housing fallout—NAHB economists, for one, predict that the rental share of multifamily starts will rise into 2009, while the condo share will fall.
Personally, I think the industry's love affair with rental housing has only just begun. Case in point: Last month, I attended a press conference for the release of Revisiting Rental Housing: Policies, Programs, and Priorities, a compilation book co-published by Harvard University's Joint Center for Housing Studies and the Brookings Institution.
The book, which stemmed from a special consensus meeting on housing called by the Joint Center in November 2006, led the experts to some interesting conclusions about rental housing and the rental assistance programs currently in place in the United States.
Here were some of the country's leading housing authorities, and they had devoted a good deal of time and energy to this issue. I was enthralled.
What were the key lessons they learned about the country's rental housing policies? First, a clear rental housing strategy is a bridge building strategy: It offers opportunities for housing, employment, and urban growth. Second, rental housing is part and parcel of housing. “Rental housing is the stealth part of residential housing,” said Nicolas P. Retsinas, director of the Joint Center. “The rental population is a very diverse population—not all are poor. Some choose to rent. Homeownership isn't always the answer.”
Finally, the takeaway that caught my attention: Rental housing is a vital component of a true community revitalization program. So true. Quality, affordable apartments can help mitigate sprawl, reduce consumption and waste, and stimulate local economic growth. And when linked to public transportation, multifamily housing has the ability to create entire neighborhoods, anchored by their solid base of residents.
This is something I see every day as I commute from the suburbs of Maryland to downtown Washington, D.C. Every neighborhood with a vibrant rental underpinning has also built up the adjoining social and economic infrastructure necessary to attract more investment.
“It's time, as a community, to identify and point out the successes of rental housing,” said Eric Belsky, the Joint Center's executive director. Indeed, rental housing is poised to revitalize the multifamily industry and influence the dialogue on housing policy in this country.
Let's hear it for the comeback kid.
Shabnam Mogharabi, Editor