Reverb KC has ample community space for residents to socialize and relax outside of their apartments.
Courtesy Reverb KC Apartments Reverb KC has ample community space for residents to socialize and relax outside of their apartments.

The amenities arms race was at a fever pitch at the start of 2020, as each new multifamily property tried to raise the bar of over-the-top enticements to lure prospects to their community.

Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

Now, instead of touting gleaming gyms, demonstration kitchens, and group-focused event spaces, operators have had to pivot to help residents feel “alone together,” without actually bringing them within 6 feet of each other. The result has been a rethinking of the amenity calculus that operators had applied to their properties for years, and a shift in their engagement strategies they now say will last long after a majority of Americans are vaccinated against COVID-19.

“The focus pre-pandemic was on fitness facilities and common entertainment spaces, but the pandemic has rendered these areas difficult to use, at least in the short term,” says C. Allan Swaringen, CEO of Chicago-based REIT JLL Income Property Trust, which operates 3,842 units. “Simply having the latest gimmick is less important to residents as we emerge from the pandemic.”

John Williams, president of Irvine, California–based Avanath Capital Management, an operator of 10,000 units, echoes that sentiment. “Amenities like on-site fitness centers, theaters, swimming pools, and cafes have had to be either reinvented or placed on hold until after this crisis passes,” Williams says. “What has emerged are alternative solutions.”

Instead, multifamily thought leaders today emphasize amenities that make people feel safe, promote wellness and a sense of community, extend individualized spaces beyond the four walls of an apartment, and provide plenty of access to the outdoors. At the same time, they’ve created service-oriented amenities that cater to residents sheltering in place, a change that’s likely to have staying power long after the crushing wave of COVID-19 cases throughout the country recedes.

For example, at Charlotte, North Carolina–based RKW Residential, which manages 22,000 units, residents in some communities had Peloton bikes delivered right to their doors for individualized use in their apartments when gyms were shut down.

“Some communities have seen a rebound in their amenity usage, but the shift is more to outdoor spaces and virtual events,” says Michelle O’Brien, regional vice president at RKW. “We’re doing things like food trucks, grab-and-go meals, poolside fitness, and mimosa deliveries to the unit.”

The trend also includes flexing available space in existing communities, and rethinking the common areas of new developments as well as the layouts of individual apartments, since the pandemic has fundamentally changed how residents live, work, and interact with each other and community staff. That could mean residents having access to an extra apartment inside their community or carved out, dedicated space inside the unit itself.

The pandemic has broadened the meaning of what amenities are, what residents are looking for today, and what they’ll seek out down the road.

“The definition of an amenity is expanding to include more focus on providing services to residents,” says John Cetra, co-founding principal at New York–based multi-family architectural firm CetraRuddy, while emphasizing the concurrent changes in the physical landscape of apartments today. “Design and development teams are putting significant effort into creating flexible shared spaces that adapt to changing circumstances, while focusing on individual unit amenities, as well.”

Rethinking Fitness Centers

Multifamily’s elephant in the room during the pandemic has been the gleaming—and largely unused—fitness equipment in many communities.

For Atlanta-based CARROLL, interior amenities like fitness centers now feature extra space but limited occupancy.
Courtesy ARIUM, a CARROLL Company For Atlanta-based CARROLL, interior amenities like fitness centers now feature extra space but limited occupancy.

“In response to COVID, the most reinvented amenity is the fitness center,” says Ericka Rios, the co-founder and director of leasing at Chicago-based apartment broker Downtown Apartment Co., whose 40 agents serve more than 200 buildings. “These large, well-outfitted facilities are operating at reduced capacity, some with only three to four people allowed at a time. As an alternative, many buildings have pivoted to virtual offerings, such as Zoom personal training sessions and group workouts, or offering to pay for monthly subscription services such as Peloton so residents can work out at home.”

Indeed, some firms are already ditching gyms altogether.

Take Reverb KC, a 14-floor, 132-unit property in Kansas City, Missouri, owned by Copaken Brooks that opened in August, sans on-site gym.

“When we were building Reverb we had long discussions about our amenities, and we chose to forgo the fitness center and pool,” says Jon Copaken, principal. “Reverb sits in the heart of Kansas City Crossroads District, and with that we wanted to make the neighborhood the amenity, allowing the residents to explore their city.”

Instead, the “Reverb Card” gets residents discounts or memberships at local gyms and restaurants. With free access to an on-site gym one of the most often sought-after amenities during the last apartment cycle, Reverb’s minimalist choice may seem anathema. But the firm isn’t alone in making it.

Avanath recently partnered with remote fitness firm Wellbeats to offer free virtual gym memberships to its 9,000 renters throughout the U.S. “The memberships are a gift for our residents to demonstrate that we understand they may be going through financial hardship due to COVID-19,” Williams says. “It lets them know their health matters to us.”

While the trend doesn’t mean gyms won’t be desirable again at some point, they’re not a huge selling point now. At the same time, there is value in paying for the space in the interim.

“We have heard from residents who are pleased to be able to enjoy their gyms again, even if they aren’t planning on returning just yet,” says JoLynn Scotch, managing director of operations at Greenbelt, Maryland–based Bozzuto Management Co., an operator of more than 78,000 units, referring to the reopening of the amenity at her properties. “Just knowing they have access once again is comforting to them.”

A Collective Experience

For many of the pros who have worked on the front lines to serve residents throughout the pandemic, amenities today are often less about shiny things and more about meaningful experiences. Multifamily execs stress repeatedly that amenities must foster a sense of connection and community, if only to help residents stay sane in the suddenly shrunk world of their apartments’ four walls.

“When I think of the amenities of the future, I think they’re going to have to be very focused around connecting people, cementing those relationships, and providing a place where residents can bond, whether it’s online or at a community event,” says Stephanie Gonzalez, vice president of property innovation at Houston-based Venterra Realty, which counts a portfolio of 62 properties and 33,000 residents.

She points to community events. Whereas in the past, the property itself may have thrown a communitywide event a couple times a year, now those activities are smaller, but perhaps more substantive in the interactions among residents.

“Instead of one or two big events each year, we’re doing more frequent, smaller, in-person events to give our residents a chance to connect while maintaining proper COVID-19 precautions,” Gonzalez says. “We’re even letting our residents take ownership of these events: We just provide the area for it to happen, and they bring in their favorite local provider of whatever.”

In the amenity-as-community-connection category, operators have gotten creative to make the most of residents staying at home. At Reverb KC, operators have leveraged technology—and one low-tech approach—to bring residents together. “Technology allows for virtual events like happy hours, mixology classes, cooking classes, trivia, and bingo, where residents can connect and meet neighbors,” says Copaken. “Our Hallway Happy Hours, where each resident opens their door and sits outside on their own chair safely distant from neighbors, have become really popular.”

Designed by CetraRuddy, One Essex Crossing on Manhattan's Lower East Side has a garden with city views.
CetraRuddy Architecture Designed by CetraRuddy, One Essex Crossing on Manhattan's Lower East Side has a garden with city views.

Get Out

At Atlanta-based real estate firm CARROLL, whose portfolio includes almost 30,000 units, vice president of operations Scott Gilpatrick has taken a similar approach.

“We’ve found that socially distanced Yappy Hours at our dog parks are very well attended,” Gilpatrick says, noting the wider trend of increased pet ownership during the pandemic as well. “More residents than ever have adopted dogs, and they want to be outside with other animal lovers.”

More residents also want to be outside, period. Maybe it comes from being confined during 2020, or just a new appreciation for nature inspired by the bleakness of human events, but operators say in 2021 some of the hottest amenities to have are the ones not inside your building.

“Outdoor fitness has been getting a real boost,” says RKW’s O’Brien, pointing to yoga or boot camp lawns, walking and jogging trails surrounding communities, and even gym equipment set up outside. “There is a deep appreciation for the open and shared spaces that were once undervalued or rarely used by residents. Now that most people are homebound, the extra space has become an extension of the home.”

Another trend operators point to that leverages access to the outdoors is the emergence of gourmet food trucks that can be scheduled to serve a property, while providing residents with a sense of celebration.

“Inviting food trucks to the development instead of doing things like hosting a continental breakfast in the lobby makes residents feel safer,” says Brian Webster, president of Addison, Texas–based multifamily builder KWA Construction. “Plus, it doesn’t require that much effort from your apartment staff.”

Another extension of that outdoor theme is exactly that—balconies and outdoor spaces, both in common areas and apartments themselves, that let residents breathe easier while enjoying a connection to nature.

The ARO, designed by CetraRuddy, features balconies and a multilevel podium to provide extra outdoor space for its Manhattan residents.
Inessa Binenbaum The ARO, designed by CetraRuddy, features balconies and a multilevel podium to provide extra outdoor space for its Manhattan residents.

Just look at the ARO rental tower in Manhattan, where a multilevel podium with ample room for social distancing allows residents to relax, and balconies give space to spread out. That outward focus is already changing how multifamily communities look, another aspect that observers say is here to stay.

“Interest in balconies, terraces, courtyards, and roof decks has skyrocketed in the past year. It’s no longer an afterthought,” says architect Cetra. “It’s likely that from a design standpoint, we’ll start to see a more seamless integration of balcony spaces into the façades of multifamily projects.”

That draw to the outdoors is even strong in chillier climes. Look at Optima Signature, a 57-story luxury tower in Chicago’s Streeterville neighborhood, where an expansive 1.5 acres of amenity space connects residents to the open air.

“People want to connect to the outdoors, even in winter,” says David Hovey Jr., president of developer Optima. “We just put in new heat lamps so residents can continue to enjoy the fresh air by spending time outside and cooking dinner on our grilling stations even as the thermometer drops.”

Looking Within

What’s considered an amenity inside buildings, and how they’re used, has changed as well. Exhibit A is the work-from-home crowd. Once a minority of multifamily denizens, the pandemic has shifted where work happens in a way that’s not likely to undo itself once the crisis has passed.

While many communities focused on having common area workspaces, conference rooms, and business centers, what those areas look like, and how they’re used, is different today.

Take Bozzuto. The firm surveyed its residents via its online portal and heard loud and clear that working from home is here to stay: 78% said they plan to continue doing so going forward. “What we’re seeing is amenities that support work from home are top of mind for our residents,” says Scotch. “Comfortable and spacious coworking areas, with individual pods and workspaces, are highly desirable right now. Same goes for strong Wi-Fi connectivity in outdoor areas.”

But whereas in the past coworking areas were geared toward being alone together while enabling social interactions, work-from-home amenities of today and the future focus more on a keep-it-to-yourself vibe.

“You’re seeing common areas with reservable, partitioned work areas and Zoom rooms to enable meetings outside the apartment,” says Cetra. “Playrooms and children’s areas with infrastructure to accommodate virtual learning have also been successful.”

At RKW, that has meant an additive approach.

“Our communities are offering large spaces for distanced co-working, in addition to small, removed banquettes or private office space,” says O’Brien.

Carving Out a Niche

The need is also impacting the design of individual apartment units at properties, another aspect that’s likely to stay long after the pandemic has gone.

“Niches or flex spaces for working within the apartment are important now,” says Cetra. “We’ve been able to re-apportion space, for instance turning what would have been a linen closet into a work area with a built-in desk.”

Another key for operators has been to flex space they’re not using right now.

“Spa areas or movie rooms can be converted to spaces that allow for more flexibility like co-working or conference space, or even private dining allowing for a more intimate space outside of their apartment homes,” says Bozzuto’s Scotch.

Many operators mentioned giving residents access to another apartment inside their apartment communities to give them the new space they need to work, live, and play within the building itself.

“We’ve converted vacant apartments to work-from-home spaces to meet the additional demand,” Scotch says.

By getting creative, and finding purpose in the amenities they’re offering residents while keeping an eye on the future, multifamily operators can continue to use amenities to connect with residents, while helping them stay connected to each other.