icon The Guru Is In

Home is where you choose

5 min read

A house is just a pile of stuff with a cover on it.  – George Carlin, “Stuff”

Though the fear has receded, the disruption the pandemic wrought continues to roll through the built urban environment. While malls are dead, parking’s gone touchless, offices are having an identity crisis, and all of them are envying multifamily. Suddenly fashionable, rental is reconfiguring its campus, its property, and its units in a race to adapt to the post-pandemic, hybrid-work, hybrid-socialization lifestyle brought by ubiquitous broadband. 

People are spending more time at home and doing more things at home. Not so long ago, ‘amenities’ meant either design-mag finishes (granite countertops and useless dust-magnet ceiling fans before them) or public-space activities. Some large-ticket items (swimming pools, tennis courts), though seldom used and yet expensive to maintain, became de rigueur just ‘to keep up with the competition.’ Post-COVID, says Brett Pelletier of Kirk & Company, “People want amenities with big experiential impact. If you spend the majority of your waking hours in your apartment, it needs to be a place you enjoy being in.”

If you didn’t have so much stuff, you wouldn’t need a house.

Many households now expect to be renters for a decade or more. For Boomers, buying a home announced adulthood and ‘starting a family,’ and proved their best savings investment. Rental was an inferior tenure of necessity, preferably of short duration – something to be endured on the way to a brighter future. Yet the perpetually rising home prices that fueled Boomer wealth, NIMBYism, and smugness, proved unsustainable. The subprime debacle (itself a byproduct of national mania to own a home, any home) and its consequent multiyear national real estate hangover soured the following generations on home buying. With marriage and children often deferred, rental became not merely a way station but an open-ended mode of living. 

You start to get used to it, because, after all, you do have some of your stuff with you.

In a more recent irony, the indisputable fact that work-from-home proved manageable during lockdowns, and the embarrassing reality of oldsters clumsily adopting work styles that youngsters had embraced for years, led to employers’ sudden grudging acceptance of hybrid to remote work. Once this genie was out of the bottle, the apartment could be the workstation. It needed amenities, and that in turn, is upending our notions of rental layouts. As Brett Pelletier puts it, “Secondary or tertiary markets where no product has been delivered in 30 years are seeing new deliveries fly off the shelves because the existing supply is antiquated: terrible layout for digital living, big, inefficient layouts and no amenities that anyone uses these days.” 

Now apartments need the digital accoutrements of hybrid work: fast, reliable internet, a room that’s readily configurable for a laptop docking station and a camera, with a professional or Instagrammable physical background, and a door that closes for reasonable soundproof privacy. 

Low entry or exit cost is now also a tenure amenity.

For empty nesters, an annual lease is often better than buying a second home. Brett Pelletier spotted this: “I just completed an assignment in Fort Myers where a developer is building luxury apartments,” he reported, “and underwriting half of the apartments for seniors, some of whom are working (remote) and summering ‘back home’ up north.” 

Greater flexibility, no down payment, no need to sell the highly appreciated home up north, and establish a second, smaller nest. That financial flexibility amenity makes sense.

That’s all you need in life, a little place for your stuff.

Amenities can be private, or they can be social, and people want both. Physical distancing under duress has permanently changed how we socialize. Much more than three years ago, we appreciate the appeal of co-occupying a working place with others whom we see casually but regularly. Not only is when and with whom now a conscious choice, but we also choose our socialization modality. 

To bring the coffee shop on site for casual neighborly hybrid weekday work, the next big innovation in multifamily amenity space will convert clubhouses or community rooms into business or learning centers—printer, small meeting rooms with big screens, and great video conferencing, private booths for video conferences without headphones—supplemented by nearby munchies. 

Did you ever notice when you go to somebody else’s house, you never quite feel a hundred percent at home? You know why? No room for your stuff.

Because everyone wants different amenities, configure public spaces as ‘amenity courts.’  People like to wander and choose – grocery stores, coffee shops, food courts, theaters, and flea markets all offer mentally absorbing strolls in casual proximity to others. The very diversity of items on offer, choices large and small, creates a natural opportunity for making connections of affinity.

Pelletier offers an impressive list: “Roof deck with city views, an open-air amphitheater, 24-hour fitness center, outdoor lounges with fire pits, grilling and al fresco dining, pet friendly, landscaped courtyards with outdoor seating, 24-hour package room, social spaces with complimentary Wi-Fi, community kitchen and dining, co-working spaces, game room, ButterflyMX intercom system, controlled access parking garage, groom room, and bike storage. That’s market rate, of course, so the budget appetite is higher than in affordable product, but it’s not too far off.”

Only the stuff you know you’re gonna need.

Money, keys, comb, wallet, lighter, hanky, pen, smokes, and change.

The perception of choice is more important than the use of choice. To live happily, we need to believe that we are secure and that we have a choice. Choice also means variety and newness, so rotate the resident activities, the use of outdoor space, and the vents. Freshness is an amenity too.

Well, only the stuff you hope you’re gonna need.   

David A. Smith is founder and CEO of the Affordable Housing Institute, a Boston-based global nonprofit consultancy that works around the world (60 countries so far) accelerating affordable housing impact via program design, entity development and financial product innovations. Write him at [email protected].