Good air quality indoor smart home domotic touchscreen system. air. Woman touching touchscreen checking air purifier filter at green level with thumbs up graphics.
Adobe Stock By Maridav

The coronavirus pandemic taught many apartment owners and developers how to make their properties safer, healthier places for their residents to call home.

During the pandemic, owners and managers spent thousands of dollars to scour and disinfect their apartment communities—that’s unlikely continue once the pandemic is over. But many are taking care to make sure their communities have features like good air quality. Some are investing in the certifications that show off the healthy, sustainable design features of their properties.

They are finding a growing number of renters, especially older adults, who are interested in healthy living—and a few who are willing to pay more to live in rental apartments with healthy-living features.

“The pandemic really underlined the impact that buildings have on the health,” says Breana Wheeler, director of operations for BREEAM USA, based in San Francisco. “The impact of indoor air quality on residents is significant.”

Coronavirus Shines Light on Healthy Homes

In the chaos caused by the coronavirus, apartment managers scrambled to protect residents from infection—especially if they had a large number of older adults.

"Older adults are still very worried about COVID, as are affordable senior housing providers," says Linda Couch, vice president of housing policy for LeadingAge, based in Washington, D.C. "Our members have been working hand over fist for the last 18 months to ensure entire buildings provide the safest housing possible."

Property managers carefully complied with rules for disinfection and social distancing set by local officials. A few property owners also improved the air quality in their properties as it became clear the coronavirus largely spreads through the air.

“We had state-of-the-art air purification systems within all of our communities, either retrofitted or new builds,” says Scott Stewart, founder and managing partner of Capitol Seniors Housing (CSH), a national seniors housing investment firm based in Washington, D.C. In particular, CSH is interested in serving baby boomers, who are more at risk of COVID-19. “If we had the ability to upgrade while we were building the community, that’s what we did. It wasn’t that expensive of a change, either.”

Air-quality improvements that helped protect renters from the coronavirus will likely continue providing value and reduce other airborne germs.

“We are hopefully moving into post-COVID life—we would be absolute fools if we did not take the lessons we learned and apply them to what we do today,” says Stewart.

Renters Pay Slightly More for LEED-Certified Apartments

Renters have become more interested in sustainable or “green” design, which includes high standards for how healthy a building is to live in. For example, the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification from the U.S. Green Building Council sets a high standard for indoor air quality, starting with access to fresh, clean air. LEED also recognizes buildings that do not include materials like certain kinds of plywood that emit toxic fumes.

“Air quality is something that we took for granted before,” says Stewart. “Now it is of high importance as you design buildings and as you renovate buildings.”

Nearly three-quarters (73%) of apartment renters overall say they are either interested in or wouldn’t rent an apartment at a property that didn’t have green initiatives or sustainability certifications like LEED, according to the 2020 Apartment Resident Preferences report from the National Multifamily Housing Council (NMHC) and Kingsley. However, relatively few apartment renters outright refuse to live in apartments that don’t have green certifications. “I think you can assume the majority are in the ‘interested’ camp rather,” says Rick Haughey, vice president of industry technology initiatives for NMHC.

Renters are even finally willing to pay more for sustainability certifications or green initiatives—an extra $27.93 in rent, according to the Kingsley report. That’s a significant rent boost, but it’s not enough to pay for LEED on its own.

“We have built a half-dozen active adult and independent living communities that are LEED-certified,” says Stewart. “People like it. … In the right market, these certifications can make a tangible difference.” For example, CSH recently opened a new community in Greenberg, New York, that earned a LEED certification. “It became part of the marketing push that we are LEED-certified.”

CSH builds its LEED-certified apartments in places where rents are already high enough to support the extra cost of building sustainably, which can add several percentage points to the cost of construction. CSH also sometimes builds sustainably designed apartments to please local zoning officials.

Many of the features that improve the air quality at apartment properties are also attractive.

“What we think about as a good feature to begin with—and it happens to be healthy—is having a lot of open air and open flow to our communities: floor-to-ceiling windows and big oversized doors that open to expansive courtyards with patios,” says Stewart.

Other developers have invested in certifications that show that their apartments promote healthy living.

AvalonBay Communities has earn Fitwel certifications from the Center for Active Design for three of its buildings, including two apartment properties and its corporate headquarters. Fitwel evaluates design and operational strategies in buildings that support human health.

“We are working with Fitwel on additional projects that can’t fully be disclosed at the moment, but are looking to have another certification by early next year as well,” says Anna Robinson, LEED green associate, Fitwel ambassador, and design associate for AvalonBay.

AvalonBay earned its first Fitwel certifications for AVA NoMA in Washington, D.C. Residents live in a walkable and transit-friendly neighborhood, close to health-promoting amenities, like the Metropolitan Branch Trail, an 8-mile planned walking and biking trail. All of the indoor common areas connect to outdoor common spaces through operable overhead doors that let in fresh air and daylight.

Sustainable features like these are especially valuable to developers building more expensive properties, especially if they have to compete for renters with other luxury apartment communities.

“They are constantly looking for a way to differentiate themselves,” says NMHC’s Haughey.