NCHMA Conference Report

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COVID-19 May Accelerate Rather Than Change Design Trends

While COVID-19 may be accelerating design and construction changes in multifamily housing in the near term, larger market forces are at work and will influence how homes are built over the longer term, speakers at the National Council of Housing Market Analysts (NCHMA) said at the NCHMA Spring Meeting last month.

“The trend in the 21st Century has been toward mixed-use, walkable communities,” said Christopher Zimmerman, vice president for economic development at Smart Growth America. “We see that continuing. It’s being driven by big forces that will continue to be a factor for the foreseeable future.”

Zimmerman said those forces include a continuing move in the United States to a knowledge-based economy, as well as demographic shifts with Millennials taking over the workforce and Boomers moving into retirement.

Rob Vogt, principal at Vogt Strategic Insights, said the economy looks to be having a “K” shaped recovery, with higher income workers bouncing back faster than lower income jobs. Therefore, demand for affordable housing will continue to be high even when the pandemic ends.

“It’s tough to find an affordable unit these days,” Vogt said.

Sam Tedford, principal planner for the City of Austin, said she’s been “myth busting” anecdotes that COVID-19 is causing residents to flee urban centers.

“I don’t think in any way, shape or form are we seeing an urban exodus,” Tedford said. “The idea that folks are done with cities is not going to reverse the centuries-long trend of urbanization.”

“That does not say we’re bucking trends that were already in place,” Tedford explained. “The continual trend of suburbanization of poverty is still very much in effect. We’re continuing to see low-income communities pushed out of urban cores. At the same time, we saw early drops [during COVID-19] in transit ridership and people thought it would be the final nail in the coffin of public transit.”

Tedford noted that Austin, which voted down large-scale transit projects in recent years, just approved a property tax increase in the middle of a pandemic to improve transit.

Denise Carter, chief portfolio officer at The Pacific Companies, said her company saw some issues with lease-ups taking longer during COVID-19. “They’ve been slower, particularly in senior projects,” Carter said, but that “overall, I think the need continues to rise for affordable housing.”

Carter said TPC doesn’t foresee changes from COVID-19 that the company wasn’t already thinking about. “We don’t foresee making many changes in our design or construction because of COVID. We’re giving consideration to what will benefit our residents short- and long-term.”

Carter explained those items include outdoor amenities, pet parks, due to a large increase in the number of pets the past year, outdoor exercise equipment, Juliet balconies or patios and gathering areas outside of units that may be smaller.

Mike Binette, senior partner and managing principal of The Architectural Team, agreed that longer-term forces are the stronger driver in design change.

“We’re not really implementing a whole lot of design changes that weren’t already in motion,” Binette said. “From a healthy environment perspective, ventilation and mechanical systems were already being driven by environmental concerns and reduced energy consumption.”

While broadband internet has become critical during COVID-19, Binette noted it already was becoming important before the pandemic. He also predicts that the desire for interactive spaces will return.

”I have an absolute belief that we are social creatures, and we are going to have a short memory after COVID,” he said.