The returns are starting to come in from 2011, and it looks like apartment owners were the winners. Earlier today, New York–based Reis reported that vacancy fell to 5.2 percent. That’s the lowest number since late 2001. New Haven, Conn., with a vacancy rate of 2.1 percent, and New York City, with vacancies at 2.4 percent, were the tightest markets.

In addition, asking rents rose 0.4 percent last quarter, and effective rents rose 0.5 percent. Ninety percent of markets reported higher effective rents. The firm said that San Francisco showed the highest rent growth in the quarter, with an increase of 1.7 percent.

Carrollton, Texas–based MPF Research saw the typical fourth-quarter slowdown with apartment owners posting a 0.2 percent increase in rents and a 0.2 percent decrease in occupancy. The research firm’s annual figures, however, showed great strength in the apartment business. For the year, apartment owners posted 94.6 percent occupancy, which was an improvement of 1.1 percent over the year before and up 3 percent since 2009. The markets with the highest occupancies at the end of the year were Pittsburgh (97.8 percent); New York (97.4 percent); Minneapolis (97.1 percent); San Jose, Calif. (96.9 percent); and Boston (96.8 percent).

The five markets with the worst occupancies for the year were Phoenix (91.7 percent), Indianapolis (91.7 percent), Houston (91.5 percent), Atlanta (91.3 percent), and Las Vegas (91.2 percent). Phoenix, Atlanta, and Las Vegas are bubble markets still fighting supply problems, while the others traditionally have occupancy issues.

“Houston and Indianapolis are markets where occupancies are naturally low,” said Greg Willett, who heads the research and analysis team at MPF, on a webinar hosted by Dallas-based Humphreys and Partners Architects.

Effective rents rose 4.7 percent in the past year, but year-over-year growth is starting to cool as it becomes harder to improve off of the previous year’s rent growth, which went positive in the second quarter of 2010. Rents have grown 7 percent since the market hit bottom in 2009. “The general pattern is flattening a little bit,” Willett said.

San Francisco (14.6 percent); San Jose (12.3 percent); Oakland, Calif. (9.0 percent); Boston (8.3 percent); and New York (7.3 percent) led the way in rent growth, while Norfolk/Virginia Beach, Va. (0.6 percent) and Las Vegas (negative 0.4 percent) were the stragglers. “They were the only two metros with a revenue change that was a little subpar,” Willett said.

MPF projects another 5 percent in revenue growth for the industry in 2012 after it hit almost 5.8 percent in 2011. While markets like Seattle and San Francisco could see slowing, the Texas markets could gain momentum this year. As renters are priced out of Class A apartments, Willett expects the middle market to gain strength as well.

“The middle market will play a bigger role in fueling growth,” he says.